By now, you’ve probably read quite a bit about the proposal before the board of the Chestnut Hill Community Association to fund a start-up community-wide Web portal. And you’re probably wondering: What the heck is a Web portal, anyway?
The concept behind the Web portal proposal – which was first floated approximately 10 months ago by board member Rob Remus and Hill resident and Web expert Gerald Tracy – is simple: Create a one-stop shop for Chestnut Hill news, information and services. If you’re looking for the Chestnut Hill Local’s news, a volunteer opportunity, to find local theater productions, to check real estate ads or to start a group for local preschool moms, a robust, community-owned Web portal will theoretically provide it all.
So what’s the problem?
Everyone agrees that more needs to be done online, but disagreements persist on the best way to do it. Options on the table range from investing the money in the Local to transform it into a portal to the proposal before the board that would establish an independent online entity that works with the Local and other stakeholders. Organizations that have had a chat about involvement range from the Chestnut Hill Business Association to Weavers Way Co-op, which publishes the monthly Shuttle newspaper.
The portal proposal by Remus and Tracy, which resulted as well from input from a summer-long portal task force that held weekly meetings last summer, has been criticized for its lack of specifics. And the price tag – a $5,000 monthly buy in from the CHCA with another $7,000 monthly from other organizations – has been called too high. Despite several public meetings and subsequent discussions at board meetings, skepticism has largely not been allayed.
Why is the decision so big?
News about the board’s ongoing debate about the portal has been followed closely by this paper’s closest online competitors, the Chestnut Hill Patch and WHYY’s Newsworks, though the public has shown only marginal interest evident in sparsely attended public meetings. Yet, the decision may be one of the biggest the CHCA has made since it decided to establish the Local more than 50 years ago.
Everyone knows now, that as communications habits are changing – and they are changing rapidly – every organization needs to find new ways to reach and interact with its constituencies. For the CHCA and Local, the same is true. If you’re not looking to develop the best ways to communicate and interact with people online, you’re going to cede the space to someone who can come along and do it better.
With the aforementioned competition in our neighborhood, the need is pressing.
So should the community do it?
Given the fact that the reality of outside competition and the need to develop the best product online in order to stay relevant are not debatable, the CHCA and other community organizations should get onboard and get the portal started.
Critics have a right to be skeptical of a price tag, which is at least $144,000 (based on a ballpark figure of $12,000 a month used by Remus recently) without accounting for potential revenue. But the community has spent nearly $100,000 several times on retail studies in the last decade. Can’t it spend something similar on a project that will produce something tangible?
It’s a lot of money to ask, but there are many potential upsides if that money can be found: the best website we can get – one that brings together a bunch of disparate and not terribly successful web enterprises under one roof.
There’s always a risk that the revenue and page views promised by the portal proposal won’t materialize. But that doesn’t mean that the money will be wasted. The worst case scenario is simply that the portal doesn’t work. But at least under those circumstances, the CHCA can say that it failed with its best efforts, not failing because it simply didn’t do enough.