ATC Background

Civic project started off small and paid off big
for a Nebraska community

Omaha World-Herald
September 28, 2006

Microsoft Corp. recently went looking in the Midlands for an appropriate recipient for a grant to aid rural development. The computer software giant commendably distributes funds and software across the United States to strengthen high-tech education and worker training.

But in which rural community in the Midlands, Microsoft officials asked, would such support do the most good?

They came up with a logical answer. They chose a Midlands community known for energetic civic leadership, dynamic local foundations, impressive long-range planning and, not least, a focus on encouraging high-tech entrepreneurs.

Their selection: Aurora, Neb.

On Wednesday, Microsoft announced that it is giving nearly $500,000 in grant funds and software to the Aurora Technology Center, a nonprofit business center that provides start-up help for young high-tech companies.

This development shows how foresight and steadfastness eventually can pay off for a Nebraska community.

Aurora opened its technology center in 1997 with funding that was fairly modest. Contributions came from a variety of local institutions and businesses, including a lumber company, an insurance firm and a hospital. The initial going was slow. But the community maintained support for the center.

Over time, the project picked up momentum. The center is now home to five software and computer-services companies. It also is part of a concerted effort by Aurora civic and business leaders to promote a diversified economic base.

Aurora, after all, is a community in which leaders literally tell local high school and university students: “Don’t forget us in the future. We are working directly to create new jobs to be waiting for you after graduation.”

Aurora’s forward thinking has now received well-deserved validation from one of this country’s largest companies. It will be fascinating to see what high-tech fruits result for Nebraska from Aurora’s dedicated long-term gardening.

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Microsoft Awards Grant to Aurora Technology Center
to Expand Technology Training and Education

Microsoft has awarded a grant worth almost $500,000 in software and cash to the Hamilton County Information Technology Corporation for use at the Aurora Technology Center to expand its current information technology training and educational programs.  The programs aim to provide curriculum to entrepreneurs who need basic computer skills to assist with developing their businesses.  The Center will also assist the Aurora community with information technology training.

Several community members as well as Hamilton County Information Technology Corporation (HCITC) board members have worked together over the past year to secure the grant funding from Microsoft.

HCITC board president Wayne Roblee commented, “We are very excited about receiving this grant and appreciate Microsoft’s investment in our community.  The task force is working on the details of implementing the grant and are taking steps to hire and educational coordinator.  We will be releasing further details in early September.”

Plans are being made for a September 27th press conference and ribbon cutting at the Aurora Technology Center.

This grant is part of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential program; focused on promoting digital inclusion and increased access to technology skills training in communities underserved by technology.  The Unlimited Potential program is part of Microsoft’s commitment to broaden digital inclusion and enhance workforce development to a quarter of a billion people underserved by technology by 2010.

USDA Awards RBEG Grant to Aurora Technology Center

Another critical piece in a long-term puzzle to improve the area’s technology training fell into place Thursday.

That’s the day Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced that $99,999 has been awarded the Hamilton County Information Technology Corporation. The HCITC, which manages the Aurora Technology Center, plans to use the money for facility and computer hardware improvements and facility management, with an eye on helping small and emerging businesses.

“We’re obviously very happy about this news,” said Wayne Roblee, HCITC president. “We’ve been working on this for nearly a year and it is really going to help us with renovation of the center and move us forward into our training program.”

The Aurora Technology Center on G Street is already home to several technology-related businesses, though a recent survey concluded that there is an untapped potential for more jobs if only proper training was available. As many as 17 jobs, according to the survey, could be saved or created with increased sales or efficiencies linked to better technology training.

“These are not necessarily high-tech positions,” explained Tina Hunt, HCITC vice president. “This training would help retain and create jobs by making people more technologically literate and knowledgeable.”

The funds awarded Thursday by the United States Department of Agriculture are designed to spur business growth and economic development, particularly in rural areas. A total of 68 grants were awarded worth a combined total of $6.5 million.

HCITC was one of only two recipients in Nebraska, with the Wayne Area Economic Development, Inc., getting the other in-state grant for $46,800.

“Job creation in rural communities is a vital part of the Bush administration’s commitment to maintain a strong national economy,” Johanns said in a statement. “By supporting the creation of new businesses and expansion of existing businesses, this funding will provide attractive new job opportunities in America’s heartland.”

The grants awarded last week were funded by USDA Rural Development. HCITC received a Rural Business Enterprise Grant (RBEG), which finance and facilitate development of small and emerging private rural business enterprises.

USDA Rural Development’s mission is to deliver programs in a way that will support increasing economic opportunity and improve the quality of life of rural residents.

“New and emerging businesses are essential in this information economy that we’re in because in the last 10 years our small businesses in Aurora have been thrust into a global economy,” said Tim Obermier, an Aurora resident, UNK professor and primary author of the grant. “I think this grant is going to help all small businesses with the skills they need to compete.”

Facility upgrade

Much of the $99,999 grant will be used to address facility needs.

Specifically, it will allow the addition of restrooms and ensure ADA requirements are met while renovating a large back room into a high-tech training environment to be known as The Learning Center.

Classroom renovations are expected to be completed within the next 90 days at which time a facility coordinator will be hired.

Equipment requested in the grant will also allow for installation of new computers. The plan is to feature a novel facility which will be used to create short digital training vignettes for use by small and emerging businesses.

Expected to be completely operational within a year, The Learning Center will provide a key link in the group’s long-term goal, which Roblee said the community helped define.

“This isn’t just the ATC, this is truly a community thing because we did the survey and we had input from local government, businesses and education,” he said. “We also had key input from employees in the community who said there is a need for better training and that they would come and use it if it’s available.

“It’s not what we just necessarily wanted to do, it’s what the community said we needed and as a result of this we’ve already generated new jobs in the community.”

The RBEG application process itself was a community effort. It began with early morning weekly meetings of a grant writing task force, and grew into a larger effort involving local government officials and volunteers. The final application included several detailed letters of support.

“We really appreciate all the community input,” Hunt said. “We know that it’s going to be a good fit for the community.”

The RBEG grant announcement comes on the heels of other exciting news. The HCITC learned earlier this month that it will receive nearly $500,000 worth of software and cash from a Microsoft grant designed to provide information technology to an underserved population.

It’s part of a trend that started with a $5,000 state TIGER grant early in the year, which provided the seed money to assess the area’s technology needs. Additional grant funds are also being sought from local foundations for specific computer hardware and facility needs not covered by the other funds.

“It’s not the amount of any one grant that makes it more important,” Roblee noted. “We need all the pieces of the bigger training puzzle to make this work.”