Mwl-2006How do you share hyper-local news with your neighbors? If you live in Chittenden County, you’ve probably been using Front Porch Forum to spread the word about break-ins, lost cats and municipal meetings. The Burlington-based online community building service, created in 2006 by Michael Wood-Lewis (pictured) and his wife, Valerie, has become part of the fabric of civic life in many Vermont communities.

But the service hasn’t been available in many parts of the state. Though FPF is free to users, the company has been charging towns that wanted to launch the service a one-time set-up fee to cover the cost of building the digital infrastructure and providing a community moderator. And some cash-strapped municipalities have been reluctant to pay.

Now those Porch-free towns are going to get connected for free. The Vermont Council on Rural Development has directed $300,000 in federal disaster relief funds from the Economic Development Administration to help upgrade Front Porch Forum’s capabilities.

In a blog post announcing the award on the VCRD website, executive director Paul Costello lauded FPF’s usefulness to communities looking to organize volunteer efforts in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. “It was amazing how people shared tools and lent each other aide through this vehicle,” says Costello. “We’ve been talking to FPF co-founder Michael Wood-Lewis for three years about how we could help bring Front Porch Services to every town in the state…and today, with the support of EDA we are doing it.”

This isn’t the first time VCRD has helped FPF grow; in 2010, the organization directed $100,000 to FPF through its e-Vermont Community Broadband Project, to help the service launch in several rural areas. FPF has also received significant funding from other sources, including a $220,000 Knight News Challenge grant it won in 2010, which helped the company upgrade its software.

According to FPF CEO Michael Wood-Lewis, the new EDA money — delivered through VCRD’s Digital Economy Project — is the largest investment in the company’s history; he points out that FPF completed a competitive bidding process to obtain the funds. Wood-Lewis says he and his eight part-time employees are using the money to upgrade the software and increase outreach efforts in an effort to cover the whole state.

The roll-out will happen in stages, Wood-Lewis explains. Though registration for FPF is now available in all Vemont towns, the forum functionality — which includes regular email digests from forum members and access to posting archives — won’t kick in until 100 people sign up for a forum in any given area. Why implement a 100-person threshold? He offers an analogy: If you’re putting on a concert, he says, “you don’t start singing when the first guy shows up three hours early.” You wait until there’s a critical mass of people in the crowd.

And, he adds, this model encourages the people who want the forum to act as champions for the service and encourage their neighbors to sign up. “When there’s a local effort to attract people, there’s a much greater chance of quick success.”

He notes that there are currently 110 active forums statewide — Montpelier, Bethel and Wallingford have just launched. Ninety more are in the registration stage. About 60,000 people statewide are signed up for the service.

The company relies on advertising revenue from local businesses to support its day-to-day operations. It also charges some municipal officials and organizations a fee to gain access to multiple forums — the typical FPF user can only participate in a single forum.

So, Wood-Lewis clarifies, the service is free for the town clerk of Bristol, which is covered by one forum. But entities such as the Chittenden Solid Waste District pay a fee to communicate with all of the forums in the CSWD service area.

Would FPF be open to creating new revenue streams by allowing non-governmental entitites, such as businesses — or news organizations — to pay for access to multiple forums? Wood-Lewis confirms that it’s “on our docket to explore forum enhancements,” adding: “Of course, we want to protect the integrity of our core offering.”

If you’re not familiar with FPF and want to see what all the fuss is about — and you live in Vermont — you can sign up here.