High-Tech Firms Get Small-Town Benefits

The Associated Press
Sunday, September 24, 2006; 5:35 PM

HARLAN, Ky. -- A dusty gravel driveway leads to an old house once occupied by an Appalachian family. Next door is a little shack that sells hot dogs and ice cream, and a few miles away is a series of coal processing plants.

From the outside, the house looks like any other in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. But inside, industrial cubicles sprawl across a well-worn hardwood floor, placing uniformed programmers and high-speed computers within arm's reach of an antique fireplace.

This is the headquarters for DataFutures Inc. _ a $5 million company that makes software to track school finances and lunches for school districts nationwide, but chooses to operate in 2,050-population Harlan.

"The thing about technology is you can do it from anywhere," said Charleen Combs, CEO and co-founder of DataFutures.

Experts say Combs' viewpoint is becoming more common among young professionals and high-tech entrepreneurs, many of whom are ditching the big-city scene and taking advantage of the lower costs and comforts typical of rural towns.

"Anecdotally, I really believe it's a trend," said Lawrence Gelburd, an independent consultant and lecturer on entrepreneurship at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

"The costs are so much lower in these rural areas," he added. "The value that they get, the pace of life and the ubiquitous nature of technology makes rural areas more attractive."

The employees at these rural businesses are a mix of local hires, often college graduates who don't mind working back home, and professionals who are tired of traffic and high costs associated with working near big cities.

"Just from the big picture, there is a culture shift in professional life that makes working and residing in a rural area," said Mark McElroy, vice president of operations and communications for ConnectKentucky, an alliance of Kentucky leaders in private industry, government, and universities. "They want a healthy family life and a financially feasible career source."

Combs, of Ohio, drifted into her husband's native eastern Kentucky nearly 30 years ago to be closer to family and raise her children with the unpretentious values of the mountains. In the late 1980s, the young computer programmer joined forces with a family friend to start DataFutures, which initially limited its clientele to a handful of Kentucky schools.

But with help of the Internet and video conferencing tools, DataFutures counts more than 3,500 schools in 40 states as software clients. Combs said that despite its success, DataFutures has no plans to move into a busier metropolis.

Her clients can meet with DataFutures executives via video conferencing, and most simply download the software and training materials online.

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