Creating a town center

The Georgetown Community Network, Texas

Like hundreds of municipalities around the globe, the city of Georgetown,

Texas, is trying to strengthen its sense of community through the World

Wide Web.

More than a dozen health care, civic, nonprofit, education, government

and business organizations in the growing Austin, Texas, suburb are collaborating

to create the Georgetown Community Network (GCN). It promises to be a central

Internet hub where residents can access local information on health and

human services, youth activities, child care services, community events,

volunteer opportunities, adult education and jobs.

The project would also address digital divide issues by installing public

access computer terminals citywide, providing community and teen centers

with computer training, and supporting a technology internship program for

high school students.

Supporters say the community network is essential because the city,

with its small-town charm and history stretching back 150 years, has been

experiencing growing pains because of the boom in the nearby Austin high-tech

corridor. During the last decade, Georgetown's population has doubled to

nearly 30,000.

"One thing that a network can do is help people stay connected with

each other when there are more and more things going on, when there are

more and more programs and services and activities and community events

happening all the time," said Kevin Marsh, executive director of Information

Access Institute (IAI), the nonprofit group leading the project.

"I see it filling the role of helping Georgetown keep that small-town

feel where everyone knows what's going on and people can share information

and work together," he said.

Whether they're called civic nets, free-nets or bulletin board systems,

locally based electronic community networks have emerged in the last two

decades as a way for people to discuss local issues, increase citizen interaction

and communication, disseminate public information and train people to use

computers and the Internet.

According to the Association for Community Networking, a nonprofit membership

group promoting such initiatives, more than 400 such networks operate around

the world. Some well-established and well-known networks in this country

include the Blacksburg Electronic Village in Blacksburg, Va., Charlotte's

Web in Charlotte, N.C., and Austin Free-Net in Austin, Texas.

Marsh said the difference with Georgetown is in the databases.

Other community networks "build one Web page at a time for one organization

at a time, perhaps customizing each Web page, but not putting up 100 records

about 100 different programs at once," he said. "By doing it hundreds at

a time, we're going to get a lot more information out there very quickly."

He also said several organizations will manage the various databases,

so the workload is spread out. Anyone can submit information online, and

volunteers then key it into databases. Marsh estimates the site will eventually

feature about 4,000 Web pages — half on health care topics — along with

30 or so public access terminals around the city. A local Internet service

provider is planning to donate server space to store all the data.

Marsh floated the idea of a community network when he moved to Georgetown

nearly five years ago. The first meeting included representatives from the

city, library, Chamber of Commerce and several other groups, which are still

involved in the project. "There was certainly plenty of interest. It wasn't

like we had to get out and push," he said.

But lacking a lead agency, the initiative was shelved until late 1997

when discussions began anew. In the following six months, representatives

mapped out a draft outline of what the community network should address

and resemble.

At that time, IAI agreed to take on the operating role in addition to

being a consultant. The Georgetown Healthcare System, a nonprofit health

provider, took on the role of lead agency and fiscal agent.

In 1999, after forming a steering committee, GCN applied to the Texas

Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board for a community networking

planning grant. The TIFB gives grants to help spur development of telecommunications

infrastructure that connects public entities.

GCN received a $16,750 planning grant in January 2000. However, the

board did not fund the IAI's application for $87,000 in implementation

grants, the committee's estimated start-up costs.

Instead, the project has relied on smaller grants from various groups,

such as the United Way (which has pledged $6,000 toward operating costs),

donations of equipment and lots of volunteer support. Although interest

has grown, funds haven't kept pace, and the budget has been stretched, Marsh

said. The committee estimated the total start-up and first-year expenses,

including the value of in-kind costs, at $275,000.

Money problems are common among developing community networks, he said,

adding that it's rare these days that such projects would get a big sponsor

or funding source.

"For other community networks, it's been a challenge to put together

what I've heard referred to as a smorgasbord or patchwork quilt of funding,"

he said. "At some point, if a community network is going to be viable and

successful, it's going to be worth paying for by the community in one way

or another."

Once the project is complete, Marsh hopes to get sponsors, similar to

those that support public television, to underwrite half the annual operating

costs, estimated at $45,000 per year.

In a deal helped by the local Rotary Club, the project got 100 used

computers. One unpaid high school intern has been helping Marsh assess,

rebuild and install the computers for school credit. Project leaders have

applied for a grant to create several paid internships for high school students

this summer and during the next school year.

Project workers have put computers in several community centers, including

the Getsemani Community Center, which provides outreach services mainly

to the Hispanic community, and the Georgetown Project, which provides services

and resources to youth.

Randy Cauley, Getsemani's community developer, said they have six public

access computers, four from GCN. In March, the center began offering basic

computer, software and Internet classes for adults. Volunteers, including

high school and college interns, teach the classes weekday evenings and

Saturdays. After school on Wednesdays, they train high school students.

Cauley said providing access to computers and the Internet is important

in bridging the digital divide because most of the people served don't own

computers. He said one woman, whose children come to the center for recreation,

works a 12-hour overnight shift but wants a better job, so she is taking

computer classes there on Saturdays.

"Without that, she wouldn't be able to make that kind of change," he

said. "That's a quality-of-life issue for her."

The special projects coordinator for the Georgetown project, Betty Sandefur,

said GCN set up a public access terminal in the foyer of her group's office.

She's seen parents and children use the Internet.

"Sometimes mothers can just come in and show their kids even how to

play games on a computer," she said. "Many of these families don't even

have a computer. It's a great introduction even if it's playing a game with

their child. That's better than never having the exposure."

It's this three-pronged approach — content, access and training — that's

needed to address the digital divide, Marsh said.

"If we don't put the local content online, then there will be a lot

of information needs in the community that can't be met," he said. "But

putting the content online won't do the job if we don't have access points.

And even content and access won't do the job if we don't have enough training

to help people become comfortable with it."

Marsh isn't sure when the project will be up to speed because that depends

on funding. But he said he's gotten positive feedback from several test

databases that were posted online.

"We don't know what all the benefits will be yet from this digital information

technology," he said, "but we know we can't get those benefits if we don't

get a lot of people comfortable with the technology and exploring ways that

we can harness the technology to do things we want to do."

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