MOUNT VERNON – Mount Vernon has joined the growing list of cities across the country to install free, public WiFi in its downtown district.
The Knox County Chamber of Commerce held a virtual ribbon-cutting ceremony last Wednesday for the amenity, which Mayor Matt Starr called crucial to the city's future economically and socially.
“We hope that this is also one of those value-added features that will continue to bring residents and visitors alike to the downtown area," Starr said.
The idea of bringing free, public WiFi to downtown Mount Vernon came to Starr several years ago, he said, long before he became mayor. Customers and vendors at the Mount Vernon Farmer's Market and Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival had voiced their desire for public broadband, which would allow them to conduct commerce digitally (via credit cards, Google Pay, etc.) without burning through cell data.
Starr took office last January with every intention of turning this dream into a reality. Then the world turned upside down.
"When COVID hit, it just wasn’t one of the things we originally budgeted for," Starr said.
The city had attempted to add WiFi funding to the budget after appropriations were approved (heading into the 2020 Farmer's Market season), Starr said, then the pandemic began. The city was forced to restrict spending as economic forecasts worsened.
Still, the need for downtown broadband remained. In fact, Starr said it became even more relevant during the pandemic, when the world saw first-hand the importance of online connectivity.
As 2021 neared, city officials continued to look for ways to make the project happen. An opportunity arose when Starr and Safety-Service Director Richard Dzik realized they could use CARES Act funding to take care of installation costs.
"We need to have more remote accessibility (because of the pandemic)," Starr said. "We wanted to give people the opportunity to connect downtown, so they can conduct business and hold meetings on Zoom ...
"The opportunity presented itself where it could be applicable to CARES funding and it would be a direct benefit to the citizens.”
The city spent approximately $25,000 in CARES Act funding to complete the installation process, according to Dzik ($8,000 on hardware and $17,000 on setup, programming and installation). Mount Vernon-based Custom Wired installed five broadband transmitters downtown, and they were activated in late December.
The city will need to budget annually for internet service costs moving forward, Starr said, but he expects doing so will be well within the city's best interests.
“The infrastructure was the big part to pay for. Paying for internet afterwards, we’ll absorb that in our annual budget," Starr said. "We look at it as an important part of our infrastructure as anything else, making it easier for people to conduct commerce.”
The city's downtown WiFi network currently extends from Public Square down South Main Street, ending near the Wright Center. There is also some signal on the 100 block of North Main Street, Starr said, as well as High Street heading east and west from Public Square.
Those wishing to connect can click "DowntownMV" in their WiFi browser and type in the password "MTV43050."
The city is looking to expand the network's radius eventually, Dzik said, by installing an additional transmitter near the intersection of North Main Street and Chestnut Street. It could also add a transmitter near the South Main Street/Columbus Road intersection, which would stretch broadband connectivity across the viaduct.
“It’s all about getting people downtown," Starr said.
Local officials believe adding free WiFi will make downtown Mount Vernon a more accessible, attractive destination for residents and visitors.
“It’s going to be a huge piece of the puzzle for modernizing our city, especially the downtown," said Tanner Salyers, chairman of City Council's Parks and Lands Committee.
"I think COVID-19 showed us all that access to the internet is critical. It’s a utility at this point – for health, for communication, for commerce – and access in this city is a little more readily available now that we’ve done this."
Starr believes the newly installed WiFi will allow people to spend more time downtown, as visitors will be able to freely work and connect with others.
“Come down; connect; go get a cup of coffee; get a sandwich; sit around; do your homework; video chat via Zoom; whatever you want to do," Starr said. "But you won’t have to burn through your data to be able to come and enjoy downtown.”
Trina Trainor, co-director of the Mount Vernon Music & Arts Festival (formerly the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival), said the investment will open up new opportunities for the festival, which attracts thousands to downtown Mount Vernon each August.
“We’re very fortunate to have this wonderful amenity here in Mount Vernon. It’s really going to be a great advantage for us and for the festival," Trainor said.
"We can certainly use that in our marketing tools, and folks will be able to maybe utilize maps and things like that, which we’ve wanted to do for a long time ... This will allow us to bring on some more WiFi-capable types of things for the festival. We sure appreciate it. It’s just going to make a big difference.”
Mount Vernon isn't the first Ohio community to install free, public WiFi in its downtown district. Municipalities of all sizes, from Cincinnati (pop. 301,394) to Yellow Springs (pop. 3,872), have made similar moves in recent years.
The next step, Salyers said, will be working with state legislators to push for expanded internet coverage in rural areas. He noted the work Rep. Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Township) is already doing on this front, having introduced a rural broadband bill last year that ultimately died on the Senate floor after receiving widespread support (Carfagna told WOSU he plans to reintroduce the bill this month).
"While (rural broadband) is not a direct problem in our city, just outside of our city, people that work in our city and take part in commerce here have problems getting that high-speed access," Salyers said. "So hopefully we can all work together to make sure that that access is up-to-par."