Your Community Internet Site: A New Tool for Your Development Toolbox

Presented at Rural Community Economic Development Conference
March 5 and 6, 1997
Springfield, Illinois

Julie Fesenmaier
Laboratory for Community and Economic Development
Department of Human and Community Development
fesenmai@uiuc.edu

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 citizens.

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:
  1. Multiple markets -- the site must provide information that is useful to more than one type of audience; and
  2. 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 employment opportunities.

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 and services
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:

  1. usually smaller (average population is less than 37,500).
  2. 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 http:// www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/edu/trg/com_online. And Kanfer A., "Ghost Towns in Cyberspace." Available on-line at http://www. ncsa.uiuc.edu/edu/trg/ghosttowns.

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.

On-line Community Mall

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 and Entrepreneurs
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 SITE CHALLENGE

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?

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