Mayor has big ideas for small city

City of Morrilton

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Stewart Nelson wears several different hats in Morrilton, Ark. Not only has he been the mayor of the rural city of 6,500 for the past seven years, but "I'm the IT specialist, the surveyor and I pick up trash on occasion," he said.

He's not afraid to say that he's more "technologically inclined" than other mayors in his state, and he has strong opinions about technology's importance. "If [my wife and I] didn't have e-mail, we couldn't live in Morrilton," he said of his city, which is about 50 miles northwest of Little Rock. "We have two computer rooms in our house."

About a year ago and through the Arkansas Municipal League, the 58-year-old retired businessman became a beta tester for a hosted Web portal initiative jointly developed by IBM Corp., the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties. (A similar, competing initiative is led by a small company called Avenet LLC, in partnership with the League of Minnesota Cities and the International City/County Management Association.)

The IBM project provides small municipalities with an affordable way to easily create, maintain and update their own Web sites. The initiative was designed to circumvent a smaller municipality's limited funds, infrastructure and technical expertise. Like Morrilton, many small rural municipalities face these barriers as well as a cultural mind set resistant to technology, he said.

"Internet access is becoming as essential as telephone service 100 years ago," he said. "If you don't have good Internet access, you're going to be in trouble."

Nelson said the IBM tools were so easy to use that he was able to design the city's Web site (morrilton.ar.totalwebgov.com), which, for now, provides basic information about the community and its government services. But he has bigger ideas to make government more open to its residents, of which 30 percent have Internet access, he said.

He's planning to post the city code, city council minutes and finances online as well as genealogical data for people tracing family histories. He'd also like to post more links to businesses, maybe court records information, geographic information systems data and eventually some e-government services, such as paying parking tickets.

But the biggest boon may come this summer when Cox Communications Inc. completes a fiber installation to provide broadband Internet access around the clock to the city, he said.

With high bandwidth, he said he could post more data and graphics on the site. Eventually he wants to connect City Hall with the courthouse system. Providing broadband, he said, could give Morrilton an economic development edge over other locations.

"I anticipate a lot more Internet use, a lot more people tying into it," Nelson said, referring to the broadband access. "Nobody is going to come to your community unless you have good outside connections. If you don't have a certain level of Internet access...nobody's going to come in."

Right now, only dial-up modem access is available, and that's unreliable and very slow, Nelson said. But that's still better than other places. "I went to a municipal league meeting," he said. "I'm sitting there lamenting the fact I'm having trouble staying on with 56K, and people are saying, 'You can go that fast?' "

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