Café, Coworking Space Planned Expanding Wi-Fi Access in Franklin County

Barn Owl Bistro and Goods in East Berkshire is offering locals a remote workplace. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

EAST BERKSHIRE – Heidi LeVell fell in love with the place as soon as she walked in.

That was years ago, when the closed 1870s general store was covered in dust and cluttered with old products. She loved it so much, in fact, that she kept buying it — and in the process brought her family from California to the big yellow house next door.

In November, LeVell opened Barn Owl Bistro and Goods here, along Route 118 in East Berkshire, after spending more than a year gutting and renovating the property.

Today, the store’s inventory features an array of coffee drinks and baked goods, a wall of local candy and fudge jars, and gifts sourced from Vermont and around the country. There are tables and booths throughout the place and a loft down the stairs in the back.

LeVell wanted the store to mix old and new. In some ways, “we’re very old,” she said, referring to details like the store’s original sign, which is mounted above the counter, or the building’s original exposed wiring. , which runs along the ceiling.

But a bigger goal, she said, was to create a resource for local residents. Other than a Jolley convenience store, there are few places in town to buy food and drink. It’s also one of the only places in town to meet up with friends without having to pay for a meal.

One of the roles Barn Owl has come to play in this town of 1,500 is a place where residents can do work remotely. About a dozen regulars work in the store each week, LeVell said, taking advantage of its free high-speed Wi-Fi in a city where many homes simply don’t have it.

The vast majority of roads in Berkshire are not traveled by fiber optic or cable networks, according to 2021 data from the state’s Civil Service Department. Many residents’ Internet access does not meet the federal government’s minimum standard for broadband, which is 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload.

“It’s a big deal,” LeVell said, speaking about remote work options. “Most people here have to go to St. Albans (about half an hour away) if they want to do it.”

Among Barn Owl’s regular remote workers is Mak Maedean, a pharmacy manager who lives in East Berkshire and used his laptop at a table by the front window.

The 19-year-old said he worked at the store once or twice a week and was sometimes joined by his partner, who is a student. Finding reliable, free internet in the Berkshire area can be difficult, Maedean said, so Barn Owl has been a welcome resource.

“They always talked about creating places where kids could just hang out, go to work, go do school stuff,” Maedean said. “But we never had that here until this place opened.”

Heidi LeVell, owner of Barn Owl Bistro and Goods, stands behind the counter on March 3, 2022. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

Access to the building

In Montgomery, the neighboring town south of Jay Peak, a local nonprofit is also in the early stages of building a workspace for the surrounding community.

The Montgomery Community Project plans to transform the basement of the city’s arts center, which is in a former church at the top of Main Street, into a coworking space. The facility could include large offices and isolated phone booths, said Daniel Khan, who worked on the project, and would also have high-speed internet access.

Montgomery, like Berkshire, is underserved when it comes to broadband, according to state data. Many households fall below the minimum broadband speed.

Khan, who operates a hotel and wedding venue in town, said he knows several people who run online businesses from home and need more reliable internet. Some of them are side gigs, he said, like selling artwork on the Etsy website.

Another local helping to develop the coworking space, Sarah Borodaeff, is working remotely as a project manager. She sometimes has to leave the house and sit outside one of the city’s Wi-Fi hotspots, she said, to complete work tasks that require more internet bandwidth.

“I’m sitting in my car taking a Zoom meeting because the connection isn’t strong enough at home,” Borodaeff said. “It’s not sustainable.”

In the fall of 2020, Northwest Fiberworx, the communications union district that primarily serves Franklin and Grand Isle counties, installed 19 Wi-Fi hotspots at sites in the area, according to Sean Kio, executive director of the organization.

Kio said these hotspots aren’t always in places where people can sit with a laptop, but can still provide a good connection at a glance. For example, one of the trouble spots in Enosburg, where he lives, is at the city’s public library, while another is in Maplefields, the convenience store.

Northwest Fiberworx’s core business, however, is to bring broadband directly to homes. The most common question that comes into Kio’s inbox from local residents, he said, is, “I work from home. How can I improve the Internet? »

The Communications Union District includes about 29,000 homes and businesses, of which more than a quarter, or about 7,900, do not meet the federal broadband standard. About 2,500 neighborhood homes and businesses, or 9%, have no connectivity.

Kio said eastern Franklin County, including cities such as Montgomery, Enosburg and Bakersfield, has the highest concentration of addresses without broadband access.

Last week, Northwest Fiberworx announced plans to partner with Lamoille FiberNet, the Communications Union District (CUD) serving that county, to build an open-access broadband network that would reach 42,000 area homes and businesses.

According to an October 2021 report commissioned by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, open access networks can host multiple internet service providers, creating competition and ultimately incentivizing businesses to provide better and more affordable service.

“By joining forces, CUDs represent a broader population, which improves economic efficiency by working with broadband consultants, service providers and network operations providers,” said Val Davis, Executive Director of Lamoille FiberNet, in a press release.

Kio said the two communications union districts were close to reaching an agreement with Google Fiber to make it the network’s first provider. Google Fiber currently operates in more than a dozen cities across the country, ranging from Atlanta, Georgia to Provo, Utah.

Specific details of the deal are still being negotiated, Kio said.

According to Northwest Fiberworx, the project would be supported by a combination of private funding and state and federal grants.

The store features coffee drinks and pastries, a wall of local candy and fudge jars, and gifts from Vermont and around the country. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

Community spaces

Borodaeff said another benefit of the planned coworking space in Montgomery, beyond serving as a resource for individual workers, is that it could be a meeting place for groups of employees — or other community organizations in the area.

Vermont has other coworking spaces, she noted, but none are nearby. There’s one in Newport, about a 40-minute drive away, and another in Stowe, about 45 minutes away.

“There’s a pretty wide circle that we can serve with this,” Borodaeff said. “We’re in eastern Franklin County, but we’re also the gateway to the NEK.”

And close to home, the dozen regulars at Barn Owl Bistro and Goods may soon be looking to work elsewhere. LeVell named the place “bistro” for a reason — the store has a commercial kitchen, and while waiting for a state permit, it will start serving more food.

At this point, Barn Owl may not offer such an environment conducive to quiet work, she said, so she was happy to learn more about the space offered in Montgomery.

For Patty Lambert, who sat on the couch near the front of the store after playing Scrabble, visiting the store became an important way to meet others.

The retired South Richford resident recalled the time she tried to start a weekly game night at a local library, to bring in four people, once.

With LeVell’s blessing, Lambert decided to try hosting her at Barn Owl — a place she already comes to buy gifts and take a break from bike rides on the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail, which runs through town. about a quarter mile from the store. .

Now game nights have become a Friday staple at the store. Over the past few weeks, LeVell said, some 25 people have come to play.

Barn Owl Bistro and Goods sits along Route 118 in East Berkshire. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

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