Jim Kenyon: A $361,500 Front Porch

Not long after the flood waters from Tropical Storm Irene had receded in 2011, the federal relief dollars started pouring into Vermont.

They did a lot of good, but I’m not sure all the money has been well spent.

Exhibit A: Last year, a Burlington company called Front Porch Forum received $361,500 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to create a statewide network of online community discussion groups, better known as “listservs.”

In theory, the next time a natural disaster strikes, Vermonters would go online to their community’s Front Porch listserv to find out, among other things, where to get free bottled water and who has a chain saw to borrow. Fortunately, such catastrophes are rare, so I don’t foresee a big demand for Front Porch to play the role of town crisis crier.

Then what’s the purpose of Front Porch?

As I see it, the feds have dumped hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into a private company that helps people find missing cats and sell used kayaks, which are the kind of things that listservs excel at.

In the Upper Valley, particularly, the idea of the federal government subsidizing a business to establish and operate a community’s listserv seems like a waste. Volunteers have been doing the same job for more than a decade in some Upper Valley towns. Vital Communities, a nonprofit organization based in White River Junction, now oversees listservs in 20 towns that have a combined 16,000 subscribers.

The service costs Vital Communities about $1,000 a year. The nonprofit also has to pay its web media manager, Stacey Glazer, who spends part of her work week on listserv matters. But I think it’s fair to say that’s not a huge expense. In other words, a $361,500 federal handout could go a long way at Vital Communities.

Front Porch Forum started out as a hobby in 2000 for Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis. It was a way to meet and get to know people in their Burlington neighborhood. By 2006, they had turned it into a business that they continue to operate out of their home. Michael Wood-Lewis, who previously worked for a nonprofit environmental organization, told me he and his wife have built their business on “sweat equity and pluck.” They also sell advertising and solicit private donations (more on that shortly).

Their big break came in January 2013 when Vermont’s congressional delegation announced the state had been awarded a $1.8 million federal grant to “help businesses, farms, towns and nonprofits use online resources to bolster disaster resiliency in the wake of Irene and other disasters that struck Vermont in 2011.”

The nonprofit Vermont Council on Rural Development was put in charge of doling out the disaster funds. Paul Costello, the council’s executive director, told me that his organization considered several proposals for establishing a statewide network of listservs, but Front Porch Forum was by far the most impressive.

A “good chunk (of the $361,500) went into software development,” said Michael Wood-Lewis. Some of the money was also used for marketing, he added. Front Porch now operates 185 listservs across Vermont, including 20 in Burlington. About 40,000 of its 75,000 members are in Chittenden County.

Front Porch’s goal is to have a listserv that covers every one of Vermont’s 250 or so communities. To start a listserv, Front Porch requires 50 residents to sign up. Although subscribing is free, from what I can tell, the company hasn’t made much of a dent in the Upper Valley.

And for good reason.

It appears that in many communities, Front Porch is trying to duplicate a service that already exists. In 2004, the company known as ValleyNet, which started out as an Internet service provider, assumed the administration and oversight of the Thetford listserv. Other communities followed. Earlier this year, Vital Communities took over for ValleyNet.

To get a better understanding of what’s going on, I called Stan Williams, of Norwich, who serves on the governing boards at both ValleyNet and Vital Communities. I’ve always looked at him as a founding father of listservs in the Upper Valley. So what’s he think about Front Porch Forum?

“I really don’t see a need for it,” he said. “You want to keep control of these things as local as possible.”

I also talked with Thetford Selectman Tig Tillinghast, who is the volunteer moderator for Vital Communities’ listservs in Fairlee, Norwich, Sharon and Strafford. A listserv run by a for-profit company that includes advertising (Vital Communities’ does not) is not a “bad thing,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean Front Porch should have received the $361,500 in federal money, Tillinghast said. “The money could have been used to expand broadband (service) in underserved areas,” he argued.

Apparently, Front Porch isn’t content with just being a recipient of corporate welfare. To raise additional funds, the company has taken a page from public radio. On its website, Front Porch asks people to “become a supporting member” to “help further our community building efforts.” Supporters can make a one-time donation (anywhere from $15 to $150 is suggested), or they can have money automatically deducted from their checking account every month. Only at the end of the solicitation does Front Porch acknowledge that it’s “not a charity and contributions are not tax deductible.”

When I asked Wood-Lewis about his company’s fundraising, he compared it to “passing the hat.”

A hat, I might add, that taxpayers have helped knit.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com .