Frontier and DISH put a $10 million spotlight on small towns

September 15, 2014, 4:52 PM UTC
Row Houses at Sunrise
Photograph by Michal Bryc—Getty Images

Matt Ledoux is a 34-year-old seafood entrepreneur in Coos Bay, Oregon, a small coastal town of 16,000 people. It’s a place in need of some investment. The trains run slow because of its aging tracks. The city’s real estate needs a makeover. The fishing industry is lagging on equipment. But it’s a town with a thriving community, and Ledoux has some ideas: To grow imports of Dungeness crab and Albacore tuna, Coos Bay has to expand the capacity of its sluggish port. “We’ve got to upgrade our import and export terminals in order to move container ships in and out of our harbor a little faster,” said Ledoux, a former president of Coos Bay’s chamber of commerce.

But Ledoux, whose Fisherman’s Wharf market sells local seafood, thinks Coos Bay has a shot in a new competition that just might make some of that investment come to life. Ledoux is assembling a group from the city’s nonprofits, business chambers and other groups to formulate a business plan and apply for the America’s Best Communities competition, a $10 million contest that kicked off this week as a partnership between Frontier Communications and DISH Network to stimulate growth and revitalization in small cities and towns.

If Ledoux’s team is successful, they stand a chance at winning a multi-million dollar prize, which Ledoux says they plan to invest in updating Coos Bay’s infrastructure.

The contest, the first of its kind, is aimed at cities and small towns with a population of 9,500 to 80,000 in the 27 states Frontier serves, and is intended to reward the communities that have the best ideas to build, sustain and grow their local economies. The contest kicked off last week with a launch event in Gardnerville, Nevada–as well as smaller events in markets including Charleston West Virginia, Terre Haute, Indiana and Dallas, Pennsylvania–but Frontier is hoping that thousands of communities will take part in the initiative.

It’s a rare spotlight on rural communities at a time when cities are all the rage. But Frontier is deeply rooted in the rural markets of the U.S. Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier, sees the competition as an important catalyst to improve many towns and communities in the U.S., especially the smaller-sized markets that often get overlooked. “One of the things that we are trying to do is to create a multiplier effect,” said Wilderotter. “So with our $10 million investment, you sort of get this rising tide to lift all boats.”

Under the terms of the contest, communities have until January 2015 to pitch their business plans. From there, 50 communities will be shortlisted, and each one will be granted $35,000 as “seed investment.” For the next seven months, those 50 will fine tune their ideas and submit their final proposals in September 2015. In early 2016, eight finalists will be awarded $100,000 each to put their plans into practice. And lastly, the top three winners from that group of finalists will receive a total of $6 million in October 2017. (Smaller sponsors will donate the remaining funds for equipment including GoPro cameras, which will be given to communities to document their meetings.)

Wilderotter herself is a champion of small markets, telling Fortune that when she feels “depressed” in fast-paced Washington D.C., where she spends a lot of time, she likes to visit her smaller, more laid-back markets, which she says inspire her. “I see how the local governments where they have mayors and city councils that work side by side with businesses and communities,” she said. “I see these tight-knit communities where people know each other and help each other.”

That focus on small communities led Frontier to partner with DISH, the satellite television and broadband service provider that serves 14 million subscribers across the US, including in many remote areas of the country. DISH CEO Joseph Clayton told Fortune he feels the small communities across the US have been the backbone of America. “They just need some investment to bring innovation to the forefront,” he said.

The two companies hired an outside firm to create the contest, and as part of the research process, representatives from both companies visited rural communities in Michigan, Oregon and Illinois, where they saw a lot of promise—young people speaking passionately about innovative ideas to better their communities—but projects lagged in the absence of funding.

It was important to the companies that the contest reward communities that are designing their own projects with their own people. “We didn’t want to be heavy handed,” says Steve Crosby, senior vice president of corporate communications for Frontier.

While going through the city of Coos Bay, the research team met Ledoux, the seafood seller. They asked him who would benefit more from the contest, governments or business communities. Ledoux vouched for business—“because entrepreneurs are very good at taking $1 and turning it into $10.” The prize will be awarded to community development ideas with a business focus, like renovating a public park and hosting a concert there, or opening cafes with bookshops.

With Oregon the top destination for intra-state moves last year, the business prospects of the entire state have increased, which means more potential business for both Frontier and DISH. Indeed, by strengthening the tax base of these smaller cities and towns and improving the quality of life, it’s also injecting capital into areas with the hope of turning them into growth markets for both companies.

“We think this is good business for us,” said Wilderotter. “It’s in our best interest.”

In a small city like Coos Bay, the arrival of new residents has already brought some change. Breweries are popping up. The timber and fishing industries are drawing new businesses. If Coos Bay ends up as one of America’s Best Communities, it could be a game changer. Says Ledoux: “There is a very real chance that we’ll have necessary resources to accomplish our dreams.”