SANTA FE, N.M. — Taos is working to expand its digital economy, with help from a partnership with a national nonprofit.
Taos was one of 18 small cities and towns selected to participate in the Rural Innovation Network, a program pioneered by Vermont-based nonprofit Center on Rural Innovation. Mark Rembert, head of the Rural Innovation Network, said the program is designed to help rural communities identify opportunities and gaps in their digital economies, with an eye toward diversifying their economies as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.
“I think the pandemic has reinforced how important diversification is,” Rembert said.
In Taos, that means a mix of programs, from creating a photo essay of rural entrepreneurs, to working with University of New Mexico-Taos and other stakeholders to establish UNM-Taos HIVE, the region’s first hybrid business support center and coworking space.
Rose Reza, program specialist for UNM-Taos HIVE, said the facility, slated for a soft opening in June, should help Taos grow its technology ecosystem and reduce its dependence on tourism.
“Tourism is important to our economy, but when 70% of your population is directly or indirectly impacted by tourism, there has to be alternative pathways for their own stability and their own future,” Reza said.
Unlike many rural communities, Taos had a robust network of remote workers even before the pandemic reached New Mexico. Rembert said just under 12% of Taoseños worked remotely, compared to 5.1% on average across the Rural Innovation Network.
“There’s already entrepreneurs there, there’s already talent there,” Rembert said.
However, Reza said the community also had a number of businesses that lacked functional websites, which made it difficult to adapt to the effects of the pandemic.
Moreover, Reza said the rural community has lost IT and other remote tech jobs to larger cities like Phoenix and Denver, which makes it harder for the city to retain younger residents.
“These are jobs that our community should be first in line to take advantage of,” she said.
Reza said the partnership opens up a number of new opportunities for her organization and its partner communities. Rembert said CORI recently completed a photo essay of local entrepreneurs in Taos, the first in its series, designed to shift narratives about rural America. A partnership with Udacity, a digital workforce training program, will offer workers classes in digital marketing, data analytics and website development.
In addition to the usual coworking amenities, Reza said Taos HIVE is working to provide mentors who can help the program grow in the future. She said she’s optimistic that the programming will dovetail with Taos-HIVE’s larger goal is to help the community develop pathways out of poverty.
“It’s an opportunity to engage, it’s an opportunity to inspire and it’s an opportunity to influence,” Reza said.