MILLEDGEVILLE — Tommy Cook had a relatively simple idea for a graduate project at Georgia College & State University.
As a student there, he often had difficulty finding out information about restaurants, places to live and other businesses in Milledgeville and Baldwin County.
His concept was to have a centralized place on the Internet to allow people to find information about a particular business. It would be maintained by the business owner and would be similar to Facebook for local businesses.
Launched in early May, shoplocalmilledgeville.com has nearly 750 Milledgeville and Baldwin County-based businesses now active on the site, and Cook — now the program developer at Digital Bridges in Milledgeville — said he usually receives daily calls from one or two businesses looking to join.
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“It’s an online hub for all of Milledgeville business information,” Cook said. “The chamber of commerce gave me a list of 650 businesses. The site lists all their correct contact information, coupons, articles — a whole lot of information. ... We’ve gotten a lot of real positive feedback. We’re getting a lot of ideas about how we want to progress.”
Not only does the Web site have information about local shops and restaurants, but it also has a community calendar and other features beyond the business community. It’s an idea that the College Hill Alliance hopes to adopt in Macon.
In the age of social networking, Cook said, a business needs to have an online presence to survive.
“(The business owners) are free to put there whatever they want,” he said. “They can tie in their Facebook, Twitter and RSS feeds. People can click on that. They can click on the business’ Web site, its e-mail. It only takes one click to interact with the business.”
Georgia College, Knight Foundation partnership key
Shoplocalmilledgeville.com is a key component of Digital Bridges, a partnership between Georgia College and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It allows Milledgeville residents to develop innovative approaches to using technology to improve the lives of people in the city and the county, said Heather Holder, who directs the initiative.
Located in a building on West Hancock Street in the heart of downtown, Digital Bridges does everything from holding seminars for people hoping to launch or improve their business to providing a business incubator for nascent businesses in town.
“We’re coming into it from the consumers’ perspective,” Holder said. “One thing they need to do is reach beyond Baldwin County. Businesses need to adapt to the world they’re in. We’re a mechanism to give them services that they never would have had otherwise.”
Digital Bridges came along at the right time, Holder said, coinciding with the economic downturn. That made the services the initiative provides more essential.
“We went from 4.5 percent unemployment (in Baldwin County) to 17 percent in six months,” Holder said. “The economy and job growth became our number one priority. ... We’re thinking of new ideas.”
Angie Gheesling, executive director of the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Development Authority, said residents have always tried to keep the area as a shopping hub, and the Web site helps do that.
“In a short amount of time, it’s had a great impact,” she said. “It’s reaching further than the Baldwin County border. ... Our businesses have always been fortunate that (the area) has been a shopping hub, and with the downturn in the economy, it’s caused businesses to re-evaluate how they promote themselves. There’s been a real effort of ‘what can I do at home?’”
Lyn Chandler, chairman of the board of the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce, said the business community has seen encouraging results from shoplocalmilledgeville.com.
“We wholeheartedly support that initiative,” he said. “They’re helping the community stabilize because we’ve had dramatic job losses in the last year and a half. What we’re seeing is that it’s becoming a very informative source of information in terms of goods and services. It’s been very effective.”
Shane Bridges, who co-owns ListingTank.com, said Digital Bridges provided him and his business partner office space and amenities for their online company, which lists rental properties.
“They have cutting-edge technology here,” Bridges said. “You can come in and host meetings. They have resources for webcasts, online presentations and available computers. It’s all right there, and it’s an atmosphere where there’s a lot of like-minded professionals to assist you. It’s been tremendously helpful.”
Holder said that over the next several months, the bottom level of the Digital Bridges building will be set up as business incubators, providing start-up companies with equipment, meeting space and other amenities to get their businesses going.
“We’re building 14 small incubators,” she said. “With the incubators, the idea is to get people to take their ideas and turn them into a business. There’s research that says that 87 percent of businesses started through an incubator succeed. It’s a great motivator incubating ideas and taking some of the burden off the businesses. We provide them space, utilities, phone lines. We help them get a business license. Our rent is less than the market rate. They don’t have the start-up costs.”
Idea spreading to Macon
Beverly Blake, director of the Knight Foundation in Milledgeville, Macon and Columbus, said the Milledgeville model would work well in other Knight Foundation cities.
“This is the sort of program that is tailored to smaller and mid-sized cities,” she said. “It gives folks with great ideas the opportunity to accelerate their ideas into community-applied businesses.”
Another Knight-funded project, the College Hill Alliance, has been taking note of what’s going in Milledgeville.
The alliance is in the process of developing a shoplocalmacon.com Web site for businesses across the city and Bibb County.
Though the website will focus initially on the College Hill Corridor area and downtown Macon, Nadia Osman, who is developing the site for the alliance, said it eventually will branch out.
“It’s mostly for local businesses that don’t have a huge advertising budget,” she said. “(The alliance’s mission) is to recruit and retain businesses, and this falls in line with that.”
Osman said she’s working with Digital Bridges to develop the model, but shoplocalmacon.com will have its own tweaks to make it different. She said the alliance aims to launch in October.
Jessica Walden, director of communications and outreach for the alliance, said a seminar for businesses interested in becoming a part of the website is planned for Tuesday.
“The response (in Milledgeville) has impressed me the most,” she said. “The businesses became engaged in the idea. There’s an obvious need for it. ... It made sense to start it here.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.