“We remain Mayberry. We have the spirit of Mayberry, but we want to be on the cutting edge of what the 21st century holds.” — David Bradley, Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Imagine Sheriff Taylor opening his laptop and checking e-mail while waiting for a haircut at Floyd’s.

Or Deputy Fife using a PDA to monitor the “Cops” web site. Or Opie surfing the web for homework research from school. Or Aunt Bee trading instant messages with a friend down the street about a recipe gone wrong.

Yes, Mayberry — better known in real life as Mount Airy, NC — has gone wireless with its own Wi-Fi network.

As Gomer would say, “Shazam!”

With America deeply involved in the war against terror and the deadly occupation of Iraq, millions of us will take a needed escape from reality TV tonight and tune in a cherished myth.

Mayberry.

The home of Sheriff Andy Taylor, his son Opie, his zany deputy Barney Fife and the aunt-we-all-wanted-to-have Bee Taylor will is center stage as “The Andy Griffith Show Reunion: Back to Mayberry” airs at 8 PM.

Probably no city will be more tuned in than Mount Airy, north of Winston-Salem, which served as the model for Griffith’s long-time TV show set. Mount Airy takes great pride in its reputation as America’s perfect “hometown.” It boasts a Floyd’s City Barber Shop, Snappy Lunch, Wally’s Service Station and seeks to draw tourists from around the world to see where Andy and the gang “lived” for so many years. “The Andy Griffith Museum” says it has more Andy memrobilia than anyplace else. Its “Mount Airy Days” festival is a big draw, too.

New times, new opportunities

But times change, and so has Mount Airy. Just last month, the city rolled out its own Wi-Fi wireless network, joining the rush of communities and merchants around the world to set up “hot spots” for access to the Net.

“We remain Mayberry,” David Bradley, president of the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, tells Local Tech Wire. “We have that spirit of Mayberry, but we want to be on the cutting edge of what the 21st century holds.”

Working with Mark Spencer of 8021Link Inc., Mount Airy set up a Wi-Fi network covering 18 blocks. Several merchants already have signed as for hot spots and have added “Internet Hotspot” signs. The network augments the community’s use of the web to tout business and tourism. It’s web site (www.visitmayberry.com) is a treasure trove of Mayberry information. Wi-Fi was a logical next step.

“You already can see people coming downtown — not in droves but in 1s, 2s and 10s, carrying not only pocketbooks but also computers,” says Bradley, who has run the Chamber since 1998. On a recent Saturday he stopped in at the Good Life Café. “There was a guy on one of the PCs set up in the coffee shop,” he says, “and another guy was at a table with his laptop.

“This is just pretty darn cool!”

But there is more to the investment in the hot spot network than just being cool. Bradley points out that the city of 8,500 has been hit hard by the changes rippling through the state’s economy. Manufacturing, tobacco, textiles and farming sectors have been hammered. To survive, the mythical Mayberry is embracing technology.

Charting a new course

“We’ve got a fantastic community, no question,” Bradley says. “The spirit of Mayberry is prevalent here. People are downright friendly, and this is a wonderful place to live and work.

“But we have been wrecked by losses in tobacco and textile jobs. We are having to chart a new course to try and determine how we are going to survive.

“A lot of places like Mount Airy have laid back and complained about what has happened, but I have yet to hear one person complain about our plight. We are a progressive community. We have a community at the foothills of the mountains that is attracting a creative clientele and creative entrepreneurs. We are ready, willing and able to provide as many of the amenities that a creative clientele and class wants — and deserves.”

Spencer approached the city with the idea of a Wi-Fi network earlier this year. Bradley and others already had heard about Winston-Salem’s own hot spot on 4th Street downtown. Mount Airy decided to invest around $5,000 to get the network started, using funds from a downtown development group. Bradley estimates monthly operating costs at between $300 and $500.

“If the response going forward is even moderately like what is has been — we will keep going forward,” Bradley explains. “At the end of the first year, we’ll just see what happens.

“It’s so inexpensive that it would not be out of the question we could get 12 businesses to provide the maintenance costs.”

A ‘vibrant’ hometown

Mount Airy certainly is on the cutting edge with the project. Some 28,000 merchants and communities have embraced wi-Fi, based on a standard known as 8021, according to Allied Business Intelligence. Parks Associates estimates that at least 2.5 million Americans will be using Wi-Fi before the year is out.

Bradley believes that Mount Airy’s project can be successful since the downtown area remains an active place — kept that way in part by the Mayberry tradition and the tourist draw.

“Gosh, Rick, we have a vibrant downtown that so many communities would give a left arm to have,” Bradley says. “Now we’re offering people more opportunities to spend more time downtown.”

Mount Airy web site: www.visitmayberry.com

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.