Archived Story

Albert Lea government launches new Web site

Published 4:05pm Saturday, January 17, 2009

Albert Lea’s city government has a new Web site, and the cost of making it was a steal.

And it was all because of a ride on the Pelican Breeze II last summer.

The new site went live Thursday, the day of the announcement of a citywide health makeover by AARP and Blue Zones. It’s not merely a new front page or a site managed by an Internet provider. It also isn’t the kind of site where only one employee knows how to make changes.

It is a Web-based content management system that allows officials in each department to change their pages without needing much knowledge of Internet language, said Teresa Kauffmann, the city’s public information coordinator.

Some cities pay a consultant $10,000, $20,000, even $50,000 for a Web-based content-management site that looks professional and is consistent through and through. Fairbault is one instance.

Albert Lea, however, paid $720 to local resident Jeshua Erickson last December, she said. Kauffmann was in charge of the site’s revision, and last October she put together a committee of city officials to advise her.

She said the committee decided to shoot for a site using a content management system — or CMS — but it was outside of her Internet skills. The city began seeking estimates from Web design companies. When the estimates returned, they realized the city couldn’t afford it.

“We just didn’t feel we could justify spending $20,000-plus on a Web site,” Kauffmann said. “I happened to run into Jeshua Erickson on the Pelican Breeze one day, and we talked about Web sites and how he was developing them using WordPress.”

WordPress offers open-source, simple-to-use templates for Web sites for zero cost.

“We found an open-source WordPress template that was for cities, and we just modified the living daylights out of it,” Erickson said. “It started as an open template, but we did a lot of changes to suit the needs they (city officials) wanted.”

The old site was created in 2004. Hosted by Austin-based Southern Minnesota Internet Group, it left city officials several hoops to jump through for basic changes. Basically, SMIG had the keys. The new site’s host is an Internet company called 1&1 but because of the CMS nature of WordPress templates, Kauffmann and city officials have the keys. No more calling Austin. Now, they simply go to a special administration site that manages the main site.

What you’ll see

The city’s main Web address remains the same,www.city.albertlea.org, but there is a second address that works for the same site, www.cityofalbertlea.org. Kauffmann said the city will have www.ci.albertlea.mn.us — the well-known national sequence for city Web addresses — once a few more steps are finished.

One aspect people at the site will notice is the consistency in design. The former Web site seemed like an amalgamation of many Web sites; each department looked different. The new Web site unites the city departments in one look.

“No matter whether people go to police or fire, it looks like they are on the same site,” Erickson said.

The old department sites sometimes failed to give necessary information, such as addresses and phone numbers. The new site is consistent in providing the day-to-day info people seek.

Kauffmann said she and Erickson pushed for an easy-to-view, clean design. And she said the home page of the city site should be more fluid and less static. In other words, it will change more often than the old site’s home page did. There is a calendar, too, for people to find upcoming events.

She credited Erickson for saving the city money and for helping her to learn.

“This has been good for me, too, because now I know how to do a Web site this way,” she said.

Erickson said Kauffmann did “a tremendous amount of work” to bring the Web site’s pages together. He also credited City Manager Victoria Simonsen for seeing the need of a single design for all departments.

“She was really on board with this,” he said.

He said he decided to get involved at the low rate out of city pride.

“I live in Albert Lea, and I really want them to have a good city Web site,” Erickson said. “It just says a lot. It’s like your storefront for the Internet world.”

Focus groups

There are more changes to come, Kauffmann said.

She said she will head focus groups comprising Albert Lea citizens. She said she seeks members of all ages, backgrounds and computer skills. People interested in being on a focus group for the city Web site can contact Kauffmann at 377-4380 or tkauffmann@city.albertlea.org.