commentary

River Market entrepreneur follows Google bunny down the wrong hole

Updated: 2013-10-09T21:54:25Z

By KEVIN COLLISON

The Kansas City Star

Joe Barnhill drank the Google Fiber Kool-Aid big time last summer.

Why not?

With officials in the two Kansas Citys touting the economic development allure of ultra-high-speed Internet service, and the rosy reports about Google Fiber sprouting an entrepreneurial encampment at Startup Village in Kansas City, Kan., Barnhill thought that putting together a suite of offices served by Google Fiber in the urban vibe of the River Market was a no-brainer.

But three months later, after a big misunderstanding that left him $10,000 poorer, he has learned, at least for now, that Google is about wiring residences, not serving businesses.

“I’m singing Google’s praises, and they pulled the rug out from under me,” Barnhill lamented recently. “I bought furniture and art for the space, and had people waiting to move in. I still have people calling me.”

Around him in 2,000-square-foot office suite on the first floor of the Delaware Lofts at 218 Delaware St. were desks and furniture he had leased for his Spark Centre plan. He’s had business cards and posters printed up, and hosted Saturday open houses that had attracted several hundred people.

He still keeps his cardboard Google rainbow bunny as a reminder of his dream.

Barnhill, a web developer, lives upstairs at Delaware Lofts and figured others would like to live there and do their web work downstairs. The historic building was zoned for commercial and residential use, and landlord Dana Gibson already had arranged for it to be wired by Google.

“The idea would be a work-live environment with the attractiveness of Google Fiber,” Barnhill said.

He added he wouldn’t have gone ahead with Spark Centre without what he said was a verbal green light from Rachel Hack, Google’s community relations executive and the face of the company locally.

“I explained that I wanted to create the same type of startup environment in the River Market like the one in KCK,” he said, referring to Startup Village, a residential neighborhood straddling State Line Road around 45th Avenue.

“I explained the building and that it was zoned residential-commercial, and she said: ‘I see no problem. As long as you do not install a server farm, we will provide the service, and you can do whatever you want it.’”

An email from me to Hack for her response led to a phone call from Jenna Wandres, a spokeswoman for Google in Silicon Valley.

“Rachel claims she did not do that, and she knows it’s against the terms of our service,” Wandres said. “We only have residential service now. There is no business service yet.”

Google is working around the clock on developing a business plan, but as to when it’s going to be available, Wandres said the timeline is still uncertain.

“We see the huge demand from the small-business community for Google Fiber, but we never intended it to be used for business, and our plan to develop a small-business service is in response. We still need to develop the product,” she said.

But how about Startup Village? It’s being promoted as a wonderful example of how Google Fiber is stimulating all kinds of business startups and high-tech entrepreneurs who live there. And didn’t Google just sign a deal for its ultra-high-speed Internet service at Starbucks?

Well, Startup Village was sort of a mistake.

“We installed Google Fiber there because it was a residential area,” Wandres said. “We plan to transfer them as soon as there is a small- business product.”

As for Starbucks, that was a special national deal, she said.

When Barnhill’s aggressive effort to promote his Spark Centre project caught the attention of Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Gibson said he got a call from Evan Vandarwarka, national sales manager.

“Evan indicated they (Google) had made a mistake,” he said. “He told me they had signed an agreement with me in error, that Google would wire two spaces in the Delaware Lofts building which were not set up for residential occupancy.

“Those two would now have to be excluded from Google Fiber until such time as they’re ready for commercial services.”

So if Google Fiber has been all about providing residential service from the get go, what’s all this economic development talk about?

“If people are talking about economic development, it’s a fair connection to make,” Wandres said.

“You can build an app at home. What we’re talking about is, it’s a ripple effect. You bring high-speed service to homes, and you can tell people like that.

“We’re not trying to be misleading, but we believe Google can have an economic impact.”

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to kcollison@kcstar.com.

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