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Virtual Village Square

September 30, 2005 By

What if a city put up a Web site and nobody came?

In early 2003, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, faced precisely that problem. From 2001 to 2004, the city operated a Web site that drew only 600 visitors a month -- a paltry showing in a city of 50,000.

"We just had basic departmental information [on the Web site]," said John Konich, manager of the city's Information Systems Department, in identifying a large reason people stayed away in droves. "We had a presence, but not a lot of content."

This year, as Cuyahoga Falls prepared to launch a series of e-government services, the city's Web site became a much hotter destination.

"From January 2004 through March 2005 we had 240,000 visitors. We were averaging 16,000 a month," Konich said.

Traffic on the city's Web site soared, because in 2003, city officials, led by Mayor Don Robart, made it their business to enrich the site with compelling information and services.

"We wanted people to start coming to our Web site more because we had plans to have an e-government portal," Konich said. "It would be hard to put something like that up and get any kind of activity on it if people didn't even know we had a Web site."

Something slightly different happened on the way: Cuyahoga Falls officials say its Web site has evolved into a virtual community gathering spot.

Only One Place to Go

Residents can find details on concerts, festivals and other local events; renew memberships to municipal recreation facilities; follow the progress of major construction projects; and learn about neighborhood planning initiatives. They've also used it to share ideas for improving their schools. Soon they'll be able to go online to register complaints about potholes and other nuisances, and then track whether the city is attending to them.

Things started changing in 2003, when members of the Information Systems Department started marketing the Web site internally. At every opportunity, Konich reminded city officials that every piece of literature the city published should mention the site. They also started soliciting Web site content from other departments, Konich said, and Mayor Robart helped promote the process.

"Through his direction, and our department pestering these departments, we were able to generate more and more content," Konich said.

The effort received a big boost when Cuyahoga Falls developed a content management system in March 2004, said John Hill, the city's webmaster. "It allows each department to update their information without having to send us e-mail or write anything," Hill said, keeping the site dynamic and up to date.

One of the first features to draw people to the site was information, complete with videos, about two major construction projects: a $26 million fitness facility, and a $5 million Falls River Square Festival and Special Events pavilion.

"People are really attracted to those," said Hill. "They want to know how their money's being spent, what services are going to be available after the project's complete."

A newer draw is a calendar of events scheduled at the now-completed Falls River Square and other city venues.

In late 2004 and early 2005, Cuyahoga Falls introduced its first two e-government services. One is a printable form residents can use to calculate their city income taxes and file by mail. A second service allows users to renew membership in residents-only recreational facilities.

Cuyahoga Falls hasn't extended the online community concept so far as to replace live forums, such as its neighborhood "charrettes," in which community planners meet with residents to gather ideas about redevelopment.

"I would hate to see the Web take over that personal interaction," Hill said. The city does use the site, however, to post information about upcoming charrettes and later report on the results.

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