A week in the life of NCO

A week in the life of NCO: Strengthening Northfield’s civic fabric via the Internet
Northfield News, 9/29/99
By Griff Wigley, chair, Northfield Citizens Online (NCO)

Monday, Aug 16, Olympus Athletic Club
I’m here for an early morning racquetball game. It occurs to me that the owners, Dale and Kyle Snesrud, ought to participate as panelists in an online forum I’m moderating for the city of Northfield this week in the NCO Web Café about the proposed recreation center in town. Kyle and Dale agree to participate, even though they’ve never been online before. They know that a number of city leaders are participating, and that the Northfield News will likely run an article profiling the pertinent discussion after its all over. It’s an influential group of people, and the web forum is an opportunity for them to make their views known.

Monday, Aug. 16, Goodbye Blue Monday coffeehouse
Our Y2K community preparedness task force meets here at the Blue Monday every other Monday morning. We use a NCO private email listserv for our committee’s communications, but we tend to get way more done when we meet in person. We’ve got a web site on the NCO server that details our evolving plan, and there’s a Y2K discussion topic in the Web Café, but we’re also very visible to the community when we meet here. It helps people to see city officials taking Y2K preparations seriously. Nearly every time our task force meets, someone in the coffeehouse comes and asks me about Y2K and our neighborhood-based approach to preparedness.

Tuesday, Aug. 17, downtown Division St.
I see councilman Dave Garwood-DeLong staring at some graffiti on a sidewalk newspaper box. He makes a note to himself, then hurries off. I wonder what the city’s policy is about graffiti so when I get home, I start a topic about it in the Web Café, then fire off some email to city administrator Scott Neal asking him to respond. David Koenig, another city councilman who’s a Web Café regular, beats him to the punch and posts a note that anyone who sees graffiti should contact the police, who in turn contact city staff who are supposed to remove it within a day. I email the new police chief, Gary Smith, whom I’ve gotten to know on the Y2K task force, asking if there’s an email address citizens can use to report such non-emergency matters. I’d like to test the city’s responsiveness by reporting some graffiti I spotted on a Riverside Park bench and light pole near my house. He responds within two hours and I post the address in the Web Café. The next day, the graffiti is gone and I get email from Officer Tim Halverson, inviting me to let him know if I spot any more.

Tuesday, Aug. 17, Riverside Park skate park
I walk by the city’s year-old outdoor skate park on my way home. Skateboarders and inline skaters were banned from the downtown area a year ago when the city opened the facility as a way to keep the kids off the downtown streets and sidewalks. It was a big topic of conversation in town, including in the Web Café, where a few folks have recently made comments recently wondering whether the facility’s really been worth the investment. I email the Parks and Rec director, Randy Distad, asking him to post an update in the Café. Within two days, both he and city administrator Scott Neal post their assessment that, all in all, it’s been a good investment for the city, despite occasional problems.

Wednesday, Aug 18, Riverside Commons
After my morning cup of coffee, I take the long way home by strolling along Riverside Commons. I hear construction noise coming from a building by the old jail. I investigate, and find gift shop retailer Norman Butler hard at work restoring the basement walkout of an old building. He’s putting in a British-style pub called The Contented Cow and hopes to have it opened by Jesse James Days weekend. He wants to have the pub host regular discussion salons, both face-to-face and online. I offer my son Graham’s help in putting up a web site and suggest that he collect email addresses when he opens. I make a note to myself that he might want to sponsor an edition of the NCO-News, our e-newsletter that now has over 500 subscribers.

Thursday, Aug. 19, Bridge Square
I’m here with my 13-year-old daughter Gillian and her friend. While they’re getting their faces painted and balloon hats made, I settle in my lawn chair to listen to the Dixieland band, sponsored by Community National Bank. Soon I’m chatting with Senator Tom Neuville about the rec center forum. He says he’s had several conversations with people about the pros and cons of a half-cent local sales tax to support its construction, so I ask him if he’d join the discussion in the Web Café before the forum ends. He’s willing, so I jot down his address and email him the info when I get home. Over the weekend, he posts a detailed explanation of his position that adds to everyone’s understanding.

I see Rollie Jacobsen walking by the fountain and I flag him down. He emailed me earlier in the week about a problem with his Web Café password. He wants to join the discussion about the rec center, since the local sales tax option would affect his business, Jacobsen’s Dept. Store. I’m delighted, not only because his input is important on this issue, but also because both he and his dad Bob Jacobsen are very active in the town’s civic affairs. The more people like the Jacobsen’s who participate in the Café, the more likely that politicians like Senator Neuville will participate, the more effective it becomes as a tool for strengthening democracy. Later, I’m pleased when both Tom’s and Rollie’s online comments are included in the Northfield News article on the forum.

Friday, Aug. 20, Goodbye Blue Monday coffeehouse
I see local vet Mark Werner chatting at his table with a group of regulars and I slide a chair up to his. Last weekend I’d taken our family dog to his clinic to get an injured leg checked out. He was out of town, but his staff on duty was just terrific and I wanted to give him the positive feedback. I later post a comment to the topic in the Web Café titled, “Positive Northfield Business Experiences.” That topic’s been slowly perking along for over nine months now. People use it as a way to spread word about the local retailers who care provide great customer service.

Dave Machacek waves me over to his table. He tells me that he and his neighbor, Steve Hatle, just got their Internet connection via cable installed at their homes last night. I knew it was coming but not this soon. I later call the cable company to investigate and it turns out that the guy on the phone, Darryl Dahl, has just moved his family to Northfield. I tell him I’m going to post the information in the Web Café where we have an ongoing topic about local Internet Service Providers. He doesn’t know about the Web Café, so I give him the address and within the hour, he’s registered himself and posted answers to Steve’s technical questions. He also posts a note in the skate park topic, asking for more details on the city’s skating ordinance since he’s an inline skater. He emails later to let me know he was up late browsing all the old topics in the Café and found it quite addicting.

I sit down at the Blue Monday’s Internet-connected computer to check my email while waiting for my favorite coffeecake, fresh from the oven, to cool off. Among the morning’s pile of email is a column titled “Bricks and Mortar Aren’t Dead.” I forward it to Norman Butler as a way to validate his plans for The Contented Cow. One sentence stands out

“[Online] community takes on a new meaning when people can meet each other… In a few years you’ll see similar [web events] happening at every Hard Rock Cafe and Denny’s. The event horizon of cyberspace — the intersection between media and our bodies. Our lives will be richer. The possibilities will be more endless. The potential for gratification more realized.”

It’s already happening, right here in Northfield, where the Web Café joins Bridge Square, City Hall, and the many businesses and institutions that are the lifeblood of this great town.