SOMERSET — A group of Appalachian computer and information technology companies joined forces Monday to tell businesses in the region they don't have to look elsewhere for high-tech help — it's available in their back yard.
The Silicon Hollow Association, which has 13 companies as members, formally organized during a daylong conference at the Center for Rural Development attended by community and business leaders. It was an effort to share Eastern Kentucky's technological expertise with those that are seeking it.
"We have to stop making fun of ourselves and stop laughing when others make fun of us," said Josh Ball, representing Hazard Community and Technical College. "It begins with us, then it spreads like a web throughout the nation where folks start to respect our talents."
Organizers say the first step is getting companies and governments within the region to look close to home when they need technological help. But they also are looking beyond that to market Appalachia as a place where high-tech workers will want to live. Their slogan: Same Talent, Better Location.
Jonathan Picklesimer, chairman and one of the founders of Silicon Hollow Association, acknowledges it's a tall task but insists the region has at least one thing going for it.
"We really do believe people in Eastern Kentucky have the kind of life millions of other people wish they had, and go on vacation to get," Picklesimer said. Information technology "is something we normally associate with big cities and big companies, but it can make a difference in rural America."
Picklesimer said a recent call he got from a coal company illustrates why a group of high-tech companies can be more effective than separate businesses working independently.
He said the coal company wanted to create a digital scale that weighs trucks, then programs that information into a computer database. Picklesimer's company, Eastern Kentucky Web Group, could do the database, but it lacked engineering expertise to connect it to the scale. So he joined forces with another company that is now part of Silicon Hollow and was able to offer the service.
"It's not so much what we can do, but what do they need done?" said Larry Combs, director of business services for the Center for Rural Development.
Randy Stone, administrator for the city of Berea, said he could see the value of what the group was offering. The city has two Web sites, Stone said, an official one that hasn't been updated for years and an extremely popular tourism site. That one was created through a paid contract with an advertising firm.
"We don't have one IT person," Stone said. "You can talk to elected officials about services or another police officer, two new firefighters or a bigger park system, but they don't want to hear about an IT person."
The need for high-tech contracting jobs is especially vital in the field of health care, said Dr. Elizabeth Regan, who chairs the Northeast Kentucky Regional Health Information Organization.
Eastern Kentucky has made major strides recently in digital patient monitoring for such things as blood pressure, but if those systems go down they require an instant response from a technical worker, and that worker must be nearby.
Regan says some of these ideas might seem radical to residents in the area who like the quiet pace of life in Appalachia, but she says many had the same reaction when the first ATM machines were built.
"People used to laugh at someone walking up to a metal box in the side of a brick wall and withdrawing their money when they could go to a friendly teller with a smile," she said. "But now nobody wants to go back."