by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

A group of economic development visionaries took first place in round one of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) challenge with a dynamic proposal they believe will transform the way business is done in Greensboro.

City officials announced the six finalists in the SC2 challenge Dec. 17, with Gig G, a proposal to transform the way businesses and communities in Greensboro operate, taking first place. Joel Bennett, Larry Cecchini and Michael Hentschel submitted the proposal and took home $55,000 in prize money.

At its core, Gig G is at once a plan to bring a significant fiber optic network to the city and a new paradigm uniting economic and social development concepts with the means to an end.

Five other finalists, including a plan to blanket the city with a public wireless network anchored to existing city fiber optic assets, move to the second round of competition that concludes in 2015.

“Thanks to the SC2 challenge and our six finalists, the City of Greensboro will have a new road map for better leveraging its vast and dynamic array of resources in new ways,” said Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan. “Greensboro can use these strategies to continue to create a climate for growing higher wage jobs and fostering innovation, as well as paving the way for long-term sustainable growth.”

The city received inquiries from 43 countries, 49 states and 65 cities regarding the SC2 challenge. Twenty strategic proposals were entered, with a panel of judges ranking the finalists announced last week. The six finalists were separated by 4.2 points, with only 3.2 points separating first from fourth.

Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland, himself a member of the selection committee for the second round of the competition, said he was excited by the potential for each of the six finalists.

“If implemented, each of these plans represents economic growth, opportunity, and future success for our city and business community,” Westmoreland said.

Phase Two of SC2 gives each team the chance to develop their proposal and expand project management teams. At stake is $900,000 in prize money, with $500,000 going to the first place team. The federal government’s Economic Development Administration sponsors the competition.

The finalists are heavily represented by connections to Greensboro’s existing economic and institutional status quo, as was the 20-person evaluation panel for round one. Only the thirdplace project, whose team is from Massachusetts, and the fourth-place project, Cityfi, consisting of a retired economics professor and a community activist and tech visionary, come from outside the city’s academic and business elite.

Other proposals are heavily represented by existing projects and staff from NC A&T State University, UNC- Greensboro, GTCC, and existing extensions of the Greensboro Partnership, such as Gateway University Research Park and the downtown campus.

Gig G itself grew from a collaboration among entrepreneurs in the city looking for ways to become involved in the community through the Greensboro Partnership. Kathy Elliott, then a staff member with the partnership, invited the three men to get together about two years ago to discuss ways to stimulate entrepreneurial activity in Greensboro.

Bennett, who is the program director for the Triad Startup Lab, a subset of the Greensboro Partnership’s Entrepreneur Connection, said Cecchini was the chief visionary behind Gig G, and had these really big ideas to make Greensboro better.

Cecchini is the president and CEO of Secure Designs, Inc., a top-rated Internet security consulting firm. Hentschel is a former venture capitalist that spent 21 years in Silicon Valley.

From their collaboration grew numerous ideas for community improvements and new businesses. About six months in to the relationship, the team became aware of the SC2 Challenge.

“We sat around the table and everybody had really great ideas, but we didn’t have a budget to do anything,” Cecchini said. “They were all great ideas and we sort of said ‘how can we make that happen?’ We began to think how could we bring all of our ideas together and put them into one integrated plan?” The fiber optic network is the core foundation of the larger Gig G vision. By connecting so many separate ideas and institutions to a gigabit fiber optic network, communities connect to create something greater than the separate parts.

“It’s really the technology to make it happen,” Hentschel said. “Gigabit is just a communication and collaboration tool. It’s all about communication and collaboration. You bring capability and technology to all of these pieces on the map and everybody is connected and working together.”

The map in an integral part of the Gig G paradigm. On a wall with white-erase paint in Cecchini’s office overlooking NewBridge Bank Park is a complex diagram, an overview of the downtown Greensboro environment that includes street layout, institutions and the projects they bring to the table.

“There is this paradigm that we challenge people to employ as they are seeing the presentation,” Cecchini said. “We say to them, think of a project that you can be super passionate about and then think of the entrepreneurs, stakeholders and partners you can bring together in that project and make something happen that would be impactful for the community. The cool thing is this paradigm here hovers over every box and piece of graffiti that you see on this wall. The nature of Gig G is continually greater inclusiveness. It presents a form and an infrastructure to enable people to put these teams together and make stuff happen.”

Cecchini described the fiber optic network as the Autobahn with everyone moving superfast.

“But those vehicles and the people that are on that highway have commerce and are doing things. It doesn’t matter what kind of passion you have, Gig G can help unleash that.”

Part of the impetus for Gig G is to create a locally owned and managed fiber optic network that can grow future commerce and finance a new community development fund, as opposed to waiting for large telecommunication companies to create the infrastructure.

“Once we began to build various foundations we began to see what we could layer on top of that,” Cecchini said. “This is actually foundational work that then business plans and ideas and projects can be laid on top of because of the nature of what Gig G is.”

Viable initiatives that could grow from the Gig G paradigm and use the fiber optic network include training telehealth workers, increasing teleeducation models in public schools and higher education, and providing telemedia opportunities for institutions such as the Tanger Performing Arts Center and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

Hentschel said that part of the project would include expanding the fiber optic network that currently exists. The city is known to have about 120 miles of fiber optic cable that reaches 50 city-owned facilities. UNCG has a fiber optic network loop with up to 100+ gigabits of unused capacity. Gig G proponents would like to attract North State Communications as a partner as well. NSC has become an expert in the fiber optic field, having installed about $60 million of fiber in the last decade.

The other infrastructure-oriented proposal finished in fourth place in round one, but team member Roch Smith Jr. said their goal in the second round would be to make Cityfi’s strengths and goals clearer to the selection committee.

“We think that if it’s fully understood, it wins,” Smith said. “This is a real actionable project. It’s not more focus groups and consulting reports and something that’s going to get stuck on a shelf. It’s a real infrastructure that the city has an opportunity to deploy.”

The Cityfi proposal involves a pervasive public Wi-Fi system that extends existing wireless Internet access beyond current hot spots. The concept is to install latest technology Wi-Fi nodes at the end of city-owned fiber optic networks. Smith said that recent advances in Wi-Fi technology and newly available portions of the radio spectrum could make a citywide Wi-Fi system a reality in Greensboro.

“We will take those fibers that terminate on poles and city cameras and plug in Wi-Fi points and see how far they can reach into neighborhoods, shopping centers and business districts,” Smith said, describing upcoming testing the Cityfi team plans.

Smith estimates that only about 10 percent of the city’s existing fiber optic network is being used.

“There is plenty there, and that moves us down the field,” Smith said. “We are starting at midfield already because of the city’s existing infra- structure.” !