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Getting to know your neighbors in Middlesex, Vermont, can be challenging. The 2000 residents of this Washington County community are scattered along winding rural roads. And there's no village center, no post office and no grocery store, where chance meetings among neighbors can turn into half-hour chats. Until recently, residents turned to town hall or the local elementary school for community interaction.
But these days, an increasing number of Middlesex neighbors are connecting through the free, web-based communication tool Front Porch Forum. Burlington-based FPF has been available in Middlesex for nearly two years, and more than 80 percent of the households subscribe. Middlesex town moderator Susan Clark, an active forum participant, raves about the service. "Front Porch Forum has changed our ability to communicate about everything," she says.
To use FPF, residents simply enter their name, email and address at frontporchforum.com. The FPF system assigns them a forum based on their address, and invites them to submit messages to an e-newsletter that's distributed periodically to their neighborhood. Their name, road name and email address appear automatically with each of their submissions.
Postings cover everything from lost dogs to auto mechanic recommendations, from sharing municipal budget information to mobilizing help for victims of Tropical Storm Irene. FPF collects those posts and sends them as an e-newsletter to everyone on the forum. In Middlesex, all FPF subscribers are part of the same forum.
In a place where neighbors might only see each other once a year at Town Meeting Day, the subjects of FPF postings may seem mundane, but they help facilitate communication about bigger issues. "It makes a huge difference to know that you've got a way to have a conversation about simple, everyday things like selling your canoe or needing a plumber," Clark says. "If you have those simple conversations, then when it comes time to have the hard conversations you've already woven a fabric of understanding."
Clark says FPF's presence in Middlesex has led to a more informed community. "The PTO and the planning commission are all active on the forum and the school board recently used it to gather feedback on the budget proposal, giving people a much richer voice."
Though the service is free, FPF is a for-profit company, co-founded by CEO Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife Valerie. The two created the community-building tool after moving to Burlington's South End in the late 1990s. They launched FPF in the Queen City in 2006. Its 40,000 residents now communicate with each other in 36 different neighborhood forums — more than 50 percent of Burlington's households subscribe. Over the years, FPF has expanded to 70 Vermont towns, and now covers roughly a third of the state.
Among FPF's eight full- and part-time employees are online community managers who moderate each forum, a tech team and sales staff who generate most of the company's revenue through ad sales to Vermont businesses. Last year, Front Porch Forum used a $220,000 loan from the Knight Foundation to rebuild its software using Ruby on Rails.
Wood-Lewis says the positive response from Middlesex underscores the need for the service in Vermont's remotest areas as well as its most densely populated. "We know how valuable it is to Vermonters," he says, "and we want to make it available to everyone in the state."