|Northern New Mexico's Community Network|
La Plaza Telecommunity was one of four community networks in the United States featured in the newsletter of the Association for Community Networking (AFCN). Peter Alexander, La Plaza board member wrote the article for the AFCN Review October, 1999 issue, which addresses the challenge to keep commmunity networks sustainable, alive and thriving in the face of dwindling government and corporate funding.
A Survival Guide for Rural Telecommunities
by Peter Alexander email@example.com
During the mid 1990's non- profit Telecommunities sprang up in communities all across America, driven for the most part by university and private foundation grant funding. Many of these organizations, however, perished when funding ran out, and many are failing even now.
Constrained by an ideological imperative to offer free service to their members they simply could not make ends meet in the "real world" of un- subsidized business. La Plaza Telecommunity in the rural north of New Mexico appeared to be headed for the same fate in 1996 as it neared the end of its own start-up grant cycle. But it has survived and is today a thriving non-profit in the shark- infested sea of multi-national ISP'S.
La Plaza Telecommunity was the first organization in Taos County to offer Internet access,to the public. It was started in 1994 with a $250,000 New Mexico De- partment of Education grant that initially established it in collaboration with Internet service to the Taos campus of the University of New Mex- ico. Additional funding came in 1995 with a $990,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation to set up public access sites in Taos, Penasco, and Questa and develop a virtual library for community web based in- formation. In 1996 La Plaza received one of the initial grants from the Department of Commerce Telecomrnunica- tions and Information Infra- structure Assistance Program (TELAP). This $450,000 grant established public access and technology training for health care providers and consumers at three nonprofit'health clin- ics in Taos County: the Taos/ Picuris Indian Health Services Clinic, Northern New Mexico Health Care Providers in Pe- nasco, and Presbyterian Medi- cal Services Health Clinic in Questa.
Taos, in spite of its reputa- tion as an artists' Mecca and tourist destination, is actually one of the poorest counties in America, with a per capita income nearly 50% below the national average. Perhaps nowhere in America was the "digital divide" so pronounced. But empowered by generous grant funding La Plaza reached out to the community offering free training, free access, and free dial-up accounts. Gradually, the public became aware of the opportunity, and many people signed up for accounts even if they didn't have computers at home. Within two years La Plaza had about 1,100 dial-in users and had trained more than 3000 people in the use of the Internet.
But trouble was brewing. La Plaza had been set up as a membership organization with an elected board of directors. The "democratic process" im- plicit in such a structure eventually gave rise to a great deal of discussion among the mem- bers about the direction and day to day operations of the organization. By 1996 the on-line forums provided by a couple of the public listserves had become battlegrounds of rancor and dissent. Things eventually got so bad that the entire organization became embroiled in legal wrangling. To make matters worse the process was fully exposed by the Taos News. The negative publicity damaged La Plaza's credibility, and by the end of the year there were serious questions about the organization's viability for the future. Finally, the Board of Directors took control, began reorganizing the operation, and in March 1997 hired Judith Pepper as Executive Director. Judith was no stranger to organizations in trouble. In 1981 she had been hired to "save" the Amarillo, Texas Community Center which was about to close its doors. When she left that position four years later the center was $95,000 in the black. In 1987 she was at it again, hired to reorganize the administration of an Early Childhood Intervention grant in Amarillo for babies with disabilities. The program had a budget of $ 1 00,000, a staff of four and very dim prospects for the future. During her tenure, Judith facilitated a nearly ten time expansion of the organization's budget and services, turning it into a "model rural prograrif' of its type in Texas. Just before coming to La Plaza Judith had worked at the Taos Pueblo as Division Di rector of Health and Community Services and as Tribal Administrator of the Central Management System.
Taking over the administration of La Plaza in March '97, Judith began with a complete evaluation of the organization's strengths and weaknesses. Her analysis showed that:
- The original start-up funding was running out and there were no operational funds to pay for La Plaza's human and technical infrastructure.
- La Plaza's staff was of excellent caliber, but was disorganized, disempowered and de- moralized.
- The Board of Directors, although dedicated and enthusiastic, was unclear of its duties and responsibilities.
- Public perception was at an all-time low.
- Membership was drop- ping, There was an inadequate inventory of public access and administrative equipment, and no main-tenance schedule in place.
- Line services provided by the local telephone company were inadequate, especially in the outlying areas of Taos County.
On the other hand La Plaza benefited from a concerned community hoping for a successful transition and improved operations, and a growing segment of the community anxious to learn and helped I use the tools of information technology. Further, in spite of its problems, La Plaza enjoyed a posi- tive and successful national reputation.
Judith knew from her years of non-profit management experience that even though La Plaza was a non-profit organi- zation, it still needed to be run as a business. She immediately took control of all the day-to-day business details involving personnel, fiscal management, economic devel- opment and team building, and began the more longrange process of surveying and planning for the technology and educational needs of the community. She designated areas of authority to the staff, boosting morale and empowering them to do their jobs more effectively. One of her first acts was to hire a Content Development and Community Outreach Coordinator. Through this position La Plaza developed training for web classes and organized websites, commu- nity reference and collaboration pages for local non-profits. Eventually classes expanded to include Web Design, HTML and "Marketing Your Web Site." These classes helped establish La Plaza's indispensable role in the community, and helped expand the dial-in user base.
Just before Judith took over, the board had approved a new fee structure which had not yet gone into effect. Instead
of unlimited free access, users would now have to pay $6.00 for the first 15 hours of service and $.75 per hour thereafter. The new fee structure, which went into effect April 1, 1997, provided a great deal of important information to the board and staff.
First, it demonstrated that La Plaza's users were willing to pay a monthly fee for their services-rnuch to the sur- prise of the "free access" ideologues. It also provided a benchmark for a business analysis of income and expenses-a process, which led in January of 1998 to another fee increase to $15.00 per month for unlimitited access. Even with this fee structure, however, La Plaza was dependent upon subsidies in the form of grant funding; and when the last of the Kellogg grant ran out in May of 1999 Judith and the board were faced once again with the realities of a deficit budget. In July 1999, after extensive analysis of La Plaza's operating costs, the board instructed Judith to raise the monthly fee to $17.50. There was little objection to this increase among the Users, for La Plaza was still priced well below the national average-a powerful indication of Judith's management prowess in keeping expenses low.
Other significant tasks that Judith undertook were:
As a result of these and other initiatives La Plaza is today a vibrant, healthy and growing organization. Its paying user base has expanded to 2,300 people, yet it is able to provide free classes and ongoing free access to about 1,500 people per month. Further, it has expanded its outreach role in the community, hosting a number of community-based web-sites and list-serves, as well as several hundred "user pages." La Plaza has also been a community leader in the area of collaboration and community development. It has worked closely with the Taos County Council of Neighborhood Associations, the Western Environmental Law Center, the San Cristobal Ranch Foundation, the Taos County Chamber of Commerce, the Town of Taos, and numerous other community and civic organizations to create collaborative partnerships which are greatly improving the quality of life for all "Taosenos." In the future, as new fiber optics and other technologies become available in Taos County, La Plaza, with Judith Pepper and a progressive board of directors in charge, intends to remain "ahead of the curve," and will continue to demonstrate the viability of a non-profit rural Telecornmunity in a competitive marketplace.
- Requested and received a $5000 grant from the McCune Foundation to hold a community meeting and provide Board Train- ing to the La Plaza Board Members. The public meeting was a critical step in addressing the barrage of bad publicity, which had preceded Judith's administration, and went a long way towards re-establishing La Plaza's credibility and standing in the community.
- Requested and received a $65,000 grant from Kellogg to train Taos, Penasco and Questa teachers how to use the Internet in their classrooms.
- Met challenges and member complaints with understanding and solutions. The solutions were not always what the users wanted, for they were often limited by the inadequate technological infrastructure provided by USWest in northern New Mexico. For example, there are insufficient phone lines to some of the outlying areas, resulting in a lot of busy signals for dial-in users. But when the modern banks at the main office became overloaded due to a rapidly growing user base, Judith acted swiftly to install additional digital moderns, increasing both the quantity and quality of La Plaza's service.
- Established a relationship with the New Mexico Department of Radio and Communications to create a radio connection that served the Questa user base. (This project was recently the recipient of a $10,000 AOL Rural Telecommunications Leadership Award.)
- Established relationships with the Town of Taos administration, as well as with other local, regional and,national political figures to highlight La Plaza's accomplishments and bring additional resources to the area.
- Established relationships with local businesses and service providers to acquire donated equipment and reduced rates for critical services such as rent for the La Plaza offices.
- Requested and received a $23,000 grant from the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation to replace La Plaza's server infrastructure with new, Y2K compliant computers.
- Developed exceptionally positive relations with the Board of Directors attracted new board members and assisted the board in taking full control of its duties and responsibilities to the organization.
For more information on La Plaza, visit the homepage: http://www.laplaza.org .
For questions regarding our website: E-Mail - La Plaza Telecommunity