Presented at Rural Community Economic Development
March 5 and 6, 1997
Laboratory for Community and Economic Development
Department of Human and Community Development
There is a race to be on the Internet
There are more communities represented on the WWW
today then there were yesterday. The Internet provides a unique
opportunity for citizens to use new technologies in community and
economic development. The computer is not longer a tool for information
management but rather a tool for communication. Telecommunication
and information technology can provide increased opportunities for
information exchange, health care delivery, borganizational development,
and learning and education. In rural communities citizens are striving
to adopt this new communication paradigm, yet, the rush to become
part of the Internet has led many communities to create a web presence
that does not address local community needs and is not used by local
Successful community pages are those that help reintegrate
citizens to that sense of geographical place called "community".
Many community web pages are designed to meet singular
demands. For example, the tourism page links to local lodging, restaurants
and attractions aimed to attract tourists to the community. The
economic development corporation provides a community profile to
attract new business. For a community web site to be meaningful
it must appeal to:
- Multiple markets -- the site must provide information that
is useful to more than one type of audience; and
- Both internal and external audiences -- the web site should
not only serve the interests of outsiders to the community,
but should provide useful information from which residents would
benefit. For example, the YMCA can list local tournaments, the
hospital describes public health services, the park district
posts a calendar of events, or the tourism site advertises local
Your Internet site must provide information that is
relevant to citizens in your community. Find out what citizens want
in your community. Your web site should be the product of a collaborative
process engaging many citizen groups and organizations. The site
cannot be a mirror of only a small segment of the community, but
should be a reflection of the entire community.
Establishing a meaningful Internet site can:
1. Level the playing field
For the first time, a small community with few resources can compete
for markets and resources with metropolitan cities that have many
resources. The community development organization run by a part
time staff and volunteers can provide the same services and access
the same markets as can the better funded community development
organization. A presence on the Internet can help make communities
be more competitive.
2. Promote Economic Development
Economic development and the creation of jobs is a compelling need
in most communities. The Internet site has been useful to promote
the community to outside investors and firms considering relocation.
However, a community presence on the Internet can mean more than
just a attractive brochure when outside industry is searching for
new locations. Your Internet site can stimulate development by helping
individuals and businesses become more adaptive to the business
climate. Your site can help promote local community and economic
development by providing information about job training, micro-enterprise
loan programs, grant opportunities, and government contracts.
3. Improve access to information
A good community web page can provide valuable information to individuals
and businesses. The information available at a community site should
be designed to serve both external and community interests.
4. Help develop new partnerships
If your Internet site is the product of a community wide effort,
then the result of your collaboration are the new partnerships that
have evolved from this initiative. Your site can foster the development
of new partnerships among various interest groups, both external
and internal to the community. Some community partnership are created
among groups that traditionally do not work together. New communities
of interest are created. Tourism groups often do not work closely
with the Economic Development Corporation; however developing a
community-wide presence on the Internet can encourage partnerships
among groups that don't usually collaborate.
5. Engage the broader community.
A good site will engage the broader community and not just the people
who organized the initial effort. If a site is developed to serve
many community-based interests, then the broader community participates
in the community development initiative.
Why are some community web sites short lived?
Many communities have a difficult time sustaining their presence
on the Internet. Why do some communities fail in this effort? Research
from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications suggests
that communities that cannot sustain their site are:
- usually smaller (average population is less than 37,500).
- the focus of the site was narrow, appealing to single markets,
such as tourism or economic development.
Refer to: "What are communities Doing Online?"
by Kanfer A., and C. Kolar. (December 1995). Available on-line at
And Kanfer A., "Ghost Towns in Cyberspace." Available
on-line at http://www.
The Community Mall
The community web site must meet a multiplicity
of demands. Consider the suburban shopping mall, where in a single
location many market segments (shoppers) are served. The community
site on the Internet can follow a similar design. The on-line mall
would offer "one-stop shopping" for various market
segments accessing the community site. To be successful, the Internet
site, like the mall, must be comprised of many vendors
servicing several markets, and those vendors and markets must be
able to share the many facilities, services and products available
at that location.
Using this metaphor, the anchors can be represented
by the traditionally strong organizations present on the Internet
now, such as, schools, libraries, tourism bureaus, economic development
corporations, government offices, etc. The "boutiques"
are businesses and organizations that are usually not found on Internet
community pages, such as, churches, health care providers, clubs,
park districts, social services providers, day care providers, retailers,
local entertainment providers. The core of the mall (the
food court) represents the interface between all the residents of
the mall. This core should take the form of a central committee
that will direct future activity.
Similar to the shopping mall, the successful web site
depends on the volume of traffic between the anchors. Traffic volume
will always be a function of how well diverse markets are served,
and more importantly, how well social and economic segments in the
"community mall" are integrated.
The "virtual community mall" cannot create
a collection of interests isolated from one another, all the internal
parts (the residents of the mall) must be integrated. Within this
paradigm, communities can create and sustain an effective site on
the Internet. A single organization cannot create a web site that
represents multiple aspects of the community. The anchors and boutiques
must collaborate to ensure that community-wide interest are served.
Build, Invest, Organize
Until now, very few rural communities have been successful in maintaining
a meaningful presence on the Internet. While rural communities can
benefit disproportionately more than larger cities, the sites they
create often do not reach back into the community and usually do
not respond to local "grass root" indicatives. To improve
the odds for creating a successful community site adhere to the
following three principles.
1. Build Collaboration
Create partnerships and engage as many citizen groups and local
organizations as can be effectively accommodated. Use good community
development principles of inclusiveness and collaboration to further
your telecommunications goals. Be proactive in finding potential
collaborators. The boutiques in your mall may
not realize the benefits of providing services via the Internet.
The small not-for-profit agency most likely isn't aware of community-wide
initiatives to develop an Internet site.
2. Invest in Local Residents
Don't rely on firms or individuals outside of your community to
sustain your web presence. Invest in local entrepreneurs to provide
the technological back-up necessary to sustain the site. Invest
in training of local residents to meet the technology-related demands
of a community web page.
3. Organize for Sustainability
Create a technology committee and include members who can help you
further your agenda. For example, include someone who can help you
secure new funding (a banker); someone with management experience;
someone with a technological background; someone from the local
media to provide exposure; and most importantly include individuals
who believe in the potential of the Internet and who will work to
help promote this group and engage citizens, institutions and organizations
in the community.
The Technology committee must build a shared vision
and a plan for the future. This committee will need to address how
the web site will be sustained in the long-term. There will be costs
associated with gaining space on servers, web page design, training,
page updates, etc. How will you organize the fee structure? Will
you subsidize groups that cannot financially support this initiative?
The most important aspect of the technology committee
will be in its ability to become a learning organization.
To grow and meet the challenges and opportunities of the telecommunications
era. This organizations needs to be larger than itself -- it must
extend to the geographic community in which it resides.
TAKE THE COMMUNITY WEB
Connect to this activity (http://www.aces.uiuc.edu/~aim/hcd/hcd_main.html),
follow directions and evaluate a community web site. Find out how
you will score other sites. How will you evaluate and score your
own community Internet site?