Stimulus funds sought for computer centers

Federal stimulus dollars are being sought to expand computer access and computer literacy in Anoka County.

by Peter Bodley
Managing editor

Federal stimulus dollars are being sought to expand computer access and computer literacy in Anoka County.

The project is headed by the Anoka County Library, which has won approval from the Anoka County Board to submit a $3,336,396 grant application to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for public computing center dollars through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The county library system is collaborating with the Anoka County Workforce Center, Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Columbia Heights Public Library and the Anoka-Hennepin, St. Francis and Columbia Heights school districts on this project.

According to Marlene Moulton Janssen, county library director, the grant, if approved, would fund public computer centers and training to increase computer literacy for all residents, strengthen access to tools necessary for 21st century living and provide job development opportunities and training for displaced workers.

Approval of the federal stimulus funds would result in the creation of 13 public computer centers in the county, including eight in the library system – one at each of the county’s libraries – as well as the Columbia Heights library, both the Coon Rapids and Cambridge campuses of the community college and in the Columbia Heights and St. Francis school districts, Moulton Janssen said.

“Currently at the libraries, there is often a one- to three-hour wait to use the public computers,” she said. “There simply is not the capacity to serve a needy public.”

For some people, the libraries are their only access to computers, Moulton Janssen said.

“The project will also provide supervised training on computers,” she said.

The county library system has to provide a 20 percent match under the requirements of the federal grant program.

According to Moulton Janssen, the Anoka County Library Board has taken $25,000 from its MELSA (Metropolitan Regional Library Board) allocation and recommended that the county board commit to the future sale of $142,558 in library capital notes for the balance of the funding if the grant is approved.

In addition, existing budget dollars and in-kind contributions would make up the balance of the county library system’s share, Moulton Janssen said

The grant falls under the federal broadband stimulus program and augments the broadband infrastructure grant application that has been approved by the county board, she said.

Indeed, if the county gets $14 million in federal grant dollars for its $20 million broadband project, through which a company under contract to the county will lay fiber cable to connect all public buildings in the county – county, cities, colleges and school districts – then the computer centers/computer literacy project will be less expensive than presently anticipated, Moulton Janssen said.

The collaborative between the county library, the community college, the three school districts and the workforce center calls itself Anoka CAN (Computer Access Now).

Anoka CAN’s proposal will address the lack of broadband access in Anoka County at this time with over half the county underserved and without access to minimal broadband speeds, according to information provided by Anoka CAN to the county board.

The Anoka CAN project calls for the establishment of the 13 public computer center sites, of which four would be designated training hubs (Anoka-Ramsey’s Coon Rapids campus, Columbia Heights School District Family Center and the Northtown and Rum River libraries) and be provided with additional instructional tools, the upgrade of 35 existing systems and the addition of 228 laptops for a total of 340 computers available systemwide.

Moreover, many county residents lack simple computer literacy, a basic skill necessary for today’s jobs, Anoka CAN states.

“To address our issues, to climb back from the devastation of this recession, we need to train all affected: from people with no skill with computers to those needing the ability to grow small business, creating jobs,” the Anoka CAN report to the county board says.

But the goals of Anoka CAN go beyond providing public computer centers and training those lacking computer literacy.

Its third goal is to develop a three-stage curriculum that addresses people’s skills and know how to find a job, be fully capable and skillfully operate office application systems and to be knowledgeable in the modern technologies for Web and print design, accounting systems and small business development.

Under the proposal, Anoka-Hennepin School District will address computer literacy through adult learning classes at the training hubs, the curriculum developed in concert with Microsoft’s digital literacy program, while Anoka-Ramsey will offer courses in office application skills and advanced applications for small business development.

Courses at Anoka-Ramsey would be free for unemployed, displaced workers and qualified low-income people.

Meantime, the workforce center will provide all job seekers, unemployed adults as well as teens and seniors in need of job assistance with workshops to aid in finding and locating jobs, using the Internet effectively in both sourcing and posting applications and use of the array of online resources.

Once trained on these resources, job seekers will be able to conduct a self-directed job search and utilize either the workforce center or the public computer center sites for continued Internet access.

The workforce center will also offer an additional course for a career evaluation followed by how and where to take action.

According to the Anoka CAN report to the county board, the goal is to open up 759,964 hourly user access slots at the public computer center sites, give 470 students office application and business development skills, train 4,680 people in need of basic computer literacy, assist 1,500 people in networked job application skills and make assistance available to over 12,000 unemployed.

Total cash contributions from the Anoka CAN partners, including the Anoka County Library’s share, would total 25 percent of the project cost or $833,969. The workforce center would contribute $16,282, Anoka-Hennepin School District $90,859, Anoka-Ramsey Community College $257,034, Columbia Heights Library $17,625, Columbia Heights School District $128,140 and St. Francis School District $21,506.

“The combination of building public access to broadband and developing people’s skill in using today’s networked marketplace will accrue benefits for years of come,” the Anoka CAN report states.

The NTIA is expected to make decisions on the grant funding requests sometime between June and September.

Peter Bodley is at peter.bodley@ecm-inc.com

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