Blount wired for success as Web weaves map to future

By Lance Coleman
Editor
Blount Today

Tricia Tipton bought a three bedroom, two-bath rental home in Mesa, Ariz., without ever stepping through the front door. She also hooked up all the utilities from the comforts of her home in Alcoa.

Tipton took a different, unpaved road to finding and buying her Arizona rental property. Rather than walking to a realtor’s office, she logged onto the Internet and did everything via the Web.

Figures show that Internet access through the county’s largest provider, Charter Communications, tripled from 2001 to 2006. "It’s over a 300 percent increase from ‘01 to ‘06," said Nick Pavlis, state director of government and public relations for Charter Communications.

Pavlis attributed the jump to a couple of factors. "I think, obviously, the hardware itself has become affordable," he said, and, "it’s a way of life. To be connected is paramount. Kids in school -- how do they do projects? You pretty much have to be connected to get anything done."

The desire to shop, search, pay and work online has only gotten greater. "Without a doubt, not only for the next five years and many years to come, it’s all about speed. Folks want it faster and more convenient," Pavlis said.

Pavlis compared Blount County to Bradley County and Hamblen County. "They were somewhat ahead, not tremendously," he said. "Again, Blount County has proven to be somewhat above the curve."

When asked if there are still places in the outlying county areas where it is still difficult to get high-speed Internet access, Pavlis said that as part of the company’s agreement with the county, they have to build-out cable lines whenever there are at least 15 homes per mile. "If it’s a county rural area, and it meets that obligation, we’re contract-bound (to provide service)," he said.

Pavlis said before building cable lines out to an area, it has to be economically feasible, thus the 15 homes per mile agreement. If the company built in areas where there wasn’t going to be a return, it would hurt the business because there has to be a return on investment, he said.

Pavlis said that Charter is the primary provider of cable Internet in Blount County.

Customers’ desire for more powerful Internet will only grow over the years, he said.

Cities log on

Blount County and the cities of Alcoa and Maryville have taken steps to give customers and citizens easier access to information and make it easier to do business with them.

Pam Arnett, public information officer for the City of Maryville, and city manager Greg McClain said that because they partnered with the city schools, they were able to upgrade software valued at $10,000 for their Website for only about
$2,000.

One aspect that has made their new Website convenient is it is easier for department heads to update information regarding their individual parts of the city’s Website.

"This way we’ve enabled our employees to get in there and do that. All I do I look at it for grammatical and technical prospective," said Arnett

Allison Slater and Tricia Tipton with the City of Alcoa, had similar comments regarding the City of Alcoa’s new Website. The City of Alcoa spent $37,500 over two years creating a new Website.

"We didn’t want to have to track down a Website to put media releases or change a picture or a telephone number. Allison and I have been trained to manage content on our database," Tipton said.

Arnett said the City of Maryville has had a Website for the past nine years. "We were one of the first. So much has changed. It’s not enough to be the first. You also have to pay attention and keep up with technology," she said.

"I guess No. 1 is making a commitment to have a presence," said City Manager Greg McClain. "Then, to not only have presence, but keep it fresh and current. We spend money, time and effort and always look for new ways to give more interaction to the citizens to be able to use it."

Arnett said customers want to get everything they can think of online, including paying bills. Internet sites have taken the place of customer service callers. More are going to the Website to get balances on bills or figure their property tax bills, she said.

"People have changed the way they do business," Arnett said. "They know they can. We have utility payments online. That has been very successful for us," she said. "We do have a great number of people who use it. They want to be able pay their bills online."

John Herron, information technology department head for Blount County government, said as people have become more accustomed to the Internet, they are asking for more services. "Now people are asking to have the ability to pay taxes or get other information in person or over the Internet," he said "That wouldn’t have happened five years ago."

McClain said society in general is in a transition period regarding doing business on the Internet versus in person.

"You’ve got those folks the age of my parents who still like to come in and see folks, bring their money and pay," he said. "Others, specifically the 20-year-olds, are growing up with computers, doing bank drafts and paying everything online. Right now we have to do both really well. We have to have a good customer service, but at the same time be ready for the future."

Arnett said soon city taxpayers are going to be able to pay property taxes online,and customers will be able to look at their bills online. McClain said that in two to five years, property owners will be able to go online, call up their property, look at the boundaries and look at where utilities are on the property and understand the acreage and the property boundaries.

"I think it will be a wonderful service to provide," McClain said. "On top of that, if you need a grading permit or garage sale permit or to look at rules or regulations, all that will be on an interactive file. The bottom line is easy access to information is good for the customer, but it is also a cost-saving to the city, which is a savings back to those same citizens."

McClain said Websites need to be easy to navigate and very fast. "Some folks start in and get frustrated," he said.

Alcoa’s Tipton and Slater said they took a similar customer-first approach when they and their department heads were working with their vendor, Virtual Interactive Center, to build their new Website. "Allison and I kept trying to step back and put ourselves in the shoes of the citizens who would use it," Tipton said. "We wanted it very clean. We didn’t want it cluttered. We wanted it user friendly."

The first phase of Website construction was recently completed, and the new Website was introduced to the public. Phase II is currently under construction and would allow the city to accept online bill payments.

"You can pay your utility bill, look up property tax, and pay your property tax. We’re also developing online utility service requests and generating city service requests. All that is under the My Alcoa section," Tipton said.

While there is no timeline for completing Phase II, work is underway. Phase III would include an Intranet for city employees, she said.

Herron said the Internet also provides another avenue to give residents general information in a convenient way.

"It’s a great thing for citizens. You can distribute all the information to citizens without having all them walk into your office, and it’s open all day and all night," Herron said.

Bringing the business
Bryan Daniels, executive vice president of the Blount County Economic Development Board, said his agency uses its Website to market to site selectors for large industry. "Site selectors are companies that are hired by manufacturers or corporate headquarters to evaluate a certain geographic area and pick which would be the best place to locate a business," Daniels said.

In the board’s last trip to Chicago, they met with 12 site selectors. "All 12 told us that if all the community information -- like available property, buildings, utility rates, demographic information - is not on a Website where they can access it, we are eliminated right off the bat. The bad thing is, you wouldn’t even know you were in contention because you would never get past that step.

"That’s what site selectors are wanting: A one-stop shop where they can look up permits, utility fees, property costs and demographic data. It’s changed how we operate here."

Daniels said there’s a concerted effort to make sure all information is put on display in a thoughtful way and easily-
accessible way.

"We continue to put budgetary emphasis on Internet line items and electronic line items because that’s where the industry is going," he said. "If we want to be a player, we have to continue to market that way and do business that way."

Daniels said he didn’t have a crystal ball as far as predicting the jobs that will come to Blount County because of the Web. "Having data up there will catapult us in front of the site selection process for companies looking at locations. We have to be Web-driven to get prospects to come here," he said.

Daniels said the board gets its message out electronically, but it still relies on developing personal relationships with prospects. "For us, all forms of communication are trumped by personal contact," he said. "You have to be a player. If, because of our information, a site select decides to call us, from there the relationship we develop with them leads the recruiting effort."

Daniels said everything involved in business recruiting used to be in print. Eliminating paper by marketing via the Web is cheaper and reaches a greater audience, he said.

Touring Townsend,
with a mouse

Herb Handly, vice president of the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitor’s Bureau said the Web has changedhow it works to attract visitors just as the Web changed how the development board recruits business.

"The Internet is becoming equally as important to us," Handly said. "In as short as seven years ago, the No. 1 marketing tool was the Townsend Vacation Guide, a printed piece."

The bureau gave the printed piece to visitors to provide them with the information they needed. The potential visitor had to call and make a request for that information. "It was a mad rush as soon as we got an inquiry to get the piece back to them," Handly said. "That was only as quick as the mail, which they call ‘snail mail’ now."

Handly said sometimes bigger organizations got that material out before their bureau could. "They ended up getting those potential visitors because they got information to them quicker," he said. "The Website levels the playing field."

Handly said considering those percentages, he thinks at some point in the future there will be no need for printed material. "It’s instant, immediate gratification. They hit the print button, and it’s there with information they need," he said. "Not only can they get addresses, they can pull pertinent information and download the complete vacation guide and they don’t have to wait for it to come in the mail."

With that in mind, Handly said the bureau turned their attention to upgrading their Website. Instead of graphics, the Website has videos of Great Smoky Mountain experiences, a downloadable vacation guide, an interactive map and a calendar of events page.

"I’ve just invested $60,000 into that Website in 2007," he said. "It’s a living, breathing thing. You can go on it and download different kinds of things and learn all the history and what is coming up."

Home buying via the Home page
Just as visitors now use the Internet to find temporary accommodations during vacations, prospective home buyers are using the Internet to buy homes.

Tricia Tipton spent her first family vacation in Arizona 15 years ago when they traveled to Tucson rather than Myrtle Beach, S.C.

"I thought it would be a trip you go on one time," she said. "The whole family fell in love with it, and we haven’t gone anywhere else since then."

So, in 2005 when she was selling a condo in Blount County and had only a short time to buy another home to avoid tax consequences, she looked at the thriving housing market in Arizona. "I couldn’t go buy a house by myself, so I used the Internet to find a realtor and picked one I felt most comfortable with. After I found them on the Internet, I talked with them on the phone," she said. "I did make one visit out there, but I didn’t end up buying a house. I didn’t buy until a month later."

She said she bought the house without seeing it in person, but she saw pictures of it on the Internet. She took the same approach with finding a property management company.

"I knew it being long distance, I couldn’t manage it. I got back on the Internet and researched property management companies. I talked on the phone until I found one I was most comfortable with and who I felt could do the job," she said.

Once she closed the deal, she needed to get utilities. "I was able to go to the Internet to sign up for utilities. I didn’t talk to anyone then," she said. "I signed up for service, did automatic payments out of my checking account with them. It was very simple."

‘The World Is Flat’
Just as the Internet and Websites have leveled the playing field in tourism and real estate, Fred Forster, president of the Blount County Chamber Partnership, said the Internet is also making the global market a smaller place.

News once confined to one community or town now is instantly communicated throughout the world via text messaging, camera cell phones and Websites.

"I think the most stark example we’ve got is the news of the past day and a half from Virginia Tech," he said. "You see today’s youth in particular and more people are using email and Internet and YouTube and blogging to communicate with each other on a routine basis."

Forster said having good Websites and the ability to access the Internet is incredibly important for industry and society. Forster referred to Thomas Friedman, the author of "The World is Flat," a book that deals with the Internet’s role in equalizing different countries ability to compete in the global marketplace.

"It’s very important we stay connected to the outside world," Forster said. "The economy is global, the world is shrinking," he said.

"It is flat and getting flatter."

Surf’s up
Do a little surfing of your own to find out what is going on with the Websites for Blount County, Maryville, Alcoa, the Blount Chamber and the Great Smoky Mountains Convention and Visitors Bureau. Also, check out Blount Today and sign up for our
breaking news email alerts.


Great Smoky Mountains Convention and Visitor’s Bureau

www.smokymountains.org

City of Alcoa

www.cityofalcoa-tn.gov

City of Maryville

www.ci.maryville.tn.us

Blount County

www.blounttn.org

Blount County Chamber of Commerce/Chamber Partnership

www.blountchamber.com

Blount Today

www.BlountToday.com

© 2007 blounttoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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