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Chamber wonders why WiFi?

01.30.06 04:19 PM – Andy McDonald
I won’t say you could hear a pin drop, but it was close.
Speaking last week before the Berea Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Steve Connelly was reciting a wish list of projects that the city is exploring to improve commerce.

One of the projects was the creation of Wi-Fi hotzones (or wireless fidelity high speed Internet zones) in city limits. “How many people would be interested in that?” Connelly asked, confident that several hands would shoot up from the audience, ready to join him on his bold journey into the new Internet frontier.

Instead the audience stared back at him blankly, like fish on ice. “Nobody?” Connelly asked in a quiet, slightly incredulous tone.

It was a telling moment. Here were a bunch of folks whose business is to boost commerce and prosperity in the city, but when Connelly offered to hand them one of the most state-of-the-art technology tools local business leaders could ask for, they didn’t quite know what to make of it.

Connelly is thinking outside the box, which is precisely the way the city’s business leaders should be thinking if Berea is to stand out among the many tourist towns up and down I-75.

I can only guess what the audience was thinking: What good is Wi-Fi when I can connect to the Internet at my house? But that's the point: residents feel at home, but the key to bringing more tourist dollars into town is making out-of-towners feel at home - making it easier for them to conduct business and discover locally-owned establishments.

If, for example, Berea had a Wi-Fi network, it could be made so that each access point would “broadcast” to cover only a few blocks at a time. Tourists could call up a city map on their laptops, showing them where certain businesses are in relation to their precise location. With a click, they could call up, say, Berea Coffee & Tea's website and learn about the lunch specials for that day.
They could learn what Ground Effects was serving as the Coffee of the Day, or the starting time for a theatre production at the college. Craft shops could advertise their new line of products, or promote a demonstration taking place that day. Robie & Robie Fine Books (the first brave souls to advertise with us) could pitch an author signing that was occuring that day.

Tourists know what they would be getting if they went to a major food chain like McDonald’s or Cracker Barrel. But what if travelers are stopped at a Berea gas station and have a hankering for something else? Wi-Fi could enable privately owned eateries with websites to let customers know what they’re serving and possibly get them in the door.

Moreover, if state highway signs featured a logo noting that Berea is a Wi-Fi city, that might induce business people to get off I-75 at Berea to buy their lunch, check their email, and maybe do work over the Internet that can’t be done on a Blackberry.

Of course, Connelly’s suggestion goes against conventional wisdom, which says that what has attracted business to the city in the past will surely attract business in the future: Bigger signs, more advertising, more commercial zones, and a gargantuan convention center. Connelly supports some of those projects, but if the city hopes to attract young, affluent, technologically versed buyers - the consumers of the future - then Connelly’s proposal deserves serious consideration.

The good news for Berea is that Mayor Connelly is trying to think outside the box when it comes to boosting local commerce. The bad news for Mayor Connelly is that he’s trying to think outside the box, and maybe he’s gotten a step or two ahead of his audience. Still, he should keep forging ahead.

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