Last week's rollout of a Grant County website helped the county government take a big step out of the past. Websites are common communications tools for governments trying to inform and serve residents, newcomers and businesses considering relocating to their regions. Grant County has lagged behind in embracing this not-so-new technological advance, so local officials should be congratulated for recognizing and remedying that situation.
That said, the design of the new site crosses a line by promoting commercial activity by Seattle-based mega-retailer - make that e-tailer - Amazon.com. The new site has a window that links directly to the retail sales giant.
The county's economic development director, Sally Bartlett, explained the intent last week: to showcase Oregon and regional books while generating a little revenue - "a few pennies" - on such sales. The window on the website lists several regionally-interesting titles to entice users to click through to Amazon's site.
While it's a laudable idea to interest people in Oregon history and geography, the sales link raises several issues. First, there are some local businesses that might like to sell a copy of "The Oregon Desert" or some other tome. If anyone should get a special link on the county's website, and that's debatable, one might expect it to be a local firm, not an Internet giant that has no stake in the local economy.
But if Amazon.com is acceptable, where do you draw the line? Lowes.com? Cabelas.com? Walmart.com? Other businesses would probably appreciate the ability to pitch their products through Grant County without the bother of having to pay local rent and overhead, support Little League teams, or take care of all those other bothersome details of doing business in a small community. In fact, a lot of e-businesses already are marketing to local residents, but the question at hand is not whether Internet shopping is popular. The issue is whether public funds should be used to promote such business, ushering it into our homes in direct competition with local merchants.
If that seems like an exaggeration of what's happening, consider this: A click on the County site's Amazon portal last week took the user directly to a page that was showcasing not books, but tennis shoes, cell phones, small electronics, sporting goods and more. We may not sell a lot of history books here, but we do have local merchants who are trying to make ends meet with those other products.
The bottom line: It's unseemly for public money to be used to promote a commercial enterprise, even if there's a prospect for "pennies" in revenue. Bartlett said this week that the issue hadn't arisen in the design stage, but that she's willing to talk to the Court about it. That's good. We hope they twice about Amazon sales. After all, the primary goal of the county's website is to support economic development - not Amazon's, but ours right here in Grant County.