In the past, whenever nostalgia would grab hold of me, I would, in turn, grab the phone, seek out an old friend or relative and find out the latest and greatest concerning my old stomping grounds. But now I've found an additional way to revisit my hometown (actually two hometowns, as I split my formative years between Richmond, Va. and Baltimore, Md.) through the use of the Internet that is fun, fast, cost-effective and provides a wealth of information. I just set my World Wide Web browser to City.Net (http://www.city.net) and away I go.
City.Net currently enables connection to 1,150 cities and 575 other destinations from the City.Net web site. Some of the jurisdictions are represented by single home pages, while others, like my hometown of "Bawlmer" (a.k.a. Baltimore for the uninitiated), offer multiple web sites. These web sites offer information on travel, entertainment, local business, government and community services. They're put together by a wide range of organizations, including local governments, chambers of commerce, educational institutions, travel and tourism bureaus, and community groups.
Among my favorites to browse is the web site for the Town of Tonawanda, N.Y. (a suburb of Buffalo), population around 85,000. The development of Tonawanda's web site (http://freenet.buffalo.edu/~tot) was ably assisted by my good friend and colleague, Jim Finamore, Tonawanda's cable coordinator and a big proponent of local government's presence on and use of the Internet. Jim says the great thing about city web sites is that they can easily and effectively serve a number of different constituencies.
"For a municipality's residents," says Jim, "the web site can be like an 'electronic front of a refrigerator.' All those notes and notices concerning community events and the like that are typically held by magnets to the door of your refrigerator can be supplanted by immediate, 24-hour-a-day access to even more information on your personal computer."
Jim believes that it won't be long before the interactive component of many municipal web sites is increased, such that a large number of transactions, like applying for permits and licenses, could be completed through use of the Internet. However, there is a tradeoff in developing more sophisticated web site functions.
"Right now, the cost to the local government is low," Jim says. "As greater interactivity is added, the administrative and development cost will rise. However, such interactivity will provide much greater access to government services and greater usefulness of those services for our citizens."
What about residents who don't have Internet connections in their homes or businesses? The answer may be information kiosks with touch-screen capability in easily accessible public gathering places.
Besides effectuating a "we never close" government operation, another benefit of local government web sites is that they increase government personnel efficiency by reducing the telephone and in-person contact time needed to answer frequently-asked questions. Once the web site is operational, citizens can get these answers through the Internet.
From an external outreach perspective, the major focuses of city web sites are tourism and economic development. Cities large and small are currently promoting local attractions on-line, including descriptions, hours of operation, and pointers toward nearby hotel and restaurant accommodations. Additionally, cities and allied economic development authorities and chambers of commerce provide a wealth of web site information on the jurisdiction's business environment, market indicators and economic statistics-all designed to be attractive to businesses looking to expand or relocate.The great equalizer
Indeed, Jim sees the web site as the great equalizer that puts many smaller jurisdictions on par with their larger brethren."We believe the Internet is helping Tonawanda compete more effectively with larger jurisdictions, especially in the area of business development," says Jim. In fact, since Tonawanda's web site became operational in April 1995, the Town has had inquiries from a number of Canadian firms seeking to implement operations in the U.S., after learning of the town through the Internet.
The editors at City.Net estimate that at least 5,000 cities will be on-line by the end of 1996, which means that every day, new cities are establishing web sites. As more sites are established, city representatives believe that they can be used to provide information on successful responses to common city problems and issues.
Jim also believes that local governments and cable operators can work together to increase the usefulness of city web sites. According to Jim, "The system speed, the connectivity, the established relationship between local franchising authorities and cable operators, are all elements which would suggest that cable can play a significant role in meeting the current and future community needs and interests regarding Internet access. Cities and cable operators should work to facilitate this role."
I agree. However, at this moment in time, my mind is drifting back to a summer full of blue crabs, beer and "Birds" baseball. Naturally, then, I point and click toward the "Charm Net" (http://www.baltimore.com). And there it is: "Welcome to Charm City, Hon." There really is no place like home.
Contact Tom Robinson at: firstname.lastname@example.org