In A Digital World, Some Towns Working Hard To Keep Up

November 2, 2013

in Archive,News

(This story was first published in the October 17, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)

By Katy Savage
Standard Staff

Virginia Lancaster started the Barnard Bulletin 20 years ago when she realized people in town were not prepared when it came time for Town Meeting. She mailed it free to every registered voter. Now, the 4-8 page monthly news flier serves the same purpose that it did two decades ago in a town that doesn’t have a website. Townspeople submit information and Virginia’s son, Richard Lancaster, assembles and mails it.

But with the rising cost of print and the time it takes to put the Barnard Bulletin out, Lancaster is just barely able to keep it going.

“It’s pretty much a one-man show,” Lancaster said. “I’m trying to convince the Selectman to put up a website. I think it’s going to happen, I just don’t know when.”

The small town of about 1,000 people doesn’t have a website, but it does have a listserv with about 300 subscribers.

The possibility of a website has been discussed each year at Town Meeting. Selectboard chair Tom Morse said the board has talked about the issue, but nothing has been done yet.

“I don’t have the answers,” Morse said.

In the age of the Internet, and growing demand from residents, more and more Vermont towns are coming into the 21st century and getting a website.

Most towns realized their Internet needs after Tropical Storm Irene left them without any forms of communication.

Vermont Council on Rural Development launched the Vermont Digital Economy Project to help towns improve community resilience and foster economic development, offering grants to municipalities to update or build a web presence.

Bridgewater launched its first website in April with a $2,400 grant from the Snelling Center for Government, which is part of Vermont Digital Economy Project. Woodstock is in the process of updating its website with help from the Snelling Center.

At a community discussion hosted by the Snelling Center two week’s ago, Woodstock residents struggled with how the beauty of Woodstock could be put on a website.

“When you walk down the street its just magical here,” Vincent Galluccio said. “Everywhere you look its prettier than the last place you looked. That’s hard to convey on a website.”

Residents mentioned that when the website is redone, it should have key images of the town, including the Green, the Woodstock Farmers Market, the Court House, Pentangle Arts Council and the Norman Williams Public Library.

They wanted to see community links to nonprofit organizations and information on events.

“We’re getting so used to digital informational and getting information digitally but we haven’t reached critical mass yet,” Fred Hunt said. “We realize that Woodstock is behind.”

The Pomfret town website, about three years old, contains Selectboard meeting minutes, ordinances and contact information for the treasurer and town clerk. But it has a simple design that limits how Town Clerk Lynne Leavitt can post information.

Leavitt has spent two years researching new website designs. She’s also kept notes of requests people have made.

“We outgrew (the website) and more information needs to be on it,” Leavitt said. “It needs to be easier for people to navigate it and it needs to be more useful. I think it would be a nice service to the town…we need to catch up to the times.”

VDEP is working with 25 towns, including Barnard, to build emergency notification systems into town websites. The goal is to increase citizen engagement.

Some towns have realized the impact of not having a website.

“If (they) don’t have links to tourism information, (they’re) really missing an opportunity to use (their) website to draw business to (their) town and visitors to (their) town,” said Project Coordinator Sharon Combes-Farr.

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