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AppRising delivers insight into new broadband applications, exploring their impact on networks and their implications for public policy.

AppRising is written by Geoff Daily, who covers broadband applications and the business of online video. Based in Washington, DC, Geoff regularly advises applications developers, network operators, community leaders, and public officials on how to maximize adoption and use of the Internet.

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November 9, 2007 2:16 PM

Coolest Thing I Learned at the Blandin Conference

Yesterday at the Blandin Broadband conference I encountered one of the coolest, most head-slappingly-obvious ideas I've never heard of before in terms of the use of broadband to promote economic development.

On a panel entitled "Community Transformation via Portals" we were treated to the tales of a handful of cities across Minnesota that through a Blandin grant pursued initiatives to create portals of various sorts, like a website that combined all of Moose Lake's city resources into one interface, and an effort by KAXE to inspire citizen journalism.

But what really caught my attention was the effort by the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce championed by Sheila Howk to create a virtual mall for local businesses.

To take a step back, what they first did was set up a series of Tech Tuesdays, which had the goal of engaging local retailers with the Internet revolution by showing them how to build websites for their businesses. They set out with the goal of reaching 24 businesses; they've now topped 50.

The next, and in my opinion most brilliant, phase of this project will launch sometime in the next few months.

What it will be is a virtual mall for local New Ulm businesses. Users will be able to navigate to a central site that will create a mall-like atmosphere in which they can discover local businesses selling their products online.

When I heard Sheila talking about this concept I couldn't help but get excited by it.

There seems to be a growing desire to buy local and support small businesses, well what better way to help facilitate that than to leverage the Internet and pull together these small businesses based on geography?

I see this as allowing area residents to have more awareness about the products available in their local community while simultaneously opening up the possibility to use this as a way to encourage more national and even international dollars to flow into small local businesses.

Maybe it's a customer who used to live in the area, or has family in the area, or maybe it's a polka enthusiast who knows that New Ulm is the polka capitol of America.

Whatever the circumstances, this is such a no-brainer, great way to help support local business I'm flabbergasted we haven't seen more of it.

I asked Sheila if she knew of other efforts around the country to pursue similar initiatives but she hadn't heard of any. If anyone knows of some, please share them in the comments. In the meantime, I'm going to work on seeing if I can find any of my own.

But whether not it has or has not been done elsewhere, I'm a strong proponent now of this being an essential tool for any community to use that wants to support its local small business community.


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Comments (1)


I was there fore the Tech Tuesdays in New Ulm. I thought that I should mention that the folks in New Ulm are amazingly hard-working. They have the ultimate can-do attitude – starting with Sheila.

On the first day of training one business owner asked where the “at sign” was on the keyboard – but by the end of the summer, she built her own web site (with help). Other business owner had great sites going in but just wanted to make them better – and I think they did.

I was less involved with the new web site – but I know they worked through some hiccups by focusing on and working towards their main goal – the online mall and local focus.

There was a group in Fosston, MN that had an online shopping site too. Unfortunately it’s gone now. (Sadly the name completely escapes me or I’d look it up on archive.org for you.) I think the funding ran out. It was different in that it was maintained by a nonprofit and they built the web sites for businesses and created the mall/directory. It too was a great idea – but I think the New Ulm is more easily sustainable in that folks are responsible for their own site (then they can grow as needed) and they are using an existing site/infrastructure to house the site.

Thanks! Ann

Posted by Ann Treacy on November 15, 2007 5:56 PM

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