Reprinted from the April 30, 2001 issue of the The Columbus Dispatch

Towns Creating Online Communities

By Holly Zachariah

At first glance, there isn't much that sets Venedocia, population 160, apart from any other Ohio village.

But Charles Good said two things make the Van Wert County village different: its strong Welsh background and its Web site.

Good, a biology professor at Ohio State University's Lima campus has been the site's unpaid webmaster since 1998 [the correct date is 1996- C.G.]

He said Venedocia is the state's smallest village to have an official web site. The site costs the village and Good nothing as long as they agree to allow, the Web site's host, to post ads at the top of each page.

Visitors from around the world have signed the guestbook, Good said, and more than a few have made it a point to stop by -physically- when traveling through the area.

The attention is invaluable, he said. "Venedocia has nothing to sell other than its reputation," Good said. "This, I believe, has been greatly enhanced by the web site."

Government officials everywhere are jumping at the chance to enter the digital age and attract some of the more than 100 million Americans connected to the Internet. They do it by building community portals

"There is a tremendous amount of pressure for cities go online," said Tim Bartlett, whose Columbus company, eGovNet, has constructed more than 20 state and local government portals for cities nationwide

"Government bodies watch each other very closely," he said. "This wave of cities going online is a lot about keeping up with the pack."

Visitors at the Venedocia site can find phone numbers for village officials, read about the town's one factory, Ohio Electro Plate Polishing, and, since the village was settled by immigrants from Wales in 1848, they can listen to the Welsh National Anthem.

Each village, city, or county that builds a Web page does so to meet its own needs, Bartlett said, but the most efficient follow a few basic principles..

"A site needs to be boiled down to meet the needs of residents, give them information they want, and must answer questions that any businesses, existing or potential, may have," he said.

There's no clearinghouse that keeps statistics on how many government entities have Web sites, but Pari Sabety of the Ohio Supercomputer Center said a study there more than a year ago showed more than 49 percent of Ohio counties provide at least basic information online.

The study, conducted by eCon-ohio, also found that 46 percent of the sampled Ohio vilages and cities have a presence online.

By far, the study showed, governments in urban and suburban areas are putting up more information on their sites than are those in rural areas. Fifty-six percent of government sites in urban cities and villages are interactive, but in rural areas only 22 percent of the sites were interactive.

Saberty said local chambers of commerce often launch the first community sites.

"The business people, those with something to promote, came first," she said. "Now, we're seeing cities and towns piggybacking on those sites and posting their own information in the same place."

By next year, it's likely another wave of cities and towns will have an online presence because of a new state law, said John Mahoney, deputy director of the Ohio Municipal League. In 2002, every municipality that collects an income tax will be required to have its tax forms and regulations available on the Internet.

Mahoney said 525 league members collect municipal income taxes. Government officials have a variety of options, Mahoney said. Companies hired to adminiter the income tax could offer to post the forms for a city, he said, and it is expected that metro areas might, for a fee, allow nearby communities to link their forms to larger cities' sites. In addition, the Ohio Department of Taxation will post the forms for a fee.

It's likely that cities and villages will use the requirement as an excuse to highlight their communities on the Web, Mahoney said.

"Many will probably say, 'If we have to do this, we might as well go all the way and get a full-blown Web site,'" he said.

That's exactly what happened in the Madison County city of London, where officials launched their Web site April 13, said Mayor David Eades.

"We started researching this income tax thing and realized we should have it all," he said.

So, with $20,000 in hand from city council, Eades hired a consultant and began to build a site.

The site is intended to be a little bit of everything, from utility information to e-mail and chat forums.

Sabety said the city of Niles in Trumbull County has created a "forward-thinking Web site." "In terms of best business practices, that's it," she said. "Niles' Web site has a chat page that is a great municipal water cooler. It just lets people informally know what's going on behind the scenes."

Dispite the Internet growth, some wonder whether anyone is being left out of the mix. For smaller cities, joining the online world can seem a financial impossibility. Bartlett, whose company concentrates on metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people, said officials in smaller communities need to carefully weigh priorities before creating their sites.

"To do it right, and to do it well, it's going to take a serious financial commitment,"Bartlett said. "For some Ohio cities, that means serious questions like 'Do we fill potholes or do we put the money into a Web site?' The answer is probably going to be pretty clear to them."

Mahoney said city officials know their budget and technology limitations.

"Its always been the same game here. It's the bigger cities and central Ohio cities that have the money to do a lot of business online," Mahoney said. "But the reality is that for the average Ohio city, if they can have e-mail and some forume where people can see what's happening and respond with ob inions, then they are in the game."

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