Community of the Week: West Palm Beach, Fla.

Rapidly growing community is engaging residents and businesses with technology.

by / November 2, 2011
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West Palm Beach, with a population of approximately 100,000, is a rapidly growing community. The city has seen its population increase more than 20 percent during the past decade. A popular tourist destination on the southeastern coast of Florida, the city is home to numerous shops, restaurants, cultural venues and hotels. Despite the rapid growth and draw of tourists, West Palm Beach hasn’t been immune to the impact of sinking property values and high unemployment that have hit communities nationwide.

“We’re dealing with the same kinds of things every city is dealing with,” said West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio.

The city has made business development a priority. West Palm Beach offers many online services aimed at allowing businesses to easily fulfill their obligations with the city, including the ability to submit plans for approval, register vacant properties, apply for or renew business taxes and check the status of construction permits. While construction has slowed due to the economy, the city still has a handful of significant projects under way that are likely to bring new jobs to the area. One of the city’s older malls, for example, is being revamped and turned into a fashion outlet center.

Another project that will bring a significant number of jobs to West Palm Beach is the Digital Domain Institute. Florida State University partnered with Digital Domain, a digital production company that has created visuals for many major films, to create the Institute, which will offer a digital media program for students. Muoio said she hopes the institute will bring more business to West Palm Beach. “We’re looking to build around that and attract related businesses,” she said, adding that the potential is there to draw businesses such as defense simulation and medical imaging companies.

Ensuring Digital Opportunity

Another long-standing priority for West Palm Beach is bridging the digital divide. “We have a large underserved population that we strive to get technology to,” said William Swisher, director of support services for West Palm Beach.

Tourists and residents enjoy free Wi-Fi on the waterfront, in the West Palm Beach library, City Hall and surrounding areas. The city also united with the Quantum Foundation and the Palm Beach Broadband Coalition to provide Wi-Fi service in some economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. As part of the initiative, training and equipment is provided to families that take part in the program, Swisher said.

The city’s central library has more than 150 public computers. “Those are used all day, every day by kids coming in to do homework after school , people coming in to do resumes and employment types of applications,” said Swisher. The PCs average more than 1,800 users a day. Recreation centers throughout the city also make PCs available to the public.

West Palm Beach, along with the county and local school district, also worked with Comcast on a program that allows eligible low-income families to acquire broadband for $9.95 a month.

“We’re an urban center. We have huge diversity,” said Muoio. “That’s one of the things we’re proudest of. And it’s important for our students and families to have access to the Internet, as we see that as critical to getting the work force ready for these high-tech jobs.”

West Palm Beach also has two Youth Empowerment Centers, which serve the dual purpose of reducing teen crime rates and providing area youth with skills for the future. The centers offer recreational activities and classes, and both centers house audio/visual recording labs, where teens produce commercials and public service announcements.

Beyond the Web

West Palm Beach has branched out from traditional online venues, using mobile apps and social media to reach constituents. A planned “Tele-Town Hall” initiative will give residents the opportunity to connect with city officials via phone, Internet, social media and the city television station West Palm TV. Residents, businesses and visitors can view event schedules, check waste collection times, manage or pay utilities, pay traffic fines, and request services online or from their iPhones via an app created by the city.

The app grew out of the city’s hotline initiative, explained Steven Kelly, the city’s webmaster. The hotline initiative is similar to 511 in other cities, where citizens can call or e-mail the center 24/7 to ask questions, request service or lodge a complaint. The call center’s tracking system made it easy for citizens to submit images from their cell phones via e-mail and track their complaint, but the city thought citizens could use their phones for more. “We wanted to have an app that people would actually keep on their iPhone, instead of just using it for complaints, so we integrated in online services,” said Kelly. All services available on the website are also available via the app, which is well utilized, said Kelly, and will eventually be expanded to the Android platform.

West Palm Beach plans to put more data online as well. Soon residents will be able to view and create maps using city GIS data, and the city is in the midst of making public documents stored in its document management system available online so constituents don’t need to call or visit city offices to request them. City officials say these services not only make life more convenient for constituents, but help make the city more efficient, which is essential in an economy where budget cuts and staff shortages are the norm.