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Virtual town square coming to Manatee

BRADENTON — Manatee County will soon have a virtual town square called Connect Manatee, thanks to a $41,250 grant from the John S. and James S. Knight Foundation to the Manatee Community Foundation.

Manatee Community Foundation was one of 21 winners nationwide who will participate in the Knight Foundation’s $24 million initiative to help community foundations find creative ways to use media and technology to keep communities informed.

Partners in the Connect Manatee project include the Bradenton Herald, Bradenton.com and Manatee Educational Television, said Marilyn Howard, executive director of the Community Foundation.

“The overall plan is to provide information for the community on issues revolving around nonprofits, schools and community organizations,” Howard said. “This will not be a site that replaces United Way 211 of Manasota, the social services hotline. This will be a site where people who want to volunteer and support organizations can find out about the activities and missions of nonprofits.”

“The Bradenton Herald and Bradenton.com are excited to be partnering with the Community Foundation on this project,” said Bob Turner, publisher. “Bradenton.com will lend technical support and host the Web site. Jackie Luper, our vice president of interactive media, will also be a consultant on this much-needed project.”

Howard added, “Bradenton.com will be doing the heavy lifting by building the Connect Manatee site. Manatee Educational TV will provide 12 to 15 hours of additional programming on local nonprofits and their projects.”

Charles Clapsaddle, station manager for Manatee Educational TV and Manatee Government Access TV, said he was thrilled to be project partner.

“The concept behind this project is very important to all segments of the community to provide information that is relevant and locally oriented,” he said.

He envisions programming that will reach out to underserved segments of the county on critical issues like HIV/AIDS and affordable housing.

Howard offered an example of a video report on an agency like Habitat for Humanity that shows the construction progress on new homes that would accompany information on how to volunteer for the project. “We are also talking about a section devoted to stories that come from nonprofits about the work they are doing,” Howard said.

The grant covers three years of production, including a two-year contract for a VISTA volunteer who will work with local nonprofits to generate content for the site.

Howard said the partners are also discussing selling advertising on the site and perhaps charging a registry fee that will raise revenue to keep Connect Manatee operating for years to come.

“Our plan is to create a network of community Web sites that will promote access to this kind of information,” Howard said. “We hope participating nonprofits will include a Connect Manatee logo and link on their Web sites to drive visitors to the virtual town square Web site. It’s all about building and sustaining a community.”

Knight Foundation president and chief executive Alberto Ibargüen believes such networks are critical to freedom.

“At Knight Foundation, we firmly believe that you cannot effectively manage the affairs of a community in a democracy without the free flow of information,” he said. “That’s why we believe that information is a core community need, as critical as any to a healthy community.”

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