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Much ado about fiber optics

An Oregon town that became famous for keeping alive much-loved plays from the past stands to gain new notoriety for its futuristic ambitions.

ASHLAND, Oregon--A town that became famous for keeping alive much-loved plays from the past stands to gain new notoriety for its futuristic ambitions.

Ashland is well known in the western part of the United States for its Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has been operating since the summer of 1935. It is largely responsible for the city's tourism boom--Ashland's roughly 19,000 residents see about 125,000 tourists enjoy its attractions every year. The festival puts on 11 plays during its eight-month season.

The festival--a See special feature: Main Street goes high tech nonprofit company that in 1998 is operating on a $13.7 million budget--is an integral part of life in Ashland for residents and visitors alike. And as such, members of its staff are on both the steering and technology advisory committees that have been planning the buildout of the Ashland Fiber Network (AFN).

The festival also was part of the original 13 core organizations the city had in mind when first planning the fiber optic network.

"The lifeblood of this community is the tourism," said city administrator Mike Freeman, noting that the tourism is largely driven by the festival.

As it works now, "You have to call way in advance for seats," he said. "One thing that's really exciting for [the Shakespeare Festival] is the possibility of being able to pipe the plays out live [via the Internet]," Freeman added.

Although broadcasting plays over the Net is one obvious potential use of the network, Sharon Stern, the company's information services manager and a member of the steering committee, said the staff is hoping to extend its outreach and engage a broader audience.

"If we can interact with people, they might get a better understanding of what we do," Stern said, adding that some have suggested building curricula for schools that involve interacting with the festival, the actors, and others involved with the performances, as well as viewing the plays.

The AFN will "allow us to reach people that may not be able to afford to come [to Ashland] for an extended period of time," she said. Additionally, the network would allow the festival to still offer a complete theater experience without students having to travel to Ashland.

For others who are local, Stern said the network would act "not instead of live theater and interaction, but in addition to it.

"It will allow us to communicate with patrons in a whole different way," she added.

The city also has a vision for how the AFN could benefit the festival and assist in meeting demand and, in turn, drive revenue.

The festival "may provide some short video clips to some of the [local] hotels, give them the opportunity to get ticketing," said Pete Lovrovich, director of electric utilities for the city of Ashland. "They're even talking about doing a 3D layout of the theater so that people can actually look and pick out their seats," similar to what many stadiums do.

Reaching out
Stern noted that another potential use for the network is to integrate the different aspects of the city's core tourism businesses.

"Many businesses exist here because of tourist industry," Stern said. So the question is, "How can we take the other organizations that exist in the [Rogue Valley] and work with them?"

She suggested hotels, shops, the festival, and other entertainment outfits could use the network to refer clients to help them plan a complete vacation. "So instead of making 15 different calls, they can take care of all of it at once.

"It helps us, it helps them, and it helps the patrons," she added. "The patrons win big time in that scenario."

Stern also noted the local organizations have discussed possibly pooling resources for cellular phones or other services to "make more efficient uses of our budgets," and that the AFN could facilitate that process by literally connecting all the businesses.

Still, both Stern and Amy Richard, the festival's media relations manager, acknowledge that building a network and adding stellar services and interactivity to a Web site doesn't necessarily ensure that people will come to it.

"We are a world-class theater and we do world-class work, but it's incredibly difficult" to get the word out about the festival, Richard said. Although 88 percent of its audience travels more than 125 miles to reach the festival, both Stern and Richard noted that the vast majority of spectators come from west of the Rockies.

In terms of getting the traffic to the site and ultimately into the theater, Stern said there is "no absolute unified plan in place yet, but the pieces are beginning to fall into place."