February 6, 2014

Champaign seeks to expand online services for neighborhoods

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Photo of Colleen Madera

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Colleen Madera with the revised city of Champaign Neighborhood Services web site at city hall in Champaign on Thursday, February 5, 2015.

The city of Champaign’s Neighborhood Services Department says it is close to completion on an upgrade of its website to create an interactive, social forum for community groups.

The new website is part of the initiative known as the Neighborhood Wellness Action Plan. The initiative includes projects such as restoring dilapidated buildings, distributing public information and promoting citizen participation activities.

As part of that effort, the department will have a new, interactive website called Neighbors of Champaign.

The website has been planned and worked on for several years. But it is set to open at end of this month, said Colleen Madera, the Neighborhood Services Department administrative assistant.

The website will include:

  • Links to each registered neighborhood’s page
  • A leaders forum, which allows representatives from different neighborhoods to post questions and advice
  • A resources page for neighborhood associations and groups
  • A photo gallery
  • A breaking news section
  • An interactive map that will allow users to see where groups and their boundaries are located.

The department was created in 1992 to implement Champaign’s health and wellness charter. Since then, it has worked with over 70 neighborhoods on community building efforts, neighborhood engagement initiatives and other neighborhood improvements.

But the city has struggled to get neighborhood associations and groups to register with the city. Registration is free.

“One of the questions that we had always gotten was, ‘OK, so if my group registers with the city, what do we get out of it?’” Madera said.

Madera said attendance at neighborhood meetings has gone down because of members’ busy schedules. She said she hopes the website will help neighborhood groups maintain current members, acquire new members, and push and promote their projects.

John Ruffin, the department’s neighborhood coordinator, said the website is the next step of engagement and participation between the groups. He said he hopes it will engage volunteers in the community by allowing them to sign up for groups they may be interested in and alerting them when there is work available.

He said he also hopes the general public will view the website as a tool to get a firsthand assessment of the neighborhoods.

“This really gives folks a grassroots, or birds-eye view, of neighborhoods through the perspective of residents who live there on a day-to-day basis as opposed to what the media is pushing out or what the marketing folks might be pushing out,” he said.

Both Ruffin and Madera said the site should improve registration of associations and groups.

Madera said neighborhoods “will see this as an opportunity and understand that there are definite benefits in registering with the city.”

Madera estimates there are currently 15 associations that are not registered with the city, and Madera said most of those belong to homeowners associations.

Madera said the department can help neighborhood watch groups develop a relationship with the police department. The department also has a small grant program.

“As a registered group, you are able to apply for funds to help with activities to strengthen your neighborhoods, you know, block parties to get your neighbors out,” Madera said.

Madera said neighborhood associations may have their own covenants and bylaws, but by registering they might get additional services. Madera said the new website should make registering with the city an easier task.

Once groups are registered, the department will offer training sessions to ensure that group leaders keep their webpages updated. Registered groups have to re-register annually, and Ruffin said the update process this year will be training registered groups on the backend management of their pages.

“We don’t know if that’ll be an ongoing thing, but certainly as we roll it out this year, that’s part of our engagement and outreach plan for this upcoming update period,” Ruffin said.