A Lyndon Institute graduate who left the area to immerse himself in the emerging world of internet commerce has returned to his Northeast Kingdom roots to help traditional businesses grow and to nurture new ones.
Evan Carlson has great respect for the traditions that make northeastern Vermont special. Since 2016, he has been a pivotal player in bringing over $300,000 in public and private economic development funding to Lyndon. For example, in August he was the point person on a successful USDA Rural Business Development Grant, which awarded $88,827 to Lyndon for three internet-related initiatives:
- To study the feasibility of building a community fiber optic network in the Lyndon area.
- To create a public Wi-Fi network for downtown Lyndonville.
- To provide mini-grants to businesses in the designated downtown area to help develop their online presence.
Carlson makes his living doing work older Vermonters probably have a hard time imaging. Working from home, he consults with businesses to improve the digital products they use for advertising. His company is named Hjalmar Carlson, in homage to his grandfather, a Swedish immigrant to the United States who worked as an engineer and inventor.
Carlson sees opportunities in emergent technology, but he adheres to values that are age-old. Whether you are building a shovel – or a digital marketing platform, he said, at the core, it is all related to design and problem-solving.
“The idea is to use new technology to improve and grow the business opportunities that will make Vermonters economically competitive,” he said.
After graduating from Lyndon Institute in 2002, he attended New England Institute of Art in Boston, where he selected a newly designed major – Interactive Media Design.
After college, he landed a job at a Colorado advertising agency that made commercials for business titans like Volkswagen and Burger King. It was the time when “everything was new,” said Carlson. “Digital media, interactive media, social media – it was all exploding onto the scene.” And he took advantage of opportunities to build a range of skills – from webpage development to mobile app design to web analytics. Eventually, he said he went out on his own as an e-commerce consultant for businesses ranging from hospitals to snowboard manufacturers to the Nestlé company.
For the next career move in his new-age trade, Carlson said he found himself at the center of the digital marketing world in New York City, riding a wave of e-commerce development. He said he was hired as the 80th employee of an organization called Complex Media. Within four years the company was operating out of five worldwide locations and its staff had grown to 400.
So why return to rural life in Vermont?
“I left New York because the focus of the work was not my passion … It was not fulfilling,” said Carlson. “By coming back home I knew I could find my next direction.”
His activism is due to a deep-seated belief in the potential of northern Vermont, as well as its historic strengths. Carlson believes in the entrepreneurial spirit of Vermonters, and he believes that with the right tools – such as co-working spaces, regional access to broadband internet and internet marketing tools – northern Vermont can experience an economic resurgence.
“Entrepreneurialism is really about creating solutions to problems,” he said.
He wants to tap the potential of young people to help them identify business opportunities. He believes in development that builds on aspects of the region’s economic heritage – recreation, tourism, the forest products industry and agriculture. “I know that we can use new technology to improve and grow opportunities in all of those areas,” he said.
Carlson authored the USDA grant application for internet-related initiatives, with assistance from Mike Welch of Northern Community Investment Corporation (NCIC), Lyndon Town Manager Justin Smith, and Kim Crady, the chair of Lyndon’s Downtown Revitalization Committee.
Smith said it’s been good to have someone young and energetic with Carlson’s technical experience serving on the revitalization committee.
“He understands what’s required for businesses of his type to operate here,” said Smith. “He’s helped develop a nice collaboration with groups that we probably needed to work with better. It’s easy to identify problems, but it’s harder to find the people who can do something about them like finding funding sources and bringing the right groups to the table.”
Welch said, “My experience with him has been fantastic. He’s very qualified, has a lot of interest in building up the community and getting people to stay and relocate here.”
Within a few short years, Carlson has been a catalyst for a wide range of e-commerce developments in the Northeast Kingdom, as well as the influx of hundreds of thousands of dollars of rural economic development funding.
One example is the creation of a “co-working space,” which opened Nov. 16 in the former headquarters of Bag Balm, the iconic Lyndon business that manufactured salve for cows’ udders for 115 years before being sold in 2014 to an investment group. The building was purchased by the Paris family, who also own the neighboring Freighthouse Market & Café.
A co-working space is a membership-based space that is often used by freelance and remote workers. It is designed for business people to share equipment, ideas and knowledge.
In Lyndon, the co-working space was established through a partnership of several businesses and non-profits with Northern Vermont University (NVU). The 2,000-square-foot space provides rentable office facilities for approximately 50 entrepreneurs. It will be outfitted with high-speed internet, audiovisual equipment, sound-proof phone booths and a state-of-the-art conference room.
Funding for the site, now known as DO NORTH Coworking, included $65,123 in funding from NVU and a one-year influx of cash from a $51,377 USDA Rural Business Development Grant. North Country Federal Credit Union made a five-year donation to the facility of $125,000.
When the co-working space opened, Carlson was identified as the “Entrepreneur in Residence” to help shepherd the growth of the site. The anchor tenant at the co-working space is a company called Whiteout Solutions, a business using drone technology to determine the health of forested land and agricultural crops.
The co-working space will offer opportunities for NVU students to provide technical assistance to member businesses and entrepreneurs.
The idea for the co-working space came about during a conversation between Carlson and NVU officials at an event sponsored by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, which brought community leaders together to brainstorm ideas for beneficial change to the region. Newport and Greensboro also have co-working sites.
The first of the three-fold internet-related projects funded by the $88,827 USDA grant got underway in September. That aspect, totaling $22,000, makes grants of up to $2,500 available to businesses in Lyndon’s designated downtown area.
Members of the Lyndon Economic Development Committee went door-to-door to explain the program to business owners. Grants were awarded to applicants on a first come, first served basis. Businesses with over 50 employees or over $1 million in gross profits were not eligible.
Welch said the money is being used by businesses to create and expand websites, as well as enhance online marketing and set up credit card processing. He said Carlson has donated hundreds of hours of his own time to help business owners with their proposals.
Successful applicants for the funding were: Mickey’s Head-to-Toe, attorney Laura Wilson, VT Vintage, Shear Sensations, Carmen’s Ice Cream, Northeast Sports Network, Lead and Tackle, and Green Mountain Books.
A second phase of the USDA grant involves the creation of a free, wireless Wi-Fi system by July of 2019. A total of $29,000 was earmarked for that work, making Wi-Fi available throughout an area reaching from the Lyndon Municipal Building through Depot Street to the Freighthouse Market & Café.
The system will operate through point-to-point towers at the Municipal Building, the White Market and the building that houses the Grindstone Café. The idea is to attract more people to downtown Lyndon to use the free service.
“Somebody who comes down from Quebec to bike can use the village Wi-Fi system instead of using [cellular data] on their phone,” said Carlson.
The new system, which may be operational by next summer, is expected to provide Wi-Fi for events in Lyndon’s bandstand park. It can be set up to take users to a single web page where Lyndon businesses can advertise products and services. Sara Lafferty, one of the owners of White Market, is the point person to get the system up and running.
A final phase funded by the $88,000 in USDA grant will be a study to determine the feasibility of a community fiber optic network. Vantage Point Solutions, a South Dakota-based consultant, is expected to complete the study by June 2019.
Such a network would provide close to 100 percent high-speed internet coverage to Lyndon and surrounding towns. At present, it is estimated about 30 percent of Lyndon residents do not have access to high-speed internet. One model for the creation of a community-funded fiber network for the Lyndon area is ECFiber, which is based in South Royalton and includes 24 member towns that banded together to create a “communications union district.”
As Carlson sees it, someday Lyndon and the small towns surrounding it could have a similar community fiber program. “It would be our own network,” he said, “and it would create jobs for our community. People would need to be hired to connect the fiber network and also to maintain it.”