MARQUETTE, Mich. — A century-old outdoor clothing store ships coats and woolen socks around the nation, while down the block one of the newer companies in town fields inquiries about its miniature video cameras that skiers, mountain bikers and even troops in Afghanistan attach to their helmets to record themselves in action.
They are among small businesses in Michigan's off-the-beaten-path Upper Peninsula that owe their success to high-speed Internet access, which President Barack Obama considers a potential economic savior for America's countryside and small towns. Obama will campaign for his coast-to-coast wireless initiative on Thursday during a visit to Marquette, a university and tourism city of 20,000 overlooking Lake Superior that cherishes both its geographical remoteness and technological savvy.
"The Internet is as important as oxygen up here," said David Ollila, a local entrepreneur who has founded seven companies, including the camera vendor, V.I.O. Inc. His latest venture, Marquette Backcountry Ski, markets a snowshoe-ski hybrid that he invented and sells online from an office in his basement.
Like many in the Upper Peninsula, the 41-year-old Ollila is an outdoorsman who doesn't just survive the brutally cold and snowy winters; he thrives in them. Generations of self-proclaimed "Yoopers" made their living off the land — as miners, loggers and farmers. Nowadays, those trades don't provide enough jobs to prevent a steady exodus of young people, and many of the U.P.'s villages are stagnant or in decline.
Marquette, where Northern Michigan University gives laptop computers to all 9,400 students and a regional hospital provides "telemedicine" services to distant clinics, is trying to develop a web-based economy that will serve as a model for other communities — places where the small-town quality of life could be a powerful magnet if only more jobs were available.
"More and more people are choosing place first and work second," said Amy Clickner, director of the Lake Superior Community Partnership, the Marquette area's chamber of commerce. "They want to live in areas like ours, but you need that infrastructure that can attract new companies."
Obama's National Wireless Initiative, outlined in his State of the Union speech, calls for extending coverage to 98 percent of the population. A White House statement described Internet service in Marquette as "an effective demonstration of how the president's proposal to open up airwaves will spark new innovation, put people back to work, grow the economy and help America win the future."
During his visit, Obama will be shown a demonstration of Northern Michigan's wireless network, which is supplemented by a signal called WiMax that enables students within a 40-square-mile area to connect. The university also has allowed local public schools and law enforcement agencies to use the network. Although WiMax isn't available to local businesses, the area has a number of Internet providers.
About 75 percent of households in the Upper Peninsula have access to some level of broadband service, according to Connect Michigan, a partnership of the state Public Service Commission and Connected Nation, a national broadband mapping group. Charter Communications, the state's largest provider for rural areas, covers about 100 municipalities across the Upper Peninsula, spokesman Tim Ransberger said.
In the countryside, service can be spotty and the technology out of date. Cathi Cole, 61, had to settle for snail's-pace dial-up service at her home near the village of Sagola until she recently obtained a computer card enabling her to get high-speed service through a cell phone linkup. But the peninsula's back roads have their share of dead zones.
"It can be very frustrating," said Cole, who travels frequently for her job with the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
The situation is far different in Marquette, the peninsula's largest city. V.I.O., the helmet camera company, sells, markets and distributes its products online to customers in dozens of countries from its downtown office. Its website, operated by a local company, features videos made by an extreme snowmobiler streaking down mountain slopes and troops in a firefight with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"People are quite shocked to learn we're operating from the U.P., especially if they have any familiarity with the area," sales associate Patrick Myron said. "This is where we want to be, this is where we want to raise our families. Without reliable Internet, we couldn't do it."
The web also is a lifeline for Getz's Clothiers down the street. Founded in the 1880s, the retailer's shelves are packed with clothes for outdoor work and play — coats, boots, jeans, jogging suits. The venerable store went online in 1997, and now generates two-thirds of its sales from the Internet. Its online staffers are Northern Michigan University graduates.
"People see us online and it helps get them through the door," manager Dennis Mingay said.
Some of the area's web-based workers are telecommuters whose companies are based in other states.
"My co-workers look longingly at what I do and wish they could work from home," said Jim Argeropoulos of Marquette, an engineer for a Wisconsin educational software company.
Stu Bradley, a retired Air Force colonel once stationed at a now-defunct base near Marquette, returned to the area after retiring and later served as the city's mayor. Nowadays he's among the founders of a website where small vendors from across the peninsula advertise wares ranging from knives to jewelry to maple syrup.
"We're really an example of what the president is talking about," Bradley said. "We wouldn't be in existence if it wasn't for the web."
Getz's Clothiers: http://www.getzs.com
V.I.O. Inc.: http://www.vio-pov.com
Northern Michigan University: http://www.nmu.edu
Marquette Backcountry Ski: http://www.marquette-backcountry.com
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company