Monday, July 5, 2010

Can the Titans' crowdsourcing model work for downtown Torrington?


TORRINGTON -- Downtown revitalization is a topic that has been on the tongues of Torringtonians for over 50 years. Revitalization has become even more of a hot topic with the work of the Torrington Development Corporation, especially given that the organization has unveiled the first step in their plan. The Register Citizen recently asked whether a relatively new concept known as crowdsourcing can play a role in the revitalization of downtown Torrington. Crowdsourcing has seen success under the auspices of Our Baseball Haven, an organization that brought summer baseball back to the city this year. The Torrington Titans, formerly the Peekskill Robins, play in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League. OBH’s members raised money to purchase the Robins, then renamed them the Titans. OBH partner Brett Orzechowski read about the concept in a book by Jeff Howe called “CROWDSOURCING: WHY THE POWER OF THE CROWD IS DRIVING THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS.” Howe defines crowdsourcing as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call,” according to his website. “We took this concept of crowdsourcing and we took stock in our community,” Orzechowski said during a recent phone interview. OBH gave area residents the chance to buy into a baseball team for $100 apiece. That fee gives the member voting rights. Members voted on the team’s name, the team’s logo, and seating arrangements at Fuessenich Park. “They’re really taking an active role in the organization,” Orzechowski said. Recently, the members voted on whether to bring the Canadian National Team to the city for an exhibition game on July 13. The members have discussions through chat rooms and have helped organize events surrounding the team. “That’s the beauty of having open discussions,” Orzechowski said. “It’s been completely civil on the message boards.” Can this concept, however, be applied to the revitalization of downtown Torrington? Warner Theatre marketing director Steve Criss sees positive aspects of crowdsourcing that can applied to the efforts to transform downtown. "I think crowdsourcing could work if it is used to build consensus first and the details are then developed by the (Torrington Development Corporation) and our local government officials,” Criss said in an e-mail. Criss added, however, that final decisions should rest with officials. “Nothing goes well when it is built by committee so I don’t think crowdsourcing would work when it comes to the finer details or execution of the plan,” Criss said. “There are so many variables about why downtown does or doesn’t work, that crowdsourcing can only be used to build consensus and paint broad strokes about what downtown should be.” Overall, Criss still sees crowdsourcing as a tool that can be used to flesh out ideas. “I do think crowdsourcing could serve as a powerful tool for the city/TDC to identify what the public perceives as the problems with downtown are so that TDC and the city can work on a plan to address them,” Criss said. Some people who took a survey on the subject would agree with Criss. Several feel that involving the community would be a positive way to flesh out ideas about what should be part of downtown. Orzechowksi did not speak directly to the use of crowdsourcing in the downtown revitalization, but added that he would like to see the effort succeed. “I think there’s some value in collective problem-solving,” Orzechowski said. Northwest Connecticut Chamber of Commerce President JoAnn Ryan, a member of OBH, said that crowdsourcing has worked for OBH, though she said she could not comment on whether the concept could work downtown. Ryan said her knowledge of the concept only comes from her membership in OBH. “I give them credit for trying it because people are not accustomed to change,” Ryan said.
Several people who took the survey did see crowdsourcing as a good vehicle for fleshing out the feelings of the community at large. Some see crowdsourcing as a way to find out what stores and restaurants should be considered for downtown. Criss said that using crowdsourcing can’t be used to implement an actual plan because of variables that are involved. “There are so many variables about why downtown does or doesn’t work, that crowdsourcing can only be used to build consensus and paint broad strokes about what downtown should be,” Criss said. Funding through crowdsourcing, however, is an option, he added. Criss theorized that TDC or downtown redevelopment “members” could contribute money and get benefits, including discounted admission to downtown attractions. Criss has seem a form of crowdsourcing work. The general public helped to rejuvenate the Warner Theatre by raising money through events, or just by buying tickets to concerts or shows. Eighty percent of the theater’s operating budget comes from ticket sales, Criss said. Patrons have stepped up time and again to invest in the theater, whether it’s the theater itself or the Carole and Ray Neag Performing Arts Center, Criss said. “The Warner’s success has been because people have bought into that concept,” Criss said. The success of downtown revitalization may depend in part on how involved, and how invested, the community becomes in the effort.
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