Bacon holding a grenade

The island nation of Singapore hopes to develop its economy by deploying world-class information technology. Among other novelties, Singapore's court system is adopting electronic filing and retrieval. Higher court productivity should encourage companies to move their dispute resolution to Singapore, the registrar of the Supreme Court recently told Forbes magazine. Presumably, business activity could follow.

The registrar's thinking commands respect, originating as it does from the other side of the globe. The same line of logic doesn't seem quite as prophetic when it comes from the commonwealth's isolated coalfield region. Call it the "invented here" syndrome, the opposite of the "not invented here" syndrome: Gee, it can't be worth much if someone local thought of it first.

But Virginians should pay attention. Jack Kennedy, clerk of the Wise County Circuit Court, is pioneering an economic model for his poor, Appalachian locale that's as ambitious, in its own way, as Singapore's -- and could serve as an example for the rest of us. He's converting county court records to a digital, Internet-accessible format. He's cooperating with other departments to create a sophisticated geographic information system. And he's becoming an info-tech missionary to the local business community.

For nearly a century, Wise County's economy has revolved around coal mining. But the coal seams are playing out, mining employment is heading downhill, and industrial recruitment is a tough sell. On the other hand, the information revolution is scrapping old business models and creating new ones. Because Wise County has little stake in the old economy, it has everything to gain by embracing the information age.

Kennedy wants to attract satellite offices of big technology companies in Northern Virginia and other leading tech centers. And he hopes to stimulate the start up of local Internet companies, building on local products, culture and expertise. "We're limited only by our imagination and creativity," he says.

Although Kennedy has spent most of his life in law and public service -- he served four years as a Democratic representative to the General Assembly -- he brings an entrepreneurial spirit to his job as court clerk. To pay for the digitization of land records and their publication on CD-ROM, Kennedy persuaded players in the local real estate industry to pony up some $40,000. As a result, Wise has digitized a larger percentage of its records than any other county in Virginia, including Fairfax County, Kennedy says.

The clerk's office has digitized indices for wills, marriage licenses and financing statements for years back. It began storing actual documents for wills, judgments and liens, and real estate titles last year. Wise County residents can check trial dates on the web. Kennedy also hopes to be among the first clerks to enable local lawyers and judges to schedule court dates on-line.

Meanwhile, Wise's commissioner of the revenue has put the county's entire real estate assessment database on-line. Every parcel's valuation and tax history is accessible to the public. The long-term vision is to merge the land-title database with the tax database of both Wise County and the city of Norton, then overlay zoning, topography, school districts, voting districts, school bus routes and other data. That should aid planning for infrastructure development and leverage scarce public dollars, Kennedy says.

But changing government is just the first step. Kennedy advocates revamping the curricula of local colleges to turn out a generation of tech-savvy students. He backs the creation of a wireless workport in the center of a planned Wise Technology Park, which he hopes will attract back-office and satellite operations of tech companies from Northern Virginia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, he's trying to organize a regional technology council for Southwest Virginia.

Even in Wise County, Kennedy concedes, he couldn't have accomplished so much without help from the county board and the commissioner of the revenue. Still, Kennedy is unique. Nowhere else, outside of Northern Virginia perhaps, is a circuit court clerk setting the standard for municipal investment in information technology: His small office has spent roughly $100,000 so far on upgrading its info-tech capabilities. And nowhere else has a circuit court clerk emerged as a leading advocate of information age economic development.

But that's the beauty of the info-tech era: Leadership and innovation can emerge from the most unexpected places. Don't be surprised if, one day, Wise County is setting the example for the rest of Virginia. And, who knows? Maybe even Singapore.

James A. Bacon
Publisher & Editor in Chief

© April 1999, Media General Business Publications Inc.,
publisher of Virginia Business Magazine