Vermont’s Digital Development Starts on the Front Porch

Government Technology: Digital Communities
By Wayne Hanson

[Excerpted from the full article.]

As America's cities become larger and life gets more complicated, some long for a return to a small-town lifestyle, where they are greeted by name, and the front porch -- overlooking a picture-postcard main street -- is a place to talk to neighbors. While this rosy view of rural living may not exactly square with reality -- especially in hard economic times with high unemployment -- the urge to enjoy a more rural lifestyle is attractive to many.

e-Vermont, a consortium of seven different organizations, has come together to improve the economic outlook of rural Vermont through technology, while at the same time preserving what’s most attractive about a region better known for its maple syrup, skiing and mountain vistas than Internet connectivity and job growth...

As for those conversations on the front porch, there’s a forum for that called “Front Porch Forum." ... "it’s a platform for neighborhood conversations, with the goal of things spilling over from online conversations to in-person conversations. Needless to say, public officials take a keen interest in that, not just to follow what’s going on but to have an engaged citizenry.”

Typical items on the forum might be someone selling firewood, eggs or a canoe. Missing pets are frequent items, as well as local government issues such as a proposed tax hike to pay for heating repairs at the school, which may be on the agenda for the next town meeting...

Susan Clark, a resident of Middlesex, is a sixth-generation Vermonter who co-authored All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community. She wanted more frequent connections with her community than the once-yearly town meetings. So when she heard about Front Porch Forum, she became a community volunteer...

Clark said that in keeping with the benefits of face-to-face meetings, Front Porch Forum isn’t anonymous, and the person’s street... is also listed... And unlike social networking sites like Facebook, she said, “Front Porch Forum wants you to know what’s going on in your community so you’ll get out from behind your computer and go out and go to the yard sale or the town meeting or the school play or the concert or any of those things.”

Clark said that the forum helps connect the public with local government, but she cautions against loading a forum with such things as planning commission documents at first. Wait until they are hooked on community events and items of personal interest, she said.

When Duane Sorrel, of Middlesex, moved to town he found out about Front Porch Forum at a town meeting. Sorrel, in a YouTube video, said that when he posted his information, he got a dozen customers for his automotive business in the first two days. “My favorite post,” he says in the video, “is ‘lately there’s been bears eating chickens.’ That’s been pretty interesting.”

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