COLUMBIA — After spending 2 1/2 days in Columbia in June 2002, Bruce Summers was hooked.
“One of the things I liked was the open spaces,” Summers said. “Some people don’t realize how rare that is.”
Before Summers and his wife moved from Denver in March 2003, they already knew what they were looking for: a small community with a better economy, good schools and a lower crime rate. Instead of calling real estate agents across the country, the couple used the Internet to come up with a list of cities that met their standards.
“When you put in all the criteria you get a short list,” Bruce Summers said.
The Internet has become an important tool for people looking at new places to live. The city of Columbia has recognized the trend and is trying to tap into it.
Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the bureau will create a Web and communications position in the next fiscal year. Part of the job holder’s responsibilities will be to keep the bureau’s Web site up to date and to make sure online information about Columbia is factual. She emphasized that the job will not include responding to posts on message boards on blogs.
“You can’t change a person’s impression,” she said. “What you can do is make sure everything is correct.”
Before Susan Rogers moved with her husband to southwest Missouri from California a year and a half ago, she also did her own research online. One of the more helpful Web sites was City-Data.com, an Internet database with information on U.S. cities and towns. The Web site’s statistics include population, housing, crime, local business and employment as well as local landmarks.
“I went to City-Data.com for information when I was looking to move to Missouri,” said Rogers, who asked that her current hometown not be named. “I thought, this is great. It’s really helpful.”
The site also features a forum for each state, as well as various areas within the states. According to the site, the message boards have more than 260,000 members.
The forum makes it easy for Rogers to access the information she wanted when she needed it.
“You get quick feedback,” she said. “If someone’s looking for something, they can grab it and save the page in bookmarks.”
However, the amount of information available can also hinder the efforts of those trying to ensure its accuracy. Steiner said responding to everything published online is simply not feasible.
“The amount of information on any subject on the Web is overwhelming,” she said. “It’s not something we would even try to tackle.”
Summers also recognized that his research could not be limited to just the Internet. Besides his online searches, Summers called 10 random people in the towns he was looking into to get a first-hand account. He said most people were friendly and had good things to say about Columbia.
“Seven or eight people said it was a great place to live,” Summers said.
The couple also went on a road trip through the prospective hometowns. The trip helped them to get a feel for the city they couldn’t get online. Summers said he crossed Topeka, Kan., off his list after visiting.
“The problem with Topeka was the crime rate,” he said. “We drove through and saw all the crime in the community.”
While the Summerses stopped their research after moving, Rogers has remained active in the City-Data.com community. She said the desire to help motivates her and others to participate.
“Many of us are transplants,” Rogers said. “When someone asks a question, we try to help them find the answers we wish we had when we were in their shoes. We’re very empathetic because we’ve been there, done that,”
Her participation increased as time went on, her role in the community changing with each post. She started by asking a few questions, but now she has more than a thousand posts to date and is one of the most active members.
While people talk about Columbia online, some are working to promote the city to outsiders. Chamber of Commerce President Don Laird said the chamber seeks to answer questions from potential visitors and residents through its Web site, columbiamochamber.com. The site gets about 400 visits per day, he said.
Laird does not troll message boards looking for entries about Columbia, but he does have a Google alert for blog entries on the city. He sees about 10 posts a day, most of them praising the area.
“There are a lot of positives,” he said. “Especially with True/False (film festival).”
Besides having the advantage in the amount of information available, online forums also foster a sense of community. Rogers said the City-Data forum’s participants, as well as the effectiveness of its moderators, made her feel safe and welcome, which made her comfortable enough to ask questions. That sort of environment is as important for a community online as it is for one in the physical world.
“People say the Missouri forum is the nicest, friendliest forum,” Rogers said. “We want to make this a place where people want to hang out.”
In fact, Rogers said she met many of her current friends in the City-Data forum. They chat online and sometimes talk on the phone, and some members have formed the “Over the Fence Coffee Club,” which meets once a month in coffee shops and restaurants in southwest Missouri.
“You do actually develop some real relationships online,” she said. “It’s just one of many great things we’ve come to love about living in Missouri.”
As helpful as information found on message boards can be, Laird said it is important to remember that information on the Internet is not always reliable. He said the chamber is careful to portray Columbia accurately.
“We don’t ever want to oversell it,” he said. “Some people do move here to take a chance. We try to be as truthful as possible.”