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Service takes the town hall to the Web

DAVE GUSSOW
Published June 21, 2004

After 9/11, New Yorkers needed a place to talk about the future of their city and ground zero. In the tradition of town hall meetings, thousands turned out at hundreds of workshops to give their opinions.

But, enabled by technology from a small Naples company, thousands more had their say through the Web. And that, organizers of Imagine New York say, made a difference.

"The whole concept of what the city of New York was changed quite dramatically," said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York. "Suddenly the geographic barriers didn't mean as much. . . . The city suddenly became a bigger place."

The power behind the project came from Neighborhood America, a 5-year-old company that has grown from a handful of employees to almost 50. Its technology combines content management, document management and communications, both for organizations to manage projects and for the public to participate.

In its short history, the company has attracted an impressive list of clients, including Imagine New York and the Flight 93 National Memorial. But it also has provided the technology for the Hillsborough County Planning and Growth Management Department and a seven-county group in Central Florida involved in regional planning issues.

"It's not about creating a soapbox," said Kim Patrick Kobza, the company's president and CEO. "It's more about how you build communities of interest and how you get people to take ownership of issues that affect them."

Kobza, 49, is a former lawyer who practiced business and land-use law, which he described as "one step in a career." That experience led him to come up with the idea for the company.

"I wanted to do something that made a difference," he said.

But Kobza's background is not technology. So he recruited David Bankston, the company's executive vice president of technology and product development, from LexisNexis.

By 2001, the company aimed its technology at the real estate development market, a natural for Florida with its construction boom, and government agencies. It was Imagine New York, though, that helped the company take off.

"We probably had 45 major systems before we got to New York City," Kobza said. "But certainly in New York we gained not only national but also international exposure with our system."

And when he looked up at the Times Square electronic sign with the Imagine New York Web address on it in early 2002, he said, "we knew we were going to do something very special at that point."

Even though the tech sector downturn started shortly after he started the company, Kobza never doubted that they would be successful because "the market opportunity is too compelling."

Kobza won't discuss the privately held company's revenues, but says it is profitable. He boasts about the staff's diversity and Florida's appeal for high-tech enterprise.

"You hire the best talent available, and there's a lot of diversity, a lot more than is recognized," he said. "We didn't have to recruit very heavily outside of the area."

While Kobza says the company doesn't do Web sites and its technology is more than just an electronic soapbox, he also knows the public comment feature has attracted a lot of attention. As he describes it, town hall meetings worked in simpler times when communities were still small.

"In the 21st century, that doesn't work very well at all," he said. "Many of our challenges are regional. They often involve many jurisdictions that often have to work together at the same time. We have a much greater population."

Technology is affecting the way people interact with government, but it's not yet a revolution. According to a recent poll from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, most people still rely on the telephone to call an agency or elected official. The reason? They want immediate resolution of a problem or an answer, says John Horrigan, a senior research specialist at Pew.

"It's not e-government's problem that people don't go to it first to address problems," Horrigan said. "There are still limits to what the Web can do, whether contacting government or trying to purchase a product."

Yet for Imagine New York, for which Neighborhood America won a national planning award, the technology allowed people to give comprehensive, thoughtful comments, not just a quick Internet poll, Barwick says.

"People liked being asked and they liked being taken seriously," he said.

And it carries over to other Neighborhood America projects:

Flight 93 National Memorial: The challenge for Jeff Reinbold of the National Park Service is hefty: Coordinate and communicate with four partner groups planning the memorial for the passengers and crew who died Sept. 11 while preventing their hijacked plane from being used by terrorists heading to Washington.

Keep the families of the victims up to date and involved. Hold an international design competition online, expected to attract thousands of entries, and let the public comment on them. And have everything done by a September 2005 deadline.

Enter Neighborhood America, which has worked on other National Park Service projects, including the Statue of Liberty.

Its communications software lets the partners stay current with plans and discussions, and allows family members around the country to participate as they wish, Reinbold says.

"For a lot of family members, the planning and design process is a way to come to grips with what happened," Reinbold said. "Some of them are ready and very interested in being active in the project, others are not."

Other tech companies could offer pieces for such a project, he says, but Neighborhood America's package was a complete solution that could accommodate the communications, the thousands of designs and the public comment.

"Very few firms do that kind of work," Reinbold said.

My Region: Three years ago, seven Central Florida counties started an effort to study issues that went beyond one county's borders, such as water, growth, the environment, school and transportation. The public-private project was called My Region and involved hundreds of leaders from Brevard, Lake, Seminole, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Volusia counties. But they wanted the public to participate, too.

"We believe that the Internet can be the public comment platform for the 21st century," said Shelley Lauten of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce and project director for My Region. "Oftentimes, public hearings are very difficult to get wide community feelings about what people think and believe."

Even if 3,000 people participate, she says, that's not much in an area of more than 3-million people. In addition, the group wanted the public to be able to see how projects would look and how they might affect the area.

"What I liked about Neighborhood America is they understand, because of the background of some of the principals, the idea of public comment and the principle of community building," she said.

Community planning: Not all projects are on a grand scale. In Hillsborough County, the Community-Based Planning Program provides information and opportunity for public comment on individual neighborhoods. In addition to plans, the Web site offers graphics and documents outlining the vision for each area.

The county, which has used Neighborhood America's software for several years, praises its works, and citizens generally like what they see, according to Wanda Sloan, a senior planning and zoning tech in the Hillsborough County Planning and Growth Management Department.

"We've had different people say we like the Web site," Sloan said. "They usually don't tell us they love us. This is the county."

- Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or 727 771-4328.

On the Web

Flight 93 National Memorial: www.flight93memorialproject.com

Hillsborough Community-Based Planning: www.hccommunityplanning.com

My Region: www.myregion.org

Neighborhood America: www.neighborhoodamerica.com

Imagine New York: www.imagineny.com

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