New space at River Park Apartments provides residents high speed internet, device access

FLINT, Michigan -- A grand opening ceremony was held last week for the River Park Empowerment Zone, a new space created at River Park Apartments (7002 Pemberton Drive) on Flint’s northside to help meet residents’ technology needs. 

A digital divide has existed for years in Flint and communities like it with high poverty rates across the country. That divide has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, when families have needed access to reliable internet service and devices for everything from education and school to medical appointments to applying for services online, including rides or transportation. Even emerging from the pandemic is impacted from the digital divide -- COVID-19 vaccine appointments are booked online and information about the vaccines is often most available online, so residents having a means to get that information is vital.

Total Life Prosperity, a nonprofit community development organization, worked with the River Park Tenant Council for approximately two years on neighborhood improvement ideas, things residents need to make life easier for them, and resources they need access to. The apartment complex is home to more approximately 200 families. The challenges for those families have become even more difficult to overcome during the pandemic. 

“People have had so many challenges during the pandemic,” said Sonyita Clemons of Total Life Prosperity. “We’ve had parents who, even if they have a computer, do they have a printer? Or does the printer have ink? Do you have internet access? There’s so many pieces you never think about, and many times you take it for granted. Until COVID, it was almost as if the digital divide was a well-kept secret. We knew it existed, but we don’t think people realized it existed to this extent in our community.”

The Empowerment Zone helps address several needs, both immediate and long-term,  including computer access, copy services, fax services, high speed internet access, and a space that is infused with screens, sound systems, and other technology that residents can use even after the pandemic. There are several spaced out computer kiosks, cleaning supplies, masks, air purifiers, and other safety measures in place to keep residents safe and follow state and federal health guidelines.

The facility also has a staff member who can assist people who need assistance using a computer or technology to make appointments or do other tasks. Having that piece is vital for residents, particularly seniors, who have not ever used computers or devices to schedule services.

“It’s not just access to devices as it is having the accessibility to training or somebody who can show you how to do it,” said Sonyita Clemons. “You can have it, but if you don’t know how to use it, it’s not doing you any good.”

The space was created with a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Flint’s Urgent Relief Fund. It was also supported by Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, an initiative that provides low-cost access to high-speed internet in communities of need. The Flint Housing Commission also collaborated on the project.

The Comcast partnership is particularly vital. Many families in Flint have struggled with internet accessibility throughout the pandemic, not because they don’t have internet at all, but because they have limited data or plans that make things like online learning, video conferencing, and other heavy data-using functions difficult.

“Sometimes it’s not no access, it’s limited access that’s the issue,” said Dwayne Clemons of Total Life Prosperity. “If you only have so many gigs of data per month and aren’t around anywhere you can get on a hotspot, then guess what, you don’t have access until your next month when your data renews.”

Clemons said that Comcast has done more than 1,000 lift zones in communities of need across the country, including at least six in Flint. 

“With that as the foundation, now we can add all of the devices and tools because the internet is here,” he said. “That (high speed internet) is not a cheap piece, so when that is taken care of, it makes it easier for us to do the rest.”

Building capacity is limited to maintain safe social distancing guidelines, and residents of the complex can make appointments to use the space by calling (810) 422-3432 or emailing [email protected]. Appo are Mondays from noon-4 p.m., Tuesdays from 2-6:30 p.m., Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Thursdays from noon-4 p.m., and Fridays from 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (Hours are subject to change, so residents should call or email first). 

The WiFi is also accessible outside the building -- so residents who have their own device and just need high-speed internet access can get it from outside the facility, in the parking lot. There are also plans to add some outside benches or seating areas as weather warms up.

As we emerge out of the pandemic and building capacities are allowed to increase, the space will also be available for gatherings and events for residents, including birthday parties and other activities. They’ll also be able to bring in outside instructors who can use the technology to do workshops, educational activities, or provide job training or other resources on-site.

“It’s a very beautiful space in here,” Dwayne Clemons said. “It will give residents the opportunity to have some fun and do some family-oriented things right here in their neighborhood.”

People interested in connecting with or supporting Total Life Prosperity can find out more information on their website.

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.