May 3, 2013 By Jessica Renee Napier
The 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a monumental environmental disaster -- approximately 210 million gallons of oil were discharged over an 87-day period. Given the magnitude of the event, the recovery is ongoing, but one small Alabama beach town has been able to emerge from the crisis even stronger than before.
In 2011, Gulf Shores, Ala., had a record number of tourists -- 11 percent more than the year prior. 2012 saw more tourists still, with a 17 percent increase over 2011. And 2013 has started out like “gangbusters,” according to Grant Brown, the city’s Public Information Officer and Director of Recreation and Social Affairs.
Brown explained that BP injected a significant amount of money into the area to help repair its image and contribute to the recovery of the Gulf Coast. “With marketing dollars from BP, we feel like we’re on the road to recovery, " Brown said. "We’ve had an opportunity to redevelop the image of Gulf Shores. The oil spill put us on the map. When you see Gulf Shores, it’s a rebirth.”
A major component of the city’s fresh image is its new website, which launched on April 4. Previously, the city had an antiquated site based on a system that was written by an internal programmer. As the city focused efforts on a branding facelift, officials also wanted a digital brand to serve as a functional tool for citizens, employees and tourists.
Blake Phelps, the city’s marketing and communications coordinator, discovered web developer CivicPlus, which specializes in creating websites for local governments.
“When we first started developing the site, the thought was that we wanted people to be wowed and think, ‘I want to visit and live there,’” Phelps said. “We wanted it to be functional and to provide a tool to our visitors. We serve our residents but there is another side where we are a destination and tourist community.”
The former website was challenging for residents, much less tourists, to navigate, because city services were organized according to each division’s responsibilities. On the new site, visitors find functions according to service-based categories such as financial, commercial, community, etc.
Additionally, the new content management system allows employees to update information in real time. Citizens can opt-in to a notification module that will alert them via email or text message in the event of a storm or other disaster.
Website visitors can also communicate with officials via a reporting module. For example, if there is a pothole in the street, citizens can make a repair request from any computer or mobile device. The reporter can indicate the exact location and attach a picture. The communication is routed to the specific person who needs to act on the concern.
And the dialogue doesn't end there. Each person who reports a concern is asked to sign up for an online account so that city officials are able to circle back around to the individual.
“We’ll be able to measure return on investment by the efficiency we will achieve,” Brown said. “What used to be people bogged down with emails and phone calls will now float through automatically, giving those people the ability to respond to other issues. And instead of the citizen having to deal with multiple layers of administration, they can go directly to the right person. It’s instant service without having to muddle through the phone call exchange.”
As the site is tested and utilized by visitors, city officials are committed to adding more functionality and rolling out new tools. The updated website caps off the city's 18-month branding initiative that has allowed the City of Gulf Shores to completely redevelop its image.
“People may not know Alabama has a beach,” Brown said, describing Gulf Shores as a small town of only 9,000 residents. “There is still a sense of community. Our tagline is ‘Small town, big beach.’ So we have to make sure that as we develop, we develop smartly. And the City of Gulf Shores doesn’t have a brochure — we have a web address. So it has to be a wow factor.”
All over the country, community leaders are looking to boost economic development through various initiatives. One key element in many of those initiatives is the use of information technology. When local governments build IT infrastructure, create e-government applications, assist high-tech startups or otherwise focus on technology, they create conditions that draw businesses to their communities and help retain skilled workers. This paper discusses and provides examples of these various ways local government can use technology to ultimately make a community more attractive to businesses, visitors and residents.