Web Makes Economic Sense

State and local governments have been quick to use the Web as a way to attract and keep business and people.

by / May 31, 1996
The city of Elizabethton and Carter County lie about as far east as you can go in Tennessee. Situated right up against the Appalachian mountains that ripple throughout the region, their location and somewhat small size puts these local governments at a disadvantage. So, you would assume that the communities would have trouble trying to attract new businesses to relocate there.

But Elizabethton and Carter County have something that puts them right up with the rest of the nation's cities, counties and states all vying for economic opportunities: A home page on the World Wide Web . In fact, the Elizabethton/ Carter County Economic Development Commission, a public-private agency that operates and maintains the economic development Web site, has more than 130 Web pages, bristling with data on business and commercial sites, labor, utilities, taxes, education, health care and other information that Net surfers can browse.

And the Elizabethton/Carter County economic development home page generates leads. Recently, a business executive browsed the home page, read about the free 100-page community profile binder the Commission has written, and clicked on the order button. Commission director Keith Mulligan received the request in his electronic mail and by 4 p.m. the same day, sent the binder on its way via Federal Express.

The next day, Mulligan used the overnight delivery company's Internet-based package tracking software to make sure the binder had been delivered, and then called the executive to see whether he needed any further assistance. "The guy couldn't believe how quickly we responded," recalled Mulligan. He added: "The Web allows us to move swiftly in presenting information and to communicate with businessmen from around the globe."

The Elizabethton/Carter County Economic Development Commission is hardly alone when it comes to using the Web to attract and keep businesses. Type the keywords, "economic development" and "government" into any one of the several search tools available on the Web and you will call up literally hundreds of Web sites throughout the country. The reason is simple. The Web provides governments of every size a low-cost, effective means for reaching millions of people and businesses around the world, each one a potential prospect. "The Web is a very powerful marketing tool," said Tom Kneeshaw, project manager for the Washington State Economic Development Network (EDN), an Internet initiative sponsored by Washington's economic development councils . "Home pages are a form of advertising for people who might be interested in relocating themselves or their businesses."

The growth of the Web on the Internet has been phenomenal in the past few years. Estimates on the number of users range from 15 million to 30 million and are climbing.

The Web is an international network of computer servers that contain information in the form of text and graphics assembled into pages. Computer users with special software known as browsers can locate these pages and view the text and graphics. Each page can also contain links to other sources of information located on other servers. By simply clicking on highlighted words, graphics or "hot" buttons, users can pursue more detailed information or related resources according to their interest. Unlike a local or wide area network, which requires users to have compatible operating systems to access files, the Web isn't restricted, so anyone with a Windows PC, Macintosh, OS/2 or UNIX-based computer can leaf through the same pages with their browser.

And creating a Web page doesn't require any special programming knowledge. With a little bit of training, any economic development office, no matter how small, can have a site on the Web that looks as impressive as something from agencies with plenty of resources.

Elizabethton/Carter County has an enormous amount of information available at their Web site, yet the Commission is staffed
by two people: the director and his secretary. "This technology makes us as good as agencies that are 10 times our size," said Mulligan.

Taking advantage of the Web can be so easy that it's hard for any economic development office to ignore its potential. That's why economic development councils in Washington set up EDN, which provides Internet training, Web site development, and maintenance services to the 32 economic development councils that serve Washington's 37 counties. When EDN sets up a Web page for a council or a county, it tries to provide resources to people and businesses outside the state to let them know what it's like to live and work in Washington. The information includes the latest on recreation in the area, tax information, available industrial and commercial sites and so on. The Web sites also provide links to any existing city Web pages within the council's region as well as links to residential real estate information.

In Pennsylvania, small businesses can get answers to myriad questions on business-related matters when they link up with the Web site provided by the Pennsylvania Small Business Development Center (SBDC), a public-private agency . Some of the information includes:

General information on doing business in Pennsylvania.
Communication links with any one of the 16 regional SBDCs throughout the state.
Specialized business training schedules and online registration.
Many other resources for businesses.
The SBDC Web site also has links to the U.S. Copyright Office, the Social Security Administration and the IRS.

In the past, providing that kind of detailed information to businesses was costly and often required travel. But not any more. "The Web is a very cost-effective way to provide outreach," said Christian Conroy, marketing director for SBDC. "Our users are dispersed throughout the state. With the Web we can work with them without incurring travel costs."

While the direct cost of setting up a Web site can be minimal, there are indirect costs for gathering the necessary information and keeping it up to date. Mulligan, who hired a local Internet designer to develop the Commission's Web site, said it took years of planning to put together the information that's now available online. But he feels the effort has paid off. "We don't have any 'under construction' notices on any of our pages," said Mulligan.

The word planning comes up again and again when economic development offices discuss the key ingredient in a successful Web site. "You've got to make the page interesting," said Kneeshaw. "We have found success by not only listing resources and providing links, but by also providing abstracts about them. People want to have a feeling of what they are going to get before they move on to another page or site."

Kneeshaw also cautions against overloading sites with too many lists of resources. Like a voicemail system with too many options, scrolling long lists or indexes of resources can become tedious. "Break them down into smaller chunks of information," he advised. And remember, all that information and the links to other pages has to be kept up-to-date. There's nothing worse than reading information that's not current.

Kneeshaw warns that updating Web sites is labor-intensive right now. Because EDN serves so many sites, policies have to be hammered out as to how and when the work will be done. "We just can't afford to have three people working full-time doing Web updates," said Kneeshaw.

What would solve Kneeshaw's problem and enhance the usefulness of the Web is new interactive software, such as Sun Microsystem's Java. Already, work with Java is under way that would allow a Web page to link up with its owner's databases, so that whenever a business or individual views a page with
a browser, the information would be automatically refreshed. Not only would this automate EDN's task of updating information on dozens of Web sites, but it would allow sites to present automated calendars of events that stay current. The interactivity could be extended to users, allowing them to quickly locate information they want based on user-selected criteria.

Auto companies and real estate firms already offer this kind of Web service for choosing cars or homes, based on style, price range and location. There's no reason why the same concept can't be easily transferred to the business development sector.

Who, then, is looking at all this economic development information on the Web? Councils and commissions admit they presently have no way of knowing just who is reading their Web pages. The Elizabethton/Carter County Web site, which went into operation in November 1995, had received nearly 2,300 "hits" by early March 1996. Mulligan doesn't know who those visitors were unless they happened to leave an e-mail query.

A number of them include foreign-based companies looking for potential sites in the United States to relocate or expand their business. "Five years ago, we never got a call from a foreign company," said Mulligan. "Now we're generating interest out there."

Companies in America are also warming up to the Web as a tool for finding new business locations and opportunities. "One of our rural economic development councils had their Web site up for only one week and they received a call from someone who saw their page, liked what he read, and began discussing the possible relocation of his business to that area," said Kneeshaw, who cited a few other similar examples of the Web at work.

Trying to explain why the Internet has become what it is today, Kneeshaw pointed out that the system is as much about sociology as it is about technology. "You've got to look at it from both standpoints," he said. "It's about learning to use new tools to do business in different ways, it's not just computers."