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LEAD STORY–Digital Bridge creates a technologically rich environment in an underprivileged neighborhood

Geppert noted this isn’t about good public relations for Cox and the other companies.

“I don’t want this to be a PR thing. I want it to be something that is socially relevant. People have to have access to this digital future. And a public-private partnership is the way to go.”

The first phase of the digital bridge project, which is already under way, calls for reconstructing an existing computer room at Hoover High School. The second phase includes turning the old Lloyd’s Furniture building on El Cajon Boulevard (purchased by the SDSU Foundation) into a community technology center. The center, across the street from Hoover High, will include computers and Internet connections, as well as provide training.

The third phase of the project is creation of a technology lab at Hoover High. The lab will be open in the evening for community members.

The entire project is expected to be completed by the end of summer.

So far, nearly $200,000 in private money and $100,000 in grants have been invested in the project , Cox, PacBell and Qualcomm have all committed to at least $35,000 each to the project, while Gateway has given about $70,000 worth of computer equipment.

– Pursuing Funds From

Private Sources, Grants

Where is the rest of the more than $1 million going to come from besides local tech companies? Those involved in the project say they will seek additional money from private foundations, as well as from state and federal grants. Funds from Proposition MM, the local school bond initiative approved in 1998, can be used to remodel the classroom at Hoover High.

“There are just huge cash needs,” said John Osborne, co-chair of the City Heights Digital Bridge project and director of external affairs for PacBell in San Diego.

Osborne is confident the project will be successful because companies are joining forces to make it work, he said.

“What’s interesting is all these competitors are getting together for the good of the community.”

Osborne also pointed to the City Heights Urban Village, which includes the newly constructed City Heights-Weingart Library, a new police station, a park, recreation center, and a planned continuing education center and planned shopping center. The village also includes Rosa Parks Elementary School and Monroe Clark Middle School.

The Urban Village project was a result of a roughly $18 million donation from Price Charities.

– Urban Village Reveals

Need For Bridge Project

The success of the Urban Village proves there is a need and a desire for projects like the City Heights Digital Bridge, said Michael Sprague, past president of the City Heights Town Council.

“For us, when we first proposed a new library, we contacted people in San Diego who said we were nuts and that it wouldn’t get used,” Sprague said. “It is now the most-used library in the county.

“We knew from talking to parents and kids that there was a deep love and interest in learning.”

More than 32 different languages are spoken in City Heights, which is considered the first stop for many refugees.

Sprague said these people wait in line to use the computers in the Weingart Library.

“What we found in City Heights, much to people’s surprise, was there was a huge need to use computers,” Sprague said. “Most of it was for homework and Internet access.”

– Computers Connect

People to Homeland

He said for a lot of City Heights residents, using the computers is a way to communicate with their homeland.

“There was this huge international E-mail traffic. There was this huge market we never thought was out there. Parents were teaching their kids about their native country on the Web.

“There’s a lot of stereotyping for people’s desire to learn. People forget that every immigrant group has been the most dynamic learning group.”

John Eger, director of SDSU’s International Center for Communications, said giving people the tools they need to survive in the information age is a component in building a smart community.

Eger said the smart community concept is centered around connectivity, like what Singapore is doing by putting a computer in every child’s backpack and providing free E-mail to the lonely elderly in nursing homes so they can communicate more with their families. Or like in Sweden, where the goal is to make sure every child over the age of 6 has an E-mail address.

Will San Diego, too, become a city of the future? Eger would like to think so, but much still needs to be done.

“San Diego is well-positioned worldwide now as a leader, but we’re no different than any other metropolitan area,” said Eger, also a Lionel Van Deerlin endowed professor of communications and public policy at SDSU.

– Pockets In Communities

Are Being Overlooked

“We have pockets in our community that are being left out. City Heights is a classic example.

“The poor are getting poorer and there’s an information apartheid taking place and there’s no reason for it. Poor people have good ideas, too.”

Eger applauded the local tech companies involved in the City Heights Digital Bridge project for trying to vanquish the digital divide.

“They’re thinking beyond the bottom line,” he said. “Yes, it will be good for their companies, but they do these things under great pressure , the pressure to perform quarter-to- quarter is tremendous these days. For them to be willing to look long-term is a great thing and says a lot about the investment those companies are making in San Diego.”

John Spelich, director of corporate communications for Gateway, said it’s about being a good corporate citizen.

“The bottom line is we all want technology to be available to everyone,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical to the future of the region that we have well-educated, Internet savvy residents.”

– Children Share Their

Technology Education

Jim Brozo, assistant dean for development at SDSU’s College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts, said creating a technology-educated community like City Heights begins with the children.

He said the mantra, “If you build it, they will come,” is not true anymore.

What needs to happen, he said, is to build it, and fill it with people who will spread the word.

“One of the things we’re focusing on is the use of the children as the gateway to the parents’ and the neighborhood’s hearts,” Brozo said. “Who sits down at the computer? The 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old. The parents, older brother and sister watch.”

Brozo added there also has to be some kind of joy and enthusiasm involved in using technology in order for it to catch on.

“We want to create an environment where they can enjoy this technological environment and then invite their friends and family to join them.”

For Cox’s Geppert, this is not only a business and community quest but a personal one as well.

“I’m passionate about this,” he said, adding his goal is to use City Heights as a template for creating technology centers in schools, community centers and other public places around the San Diego region.

“It’s great what technology can open up.”

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