Webinar: Developing Strategic Plans for Smaller Cities
Scott Burkhead: Good morning to everybody on the West Coast and in the Midwest, and good afternoon to folks on Eastern time. Thank you for attending. I’m Scott Burkhead, and this is my guest, Christopher Gergen. We’re going to be talking today about how to grow smaller cities. By growth, we mean make them a better place for stakeholders, attract talent, keep young people in the community, attract jobs, and in some cases increase number of visitors.
We could also call this How to Improve Life for Stakeholders and Compete for Talent, because it’s a very competitive world that we work in. But, we’ve got a lot to cover, so to start off, I want to introduce Christopher Gergen. Christopher, can you talk a bit about your background?
Christopher G.: Sure. Yeah, Scott. It’s great to be here, and look forward to getting into an engaging conversation. And I want to try to make this as interactive as we can over the course of this time. My focus really per this conversation here is really around the idea of how do we build entrepreneurial ecosystems? How do we help cities and communities cultivate more entrepreneurial activity and connectivity and lead to economic growth in a meaningful way?
I come from an entrepreneurial background, which I’ll share a little bit more about over the course of the next few minutes. But really my thrust over the last several years has been on this idea of building entrepreneurial communities across the country and in North Carolina. So looking forward to the conversation.
Scott Burkhead: Thanks, Christopher. I founded Burkhead Brand Group a few years ago after spending most of my career with with large advertising agencies where I was involved primarily at the front end, with positioning and branding. About two years ago, we realized that clients like ALM Antillean Airlines, the Island of Bonaire, and the new city of Chatham Park were some of the most exciting and interesting work that we had done. So as the result of that thinking we decided to focus our practice on Place Based clients. Recently we’ve worked on the Carolina Inn, Chatham Park, and Crossroads Restaurant, and a number of similar clients.
So we have a lot to cover, and … Let’s talk about what’s happening to the U.S. economy. We’ve moved to a metro-centric economy. While the country’s doing great with a lot of growth and good numbers announced by the Commerce Department, the fact is a lot of that growth is in the top 30 to 50 metro areas. The rest of the country, smaller cities and towns in particular, aren’t doing so well. We all know some of the reasons for that: loss of manufacturing, loss of mining jobs, and cultural conditions that work against keeping talented, young, educated workers. And sometimes you’ve got an aging infrastructure or even political apathy.
One of the points we want to make in this webinar is that a lot of smaller cities that actually are doing quite well internally in terms of keeping themselves strong and fresh, don’t communicate their appeal. They depend on consultants or maybe on economic development groups far away to tell their story.
We say it’s an American problem because it tends to be discussed as a Rust Belt problem or a smaller-cities-within-the-Midwest problem, but the fact is it’s something that’s affecting the country from California to Florida. Almost all cities and counties, and states even, are looking for growth opportunities. And it’s hard, hard to find. The competition is brutal.
Now one of the points we’re going to make is that cities, just like products, must clearly stand for something. The whole idea of a generalized group of features and benefits doesn’t compete very well in this economy. Also I want to mention that we have a chat line. So as we go through this, if anyone has any questions or thoughts, please take advantage of that, and we’ll try to answer those questions.
In order to have strategies, we need a goal, an objective. Maybe the objective that we can use, at least for this discussion, and it may be a little bit different for each of you, could be to enhance stakeholder (read citizens) experience and attract talent, jobs, and visitors. So if we can use that as a working goal, then that allows us to look at a couple of strategies.
If you’ve got an objective and a vision, it’s might be time to put a stake in the ground and say to your community and to your leaders, “This is our vision, and here are some of the strategies that we’ve got to put in place if we’re going to reach that vision.” At the same time you’re doing that, it is really critically important we think as cities start to rebrand themselves to begin talking about the your current appeal and trying to create some awareness while you’re reaching your objective.
So, Christopher, can you talk to us about some of the local and innovative ecosystems that you’ve been responsible for- I think in many cases that you’re helping to implement in other communities?
Christopher G.: Sure. And again, I want to remind people that if you have questions along the way, just feel free to jump into that chat bar, and we’ll be able to take them along the way. And I’ll move with a reasonable degree of alacrity through the beginning of this deck to provide a little bit of context in terms of where I’m coming from and where I’m putting a lot of my energies and why I’m putting a lot of my energies into building entrepreneurial ecosystems.
My very first endeavor towards launching a new entrepreneurial venture was actually when I was 24 years old, where I started a coffee shop/bar/restaurant down in Santiago, Chile. Scott, if you could help give me the controls to be able to advance my slide, that with be great.
Scott Burkhead: Okay, good.
Christopher G.: Let me provide just a little bit of context here. I come from a fairly traditional education background. I graduated from Duke University as an undergraduate, went to go work for CNN in Atlanta. But I started recognizing the fact that I really wanted to be deep into communities helping to transform them in a meaningful way, and ended up in Latin America with a particular focus on education development.
When I arrived in Santiago, Chile, it was an interesting time to be there because it was, and this speaks a little bit to our conversation, there were a lot of dynamics in play. Pinochet had been deposed in 1989, and he had … And this was 1994, so five years later there was a lot of dynamism and activity but not really much infrastructure to be able to help harness that talent and energy. So with nothing to lose, I ended up raising $40,000, a local investment, and starting this coffee shop/bar/restaurant, which you can see there, which really was a community-led effort.
We harnessed the energy of artists and the local business community and the universities and put together this place where we had live music five nights a week, a rotating art gallery, and a restaurant. It really became a catalyst for community transformation in this neighborhood called Nunoa, and this was called Café Nunoa.
I ended up selling the café and moving back to the States and then doing my graduate work with a particular focus on becoming an education entrepreneur, and really started paying attention to this idea of how we could develop next-generation change-making leaders. That brought me to Duke University, where I run something called the Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative and have been very actively involved in social innovation and entrepreneurship activities.
So you can see the work that we do through our company, Forward Impact, really thinking about this idea of the talent pipeline and thinking about how we’re developing next-generation, again, innovators and problem solvers through the K-12 system, through the university system, etc. But apropos to this conversation you could put all this time and energy into developing the talent pipeline, but if you’re not creating the enabling conditions and communities to harness that talent and energy in a meaningful way, that talent will leave. So you’ll have a brain drain issue. Or it will never take root and grow.
So I’ve been involved in a number of initiatives to try to help capture and harness that energy, ranging from building out North Carolina’s largest entrepreneurial co-working community where we have about 100,000 square feet of entrepreneurial space serving and supporting about 300 companies. We have a seven-bedroom house called the Think House, which is what you see here, for early-career entrepreneurs to help them land and live in a living and learning community in Raleigh.
We also have a seven-bedroom house in Durham called Teach House for early-career teachers, trying to keep our best and brightest in our Durham Public School system. These are some of the efforts that I’ve been to for a while.
But with time, what I’ve really come to conclude is that there are some underlying tenets with regards to this work, and really where I want to spend the majority of our time talking, which is I deeply believe that the future of our economies and our communities is dependent upon our ability to innovate. So we have to be able to look at the challenges facing us, the new economic opportunities, and drive new ideas forward. That’s going to be the future of our economy. It’s going to be the future of our communities. It’s going to be the future of our workforce and our jobs, etc.
That innovation is often place-based within communities, within cities, in terms of building the right kinds of conditions in place to be able to harness that talent and energy, that these efforts ultimately do need to be intentional, to Scott’s earlier point. Communities have to be thinking intentionally about how to build out these place-based strategies to cultivate innovation ecosystems, and that those efforts do need to be connected with one another in a meaningful way. So that’s been a lot of my work, which I’ll talk about.
Then finally, which is a really important point here, which is that if we’re not also intentional about inclusion and equity through this process and bringing in communities that are traditionally disconnected from the innovation ecosystem, particularly women, communities of color, immigrants, that we’re only going to be exacerbating some of the inequities at hand. So a lot of my work has been focused on this idea of how do you create true, place-based, inclusive innovation ecosystems?
As we think about what the levers are, what are the conditions that need to be in place in order to create a true entrepreneurial ecosystem? We think that there are five essential levers here. The first is how do we create the talent pipeline? How do we home-grow it through our K-12 systems, our universities, our community colleges, and create a true talent pipeline? And as I mentioned, a lot of my career and my focus has been on building up this talent pipeline.
The second, and I had mentioned also, is how do we retain that talent? So not only how do we home-grow it, but how do we keep it in our communities in a meaningful way so that people don’t feel like they need to move to the larger metro areas, like D.C., Boston, New York, Denver, Seattle, etc., but actually they can take root and grow within their immediate community?
Then how do we continue to recruit new talent into our cities and into our communities in a meaningful way? And how do we create something attractive of them to come to? That’s a big piece of this talent pipeline question, which is that build.
The second piece of this, which is the enabling environment that I’ve spoken to. How do we connect this talent, these emerging innovators and problem solvers with the resources and relationships to be successful? How do we provide them with mentorship, coaching, a community for them to tap into, spaces where they feel comfortable and inspired and excited to come to work and build business and build enterprises? How do we-
Scott Burkhead: Christopher, if I could interrupt for a second.
Christopher G.: Sure.
Scott Burkhead: I’m looking at the guest list, and we have towns of 5,000 people represented and also towns of a couple hundred thousand. But what you’re talking about is not dependent on size, I don’t think. I think it’s just dependent on the attitude of the community. Is that a fair statement?
Christopher G.: Yeah. It’s not only attitude, but it’s also how to leverage existing assets. That’s a great question. And we’ve done this in communities ranging from Pembroke, North Carolina, which is a small rural community in Southern North Carolina, to thinking through how to build up larger ecosystems in larger cities, ranging from Greensboro to Detroit to Cleveland to New Orleans. So it does translate well from micropolitan communities, smaller communities, to larger cities.
I think the key thing is you do need to have a reasonable density of assets to work with. You need to have some kind of, often have a higher education presence, community college, a private college, university of some sort that allows you to build up that talent in a meaningful way and keep that talent actively plugged in.
The other key thing on the enabling side is to have some kind of space in place for people to get plugged into. As I mentioned, I’m the founding partner of a company called HQ Community. We have HQ Raleigh and HQ Greensboro that create these kinds of spaces for people to be able to plug into. And it’s a different way of working. It’s the future of work. And I’ve seen, again, small communities really create very successful, very dynamic entrepreneurial community spaces, as well as larger cities obviously. So I do think, Scott, to your question, I do think it translates from smaller community to larger community …
Christopher G.: with fairly universal strategies, but are customized to the particular community in terms of their asset base, their character. So what I frequently talk about in terms of communities is don’t try to be another Silicon Valley. Try to be a unique innovation ecosystem in your own right in a meaningful way. Did I answer your question?
Scott Burkhead: Yes, thank you. That’s helpful.
Christopher G.: Cool. And again, for those who are chiming in, and if you want to brings your own particular community’s perspective to bear on this, feel free to chime in on that chat bar and ask any questions, because I’m happy to address them.
Just to round out the levers of this ecosystem, again thinking about talent pipeline, creating this enabling environment. That’s the resources and relationship I was talking about. The other important thing here for a community to get to is be really clear about what success looks like, and be able to measure your progress against it, and have good data. I find that so often communities don’t do a good job of tracking things like how many new businesses were started in the community? How many jobs are being produced by small business in the entrepreneurial community? How much investment is being brought into this work?
That data piece is really important because it helps to provide good baseline data, and then if you can track progress, it then lends itself to that other piece of it, which is advocacy. How do we really think about municipal policy in a meaningful way? We’ve just produced a tool kit actually on the Forward Cities website. If you go to ForwardCities.org, you can go look at that municipal policy tool kit. We put six policies there, which we think smaller communities and larger cities could use to be able to stimulate their innovation economy.
But I think you really have to look at how well your economic and community development policy is with small-business growth. Where are the regulations that are standing in the way? And where are there opportunities to really help provide greater amount of support for these communities? For example, having somebody within city or county government who’s focused on innovation and entrepreneurial activity and connectivity, and really helping to drive that work forward. Can the city come in and help to de-risk some of the loans that are being made to small businesses in communities, by being able to guarantee those loans and be able to help bring more Small Business Administration SBA loans into the community?
So there’s lots of different ways that I’ve seen cities take a creative approach to really fostering the local innovation ecosystem because most economic development policy that I’ve seen in communities tends to be geared around trying to attract larger companies into communities, which I think is good and I think is important, but I don’t think it’s the only economic development policy that’s out there, especially for smaller communities that will have a harder time competing for these larger businesses. Part of it is trying to just figure out a way that you can home-grow some really good innovation activity and drive new jobs through small-business growth and entrepreneurial activity like I talked about.
And then, Scott, near and dear to your heart, and the thrust of this conversation is, how do you tell the story about what’s going on, and shining a light on some of the most exciting things that are going on? I’ve got a colleague of mine and friend of mine that writes for the New York Times, David Bornstein, who has this great saying that, “Problems scream, while solutions whisper.” And I think one of the things that is incumbent upon all of is to be able to amplify the solutions, talk about some of the cool things that are going on, and shape the narrative, the future narrative of your city that you want to see in a meaningful way. And I know Scott will get into that in terms of some of your slides later on.
These are the five levers like we talk about. We call it BEMAS. BEMAS is the acronym: Build, Enable, Measure, Advocate, and Share. And I think importantly as you’re thinking about these kinds of levers and thinking about ways that you can strengthen your work in this arena, then the question is, is it available to everybody? So I think that’s the really important piece here in terms of being able to bring good equity.
I’m going to bring that to the next slide here. Scott, I think you seem to have grabbed the control again.
Scott Burkhead: I don’t know; guess I just can’t help myself –
Christopher G.: There it is – got to lead.
Scott Burkhead: Just my nature, Christopher –
Christopher G.: No. Can’t help yourself.
Scott Burkhead: Okay, time to move on.
Christopher G.: This is the important piece here, which is as you’re thinking about building out each of these levers, how do you think about it in a way that is again truly inclusive in nature, so that you’re thinking about the talent pipeline against across all of your demographics and making sure that you’re serving all of your young people in the community. As you’re creating the enabling condition, making sure you’re actively including communities of color, the immigrant population, women. Some of the best way I’ve heard about this in terms of diversity is in diversity you’re getting invited to the dance, and inclusion means you’re being invited to dance.
So how do we help more communities get invited to the dance and be an active part of these communities? Then how do we measure our progress against equity, through an equity lens? Same thing with our public policy, and same thing with our narratives. So really paying attention to this idea that it really does reflect the kind of fully integrated, inclusive community that I think all your communities will aspire to be, because they’ll only be richer for it. That’s a little bit about the ecosystem.
Christopher G.: … click me forward here, Scott, or can I …
Scott Burkhead: You should have control. If you don’t, I’ll move you forward.
Christopher G.: All right. There we go. As I mentioned, we’ve now launched to the point of being connected. We’ve launched a multi-city learning collaborative across the country call Forward Cities between Durham, New Orleans, Cleveland, and Detroit, focused on trying to help these cities take a much more intentional approach towards place-based inclusive innovation ecosystem development. You can get a lot more information from ForwardCities.org.
But recognizing the population here of smaller communities and communities that are interested in really thinking about how they can accelerate their path into a knowledge-based economy, I think probably one of a more appropriate model here is the work that we’ve done with InnovateNC, again broadly applicable to other states, other communities. But the quick backstory here is that we’d launched this multi-city learning collaborative nationally, but I really felt like we might be able to help stimulate the innovation economy more broadly across North Carolina.
In North Carolina, about 80% of our innovation output and entrepreneurial output is in the Triangle in Charlotte. So a group of 10 partners came together to think about ways that we could help to stimulate North Carolina’s innovation economy in cities and communities and smaller communities across the state outside of the Triangle in Charlotte.
When we put out the call to communities across the state to say, “Would you be interested in participating in a multi-city learning collaborative, going through a two-year process, taking an intentional approach about improving the conditions in your community to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurial and small-business growth?” we had 18 communities across North Carolina apply to be part of this. We ultimately selected five based upon geographic and demographic diversity.
And those five are Wilmington, Wilson, which is a small micropolitan community outside or Raleigh; Pembroke, which I mentioned earlier, which is in Southern North Carolina is a rural community; Greensboro; and Asheville. And it’s been a really exciting process to work with each of these communities, to really think about how they take a much more intentional approach to accelerating their own, again, innovation ecosystem.
Let me walk us through what the goals of this initiative have been for each of these respective communities and the process that we took. Again, it might stimulate some questions that folks on this webinar have. But the goals that we collectively set out to try to get to is, first and foremost, how do we increase the innovation capacity, activity, and connectivity in these communities? So how do we make sure that the innovation output … And by that, I mean specifically, and we’ll get to it a little bit later, but how do we grow more small businesses? How do we create more livable-wage jobs? How do we create greater density in downtown areas and stimulate Main Street activity? How do we help keep more talent in our communities in a meaningful way?
We were really focused on this idea of how we help to accelerate that. We were also really interested in how we could increase opportunities for collaboration and best-practice sharing and learning between communities in a meaningful way, and that we were able to bring more resources and visibility to bear on this work. So these are the goals that we set out for InnovateNC.
And the process we took in these communities, which I hope will be helpful … And it should be noted that we’re in the process of codifying all these tools. And we’re going to be putting these tools up on the website that will be really available to all communities as well as the Forward Cities website, so InnovateNC.org and ForwardCities.org, is where you can find these tools. As I mentioned, we already have the municipal policy tool kit up on the Forward Cities website.
But what we did within each of these communities to help them take a much more intentional approach is we helped them put together a local innovation council. And this is a really important process of bringing key stakeholders together around the community who could collectively contribute to and inform the community’s future innovation economy. Again, we had representatives across those five levers. So we had people coming from the education systems, from the entrepreneurial environment, accelerators, incubators, co-working spaces, investors, entrepreneurs themselves.
We had good data partners in this, especially with the university. They could bring real data tools to bear. We had people from the policy arena and the business community, from the community foundation, as well as from journalism and storytellers that we brought into the mix.
We formed an executive committee, which had two co-chairs and then four committee leaders. And those four committees, as I’ve pointed out here, we had a data committee, a policy committee, a strategic planning committee, and a storytelling committee. What that allowed is that people were able to participate on each one of those committees as they saw fit.
For example, on the data committee, we have a whole community asset mapping tool. So if you go to InnovateNC.org right now, you can get the asset mapping tool that we’ve developed, which is a very dynamic tool to be able to go out and see all of the assets you have that pertain to your local innovation ecosystem. And it’s a really robust, very cool tool, and is an opportunity to go, again, see what you have out there, and then also to identify where the gaps are.
We also put together an attitudinal survey that can be distributed through Survey Monkey. It’s an opportunity to go out and hear from your community directly about where the community sees the strengths of the local innovation ecosystem, where the gaps are, what they would like to see going forward. And that’s something interestingly enough that gives you a good finger on the pulse of how well your community thinks you’re doing to create these kinds of conditions, this kind of innovation ecosystem.
And now we have been able to run that same survey twice with our communities – when we first launched, and a year into it. It was interesting to see what things had moved, what things had changed, how attitudes had shifted related to the local innovation ecosystem.
Scott Burkhead: It seems that running that every year, Christopher, you can re-plot the course if you need to or at least you have encouragement for what you’ve already done. Is that-
Christopher G.: Yeah. Exactly right, Scott. So there’s two different things you could get out of that attitudinal survey. One is being able to track your progress. But two is to be able to get a really nice feedback loop to say, is the stuff that we’re doing making a difference? Do people appreciate it? Is it addressing the gaps? Again, I want to stress the idea that you need to make sure that that attitudinal survey the people who are responding to that are representative. So you need a large enough sample size, and you need to make sure it’s getting to a broad swath of the population that you’re really targeting to understand …
Because in some cases, in the communities that I’ve been part of, some parts of the community will feel very well-served, and other parts of the community won’t. So paying attention to who feels underserved in this context is incredibly informative in terms of where money should be spent, where time and energy should be spent, and where you can get your highest return on investment.
That informs the data piece of it. We also have been able to develop a bit of a policy audit tool. As I mentioned, there are good policies that the various municipalities can take on in terms of economic and community development policy. And some communities have done that well. Many communities haven’t. So it’s a nice opportunity to look at what are the policies in place? Where are the policies that are helping? Where are the policies that are hurting? And where are some areas where there might be some gaps but could really be filled in and could be strengthened? That’s the role of the policy committee.
Then with those audits, that data, you can actually start to plot out what is the strategic plan going forward for this community in terms of being able to accelerate its innovation
Ecosystem. First and foremost, what does success look like? Over the course of the next three to five years, what do you want the community to look like in terms of its innovation output? How many more businesses do you want to have launched, in what sectors? How many jobs is it going to create? How much investment is it going to attract? How much talent are you going to be able to retain?
By setting some measurable outcomes and getting alignment on that, a community can really come together and say, “Okay, we are all rowing in the same direction, and we know what success looks like. And now we can begin to develop a set of strategies to achieve those outcomes in a meaningful way.” Once you have those strategies in place, you actually have to be paying attention to, “Okay, who’s going to get this work done? Who’s going to be responsible for rolling these strategies out?”
And that’s the role of this backbone organization or organizations. That has taken many different forms in the communities that I’ve worked in, ranging from it being housed at the chamber of commerce to being housed in an independent nonprofit organization, into a local incubator or co-working space that is really committed to advancing this kind of work. Often it’s a combination of organizations that will be responsible.
Then once you really understand the backbone organization, you understand the strategies aligned with those outcomes, then it’s time to say, “What kind of resources do we need to be able to advance this in a meaningful way?” And being able to fund that locally, also from state and national funding sources. In North Carolina, we’re actually looking to launch a new community innovation fund, funded out of the legislature to be able to create public dollars that would be matched privately to invest in these kinds of strategic plans going forward.
Then finally, it’s this whole piece of weaving in storytelling all along the way. That link that’s there is a link to five different half-hour programs that we’ve developed for each, one half-hour program for each of the five InnovateNC communities, where we did stories about some of the interesting things that were happening in each of those communities. We told a story about Pembroke’s emerging innovation ecosystem and the things we were doing around renewable energy, hydroponics, and healthcare, the things that Wilson was doing to build out an innovation arts district and really make it a real destination for artists and entrepreneurs around this very cool public park called Whirligig Park.
Or how Greensboro’s trying to build out this really robust support environment for their immigrant community and communities of color through this very cool high-tech, high-touch approach called their Personal Ambassadors Program.
The storytelling here, and I know, Scott, you’re going to elaborate on that, becomes incredibly important-
Scott Burkhead: Yeah, and I wanted to point out, Christopher, I don’t think I mentioned at the beginning this whole presentation will be posted on our website later so folks that are taking notes don’t have to write it all down.
Christopher G.: Cool. Yeah. This is the process that we took in terms of this community engagement activity. And importantly it’s very much of a design-centric approach. It’s paying very close attention to what the needs of the community are and going out through a discovery process. So this is a classic design thinking chart here. We’re going to start from the left and move to the right.
The very first thing that we have the communities go out through this attitudinal survey, through focus groups, through conversations in the community to really understand, again, where the strengths are. This asset map and understanding where the gaps are and the weaknesses are, is that whole information gathering empathy process, the discovery process, which is very divergent. Gets you into a lot of cool, creative ideas, a lot of information.
Then as you go to that blue triangle there, that’s when you try to make sense of it. So you take all this data, all this information, and you try to get to some kind of synthesized understanding of where the gaps are, where the needs are, where there’s opportunities, etc., that then gets you to that yellow triangle where you say, “Okay, we have an idea about where we want to try to take our work, our strategies, our emphasis on the ideation process.” You go into a prototyping phase. You collect more information and data to determine how well it’s working. Then you test it out. And you continue that process along the way.
So it’s very much of an ongoing design-centric process as you go through this. The thing that is probably the most important thing here is that you can’t do this in a bubble. You have to actively engage the community – do that through the innovation council, do that through the survey. You do that through the asset mapping process, etc.
It does require a mindset shift. So often within communities, we tend to take a top-down approach. We don’t actively engage the community. So it’s really taking it from that left-hand column, which is the traditional community development process, to the right-hand column, which is much more focused on being highly collaborative, emergent, community-driven, and gets you to a place of interdependence and collaboration, innovation, and cross-boundary work, which means that you’re actually working across sectors. You’re working across populations, across neighborhoods, because you really want to make sure that this is fully community-driven.
And this is from some of my work with the Center for Creative Leadership, where I’m the innovator in residence. But the idea of this trying to move towards, again, getting out of the silos and towards interdependent leadership cultures, where you’re really seeing this as a collective activity, which does require mutual inquiry, trust building, connecting with one another, and then working through ultimately what is a pretty complex set of problems and challenges, but does yield, and I’ve seen it in action, an alignment of outcome, an alignment of focus, and alignment of resources.
And ultimately you’re trying to achieve these outcomes, right? You’re trying to create more opportunities for youth and trying to retain that talent, trying to get more citizens engaged in problem solving, creating greater density within these downtowns, and creating an innovation, quote, unquote district or cluster, being able to build more entrepreneurial activity and connectivity in terms of newer enterprises getting launched, more of them being connected to the resources that they need. And it’s ultimately then strengthening the economy through more jobs, more of a tax base, more growth, more diversification, and more investment.
If you do it well, like we’ve been talking about, then you can redefine what your community looks like. You can create a new narrative for who you are and what you’re doing in your community, which I think will increase recognition through this process. This is an example of some of the target outcomes that we’re striving for.
The reason I was excited about joining this BBG webinar is that ultimately we’re trying to share these tools with more communities. We’re going to expand InnovateNC across North Carolina to more communities. We’re looking to do the same thing with Forward Cities and trying to expand this work to more cities. So we’re really trying to create a movement here where more and more communities have an opportunity to participate in this work. And-
Scott Burkhead: I think the exciting thing about this, Christopher, is while the examples you’re showing are mostly North Carolina focused, these strategies would apply in Michigan or Oklahoma or Kansas or Tennessee or Georgia. They’re not unique to North Carolina. Is that fair to say?
Christopher G.: Absolutely. In fact, I’m the keynote speaker at a CEOs for Cities event in Phoenix later this month, where we’ll be speaking to dozens of cities from across the country on precisely this topic. So it is a broad-based effort. The one thing I will say is don’t feel like you need to do this on your own. There are good resources out there. There’s good communities. There are good networks to be plugged into. So I think more than anything, I would encourage and invite people to join us in this effort and join us in this movement, and let us know how we can help.
Scott Burkhead: Thank you, Christopher. That’s a great story. And it’s a story that needs to be told. A note of caution – when you’re making internal changes, it’s often destructive to do very much advertising. And the reason is that strong advertising is based on a solid brand and messaging that begins to carry that brand forward. I’m going to give a couple of examples of that.
When I look at our audience, I’m really looking at two groups of towns and cities. And, if you look at this chart, the circle on the left, you have successful metros. That could be Austin. It could be Raleigh-Durham or the Research Triangle area. Could be any one of a number of successful metro areas. Now as those metro areas boom and blossom, then communities in a halo area, which is arbitrarily less than an hour’s drive, they’re the beneficiaries. Often they become bedroom communities. Others are also able to attract industry and business of their own.
But interestingly enough, success from these communities in the halo area also has a price. If you look at a, I don’t want to call any examples because I don’t want to offend anyone, but we probably all know of communities that were absolutely charming, delightful communities that people walked down the streets every night, and there were good local restaurants, and it just had a small-town charm. Well that small-town charm is what drove a lot of people to move there and a lot of developers to build subdivisions.
So one of the risks of being in that halo area, we found, is your town could, over time, lose its character. Branding is a way you can hold on to that and that you can steer that growth and that you can make sure that the type of growth that you have accommodates the kind of community that you want to build.
Now on the right, you got the same chart with another outer circle. You’ve got the halo area, and then, again arbitrarily, an hour or more drive from the larger metro. In the outer band you’re kind of on your own, too far away for an easy commute in most areas. And unless there’s some striking something, a railroad hub expanding, or Disney opening a theme park, these towns are going to have to take charge of creating their own brand.
But short of some outside event like that, small towns, both in the halo area and on your own, really need to tell your story because nobody else is going to tell it. Maybe your state has a robust economic development unit in the department of commerce, or like NC an independent public-private partnership, and their job is attracting new businesses. Well, the reality is, to move the needle, they need businesses with a lot of employees. And where are those businesses going to be? They’re going to generally go to the metro area or the halo area. So the smaller towns out from that area, it’s absolutely imperative that you find out what makes you special and different, and find the small target audience that you want to know about your town.
Here’s what not to do. If you’re like me, you would never go to a steakhouse for sushi or to a sushi restaurant for good barbecue. This is just an example of an idea that is kind of prevalent that people say, “Well, we’ve got this, this and this and this,” and they try to tell a longer story about everything, all their features, all their benefits. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t stick.
Branding and positioning has to focus on your unique difference that is special to a certain audience. We all have tangible infrastructure. Every community has tangible infrastructure, whether you’re 3,000 people or 200,000 people. And that begins to define what you are in the minds of people that are looking at you, and also in the minds of your own citizens.
But it is the intangible infrastructure, which is who you are, that is the magic. That’s what gets people excited. That’s what gets a company in California that wants to move to North Carolina or to Colorado or to Michigan, that’s what gets that company excited about moving to your place. It’s who you are. Now look, you’ve got to have the tangible infrastructure to some degree, depending on the business that’s moving. But who you are and your character, you put that with the tangible infrastructure, and then you’ve got your brand. You’ve got your difference, why you are special and why I, as an uninterested observer, should care.
Look at the elements of brand character. It isn’t complicated, but it’s hard work. What do you want to say? Add that to your attitude. How do you want to say it? Austin, Texas, for example, their positioning line is, I think it’s the “Live music capital of the nation.” If you’re from Austin, I may have brutalized that a bit. But it’s the “Live music capital of the nation.” But what do you see on the t-shirts at the airport? What do you see on the signage downtown? What do you say when a smart developer decides to move to Austin? How do they explain Austin?
They say, “Well, Austin’s weird. Austin is weird.” And people love it. Tech organizations can’t wait to move to Austin because that’s where the young talent is going to be, one of the places. So how do you want to say it? That’s important. Then ultimately who do you want to be? Because your brand character is shaped by both who you are now and by your vision of where you want to be.
Here’s some examples of strong place brands. There are other examples. These may not be the best, but these are some that we’re familiar with. So I mentioned Austin is weird, which is really not Austin’s brand positioning. Brand positioning is “Live music capital.” But Orlando. See, Orlando was a small town in Central Florida until Disney came in and built Disney World. Orlando’s positioning is kind of a given.
Las Vegas was a little bit different, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” and that’s a pretty good line, but that has evolved over the last 10 years, because 10 years ago, Vegas very proudly called itself “Sin City.” They probably didn’t put it in their TV commercials, but that was the implication, and they liked people talking about it. Then they realized that they really wanted more families, so it’s evolved, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” which is still a little bit risqué maybe, but generally family friendly.
Chattanooga is one of my favorites. A few years ago, Chattanooga was known as “The dirtiest city in the U.S.” It came out of coal mining, a lot of other mining activities. Chattanooga today is known as a stepping stone for pioneers. It is “Gig City” because the city leaders few years ago decided they were going to put in broadband and provide internet for every citizen and business in the city. And that along with a great attitude toward knowledge workers has really helped them grow.
Bozeman, Montana, this is another one of my favorites. It was the Gallatin-Bozeman Airport. This is an example where an airport led the repositioning of a city or a town. It could go either way. Airports can be critically important parts of any city brand. But in this case, the airport led the way because they changed the name from Gallatin-Bozeman. Somebody finally did some research. They were great little town, great little airport. And somebody figured out that people really did not know that Bozeman was the gateway to Yellowstone.
So they changed the name of the airport to Bozeman Yellowstone, and the city then began to position itself as a gateway to Yellowstone. And they’ve had tremendous commercial success … airport enplanements have doubled over the past four years.
A little town in coastal North Carolina, New Bern. New Bern has a nice airport. It was Craven County Regional Airport, EWN. I love New Bern. It’s such a nice town. It was the original capital of North Carolina. And it’s a nice place to go and visit, maybe stay a weekend or something. But it frankly is not going to drive a huge amount of traffic.
So they repositioned themselves from Craven County Regional Airport to the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport because somebody finally realized that, “Wait, we’re 20 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean. We’re 20 minutes from the Crystal Coast. We’re kind of a gateway. We’re an option to driving or flying into a competitive airport.” So it repositioned because of location.
Chatham Park. We repositioned that about two years ago. This is an 8,000-acre development a few miles from the Research Triangle Park. And we repositioned them as a city to come with, “Many Choices. One Place.” because you can look all around for jobs, a place to work, place to put your business, place to have dinner, place to go to the theater. You can go all around looking for that, but at Chatham Park, it’s all going to be in one place.
How does this branding and repositioning actually work? The process is simple, four steps. Talk to the stakeholders, those customers that you may have. When I say “customers,” you could look at talent as a customer base. You could look at companies that are looking for a location to create new jobs as a customer. You could look at your own citizens, folks who live there and their satisfaction level, because they are also, they’re a stakeholder, but they’re also a customer.
And look at the competitors. What are they saying? What do they offer? Why should I as a disinterested business owner in Colorado wanting to move my business or open a new location, why should I be interested in your town instead of the one 10 miles away or 20 miles or 50 miles away?
Then positioning. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this now, but this is really the heart of what we do. It is what makes you different. It is that unique thing that nobody else can say that makes you what are, and every town and every city has a unique position. It’s just sometimes hard to find it. And sometimes when you live with it every day folks just can’t see it. That goes into the branding, where you incorporate the positioning insights, and you begin to develop graphics and messaging and color style and logo and that sort of thing.
Branding places is not like branding a product. If we are going to launch a new toothpaste, we probably did that after talking to several thousand users of toothpaste, asking them what they don’t like about existing toothpaste and what they would like in a new toothpaste. And then we build the toothpaste. Cities can’t move that quickly. And maybe they shouldn’t. What cities have to do is look internally. And as Christopher pointed out, there’s so many programs and so many ways out there that cities, if they choose, can begin to improve their infrastructure, both tangible and intangible.
But even before you do anything, there’s something about your city that made it special. There’s some reason that people live there. And there’s some uniqueness that can be talked about. And a city does not sit in a void. It’s in a county. It has an airport. It may be a general aviation airport. It’s still an airport. They have other assets, near a river, a nice pine forest. I don’t know what those assets are, different from every one. Then you have stakeholders, stakeholders that have interest and desires and want to feel like they’re part of shaping their town.
One quick thing, and then I want to stop. We only got about five minutes for questions. We ran over a bit here. Sometimes people say, “Well, we can’t make any large changes. That’ll take years and years and years. So we don’t have anything to talk about.” That’s wrong. Look at Orlando and Chattanooga. Both of those made pretty significant, Orlando off the scale of course with Disney World, but Chattanooga made a significant investment in broadband.
But look at the other communities: Austin, even Las Vegas, Bozeman, Montana, New Bern, North Carolina. Those were communities that worked from the inside out. They didn’t bring in some huge, new thing to talk about. They knew who they were, what they were, and they simply grew from that.
We’re going to end this, and I’m going to see how many people noticed that we spelled “discussion” wrong. But I’m going to move back because I don’t want to leave that on there. Christopher, any thoughts? We’ve got one chat question coming in. If you have any thoughts, go ahead, and we’ll then ask the chat question.
Christopher G.: Yep. I don’t see the chat question, but I just want to corroborate the fact that this requires intentionality. I think communities can start many different places. Some are farther along this path than others. But for the most part, this is an important effort. Without this kind of effort, communities I think risk getting left behind. And there are lots of support networks and tools out there for communities that are interested in embarking on this path. And the fact that it’s an ongoing process, like you don’t get it right the first time, I’ve been involved in many communities for many years, and it continues to iterate and evolve over time.
Scott Burkhead: This chat question is interesting: Christopher, you talked about the attitudinal survey and policy audit. Then we talked about research, talking to the customers. Someone asked, “Do we need to duplicate that?” I would say some specific audiences probably need to be duplicated. But at BBG, we have two suggestions if towns are thinking about where do they start. How do they get going? They haven’t budgeted for this. They haven’t really got a good start. So what’s the next step?
From a branding perspective, from talking about who you are and what you are, we have a couple levels. We’ve got a brand audit. And that’s a little scary. Probably we should rename it. It’s fairly extensive research into the community. But we have another version called a brand review, which is very inexpensive and takes three or four weeks. A lot of it’s secondary research, although there’s some primary. It allows us to come back to the community leaders and say, “Look, at first pass, this is what we’re seeing. You should really consider these things. And when you talk about the community, don’t forget how important some of those things are.”
I think if someone has a real interest there, you’re not going to double spend between the attitudinal survey, policy audit that Christopher’s talking about, and the brand review that we’re doing. There’s a lot of information that works for both.
Christopher G.: Yeah, and just quickly because I know we’re out of time, is that I would reinforce the fact that we’re going to be publishing all these tools on the InnovateNC and the Forward Cities websites. And there’s absolutely no reason why you should be duplicating any of these things. These tools can be broadly used. I think they do require some facilitated interpretation of them, and so I do think it helps to have somebody who’s gone through that process before working with you on it, but again, the reason why we’re publishing those tools is so that communities don’t have to duplicate all of the effort that’s already gone into some of this work.
Scott Burkhead: All right. We’ve used our hour, and I want to thank the attendees, and thank you, Christopher, for your help. Again, this has been recorded, and it will be on the website if anyone has additional questions. Or call Christopher, or call me. We love to talk about this stuff. Thank you, all. Have a good afternoon