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Residents, Businesses Get Scoop on Community Web Portals

Two years ago Dionne Baux, program officer for LISC Chicago's Smart Communities program, entered "Humboldt Park" into her Internet search bar, curious to see what stories would pop up first.

"The first three listings were focused on how many people in the neighborhood had been shot or robbed in the past week, and how there were drug dealers on every street corner," Baux recalled recently at a brown bag lunch convened by LISC to discuss the benefits of online community portals for businesses and residents in Chicago neighborhoods.

This event at the Humboldt Park field house officially launched LISC Chicago's Smart Communities Program, which has brought web portals to Humboldt Park and four other communities. Read about the launch event at http://www.smartcommunitieschicago.org/news/3112

LISC Chicago file photo

“At the time,” said Baux, “the community had no online portal. The positive news stories coming out of the neighborhood weren’t being picked up, and reporters outside the community were only focusing on the neighborhood’s problems.

"But now if you Google 'Humboldt Park,' the portal is the first thing that pops up, and you hear the positive stories coming out of the community," she added. "It has helped change the mindset of people about their community, it changes the mindset of all the social services and businesses in Humboldt Park, and it changes the perceptions of the community to outsiders.”

The Humboldt Park Portal is one of five that LISC Chicago, through its Smart Communities program—a multifaceted effort to improve digital technology and literacy—helped neighborhood organizations establish in Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Pilsen. The portals are community-driven websites that often provide local businesses with web access for the first time, helping them connect with local residents and bring in people from outside the neighborhood. It allows neighborhood businesses, organizations, and residents to share stories, events, and listings with others.

The luncheon brought together community and economic developers from several Chicago neighborhoods to learn about the possibilities of the portals. Baux was on hand to provide expertise on how participants could bring portals to their own communities.

"Their open-source format enables anyone in the community to submit news items or notices," said Gordon Walek, LISC Chicago’s communications manager. "It really showcases a wide variety of subjects, much as you'd see in a local newspaper, and it's also a great tool for businesses. One of the benefits is that it allows business organizations to post contact information, photos, and videos, and for small businesses—many of which might not have the sophistication or resources to have their own website—this is a real boon."

Dionne Baux, LISC Chicago program officer for the Smart Communities Program, is happy to see the positive stories that portals have been able to tell about often stereotyped neighborhoods.

LISC Chicago file photo

With development leaders from more than a dozen Chicago neighborhoods in attendance, the discussion centered on the benefits that portals provide to communities and how best to communicate those benefits to business owners who may not have the resources or knowledge to get online.

Both Sheree Moratto of the Rogers Park Business Alliance and Melinda Kelly of the Chatham Business Association identified the lack of technological resources as a primary obstacle. “What we’d be dealing with is that many of the businesses in our area have no prior experience with computers,” said Moratto. “Our challenge would be getting them on board with the concept and then taking the step to connect them to the portal.”

Kelly noted that she would likely face a similar challenge with businesses in Chicago’s Chatham community, but in the portal she also saw a great opportunity.

“We’ve been thinking about setting up a portal for some time,” said Kelly. “In Chatham, we have over 60 different businesses that don’t have a website or e-mail, and a portal would provide an answer to how to get people connected that we could manage. We had been thinking about reaching out to these businesses to help them start their own websites, but a portal it would make it easier on us, easier on the businesses, and provide a mutual point of access with the community.”

LISC’s Gordon Walek also noted that despite a lack of technological savvy among businesses and residents in the communities where portals were implemented, there was an intense interest in learning how to use computer hardware and software.  

“When we started the Smart Communities program and began to offer training courses on how to use computers, one of the components of the grant was to market this and get people interested in it, but that proved unnecessary,” said Walek. “Simply through word of mouth people signed up for these classes. There was a real hunger for this type of training.”

But getting people to use and understand the portals, he added, requires plenty of old fashioned, shoe leather work in the form of knocking on doors and explaining to businesses and residents one-on-one what the portals are, how they work, and how it will be a benefit to use them.

Portals cost about $5,000 to set up but only have a maintenance fee of $100 to $200 per year thereafter.

The neighborhood development practitioners at the meeting were interested in the portal concept, but they were concerned about the costs, about whether the portals would become overly negative forums, and about the expertise and training needed to keep a portal up and running.

Portals cost around $5,000 to set up, and after the first year there is a maintenance fee of between $100 and $200 should anything need to be fixed on the site. As for negativity, Baux noted that in the five Chicago communities, there had been only one instance in which an article was removed by the portal’s managing editor.

Despite the $5,000 start up fee, Walek and Baux noted just how dynamic a tool portals have been for business in the Smart Communities neighborhoods: “The value of these portals cannot be underestimated,” said Walek. “This is the way to go, over a print publication: You can change it every day. If you make mistakes they’re easier to correct. And above all, it enables people to get engaged—and they don’t need to be technical wizards to do so. It’s an investment that will benefit both businesses and residents.”

Baux added that to convince business owners of the efficacy of the portals, LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program let business owners use wireless hotspots and a desktop computer for a month-long trial, allowing them to understand how the Internet could impact their business.

"Their open-source format enables anyone in the community to submit news items or notices," said Gordon Walek, LISC Chicago’s communications manager. "It really showcases a wide variety of subjects, much as you'd see in a local newspaper, and it's also a great tool for businesses."

“In Pilsen, maybe 10 percent of the businesses we were involved with had previously used the Internet,” said Baux. “After the trial, they understood how the portal could bring in customers and connect them to the residents in their community, and now many have adopted to broadband and have been able to earn a computer for their business. It empowers residents, it empowers businesses, and it can transform how a neighborhood views itself and is viewed by others.”

Also discussed at the gathering was Chicago's 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative, a practical business management education program that helps small business owners develop the skills they need to expand their companies.

The initiative – led by Goldman Sachs and administered in Chicago through Goldman Sachs, the City of Chicago, and City Colleges of Chicago – includes $25 million in loans and educational grants to Chicago-area small businesses. Goldman plans to have 600 Chicago small businesses go through the program over the next five to 10 years.

For more information on LISC’s Smart Communities program, visit http://www.smartcommunitieschicago.org/index.html

Subsequent brown-bag meetings are on the second Fridays of July, September, and November, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at 135 S. LaSalle St., 22nd floor. For more information about future brown bags and to RSVP to the events, please contact Maria Hernandez at mhernandez@lisc.org, or 312-422-9567.

Posted in Business, Civic Tech, Auburn Gresham, Englewood, Humboldt Park

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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