Monday, September 26, 2011

ON THE AVENUES SPECIAL EDITION: Regaining consciousness in a city coming to?

ON THE AVENUES: Regaining consciousness in a city coming to?

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

All the way back in February, some of us were asking pointed questions about the ballyhooed “joint venture” between Develop New Albany, City Hall and the Urban Enterprise Association.

It was a device ostensibly intended to “brand” New Albany by financing an advertising campaign geared primarily toward promoting the city’s restaurants, which were deemed the most marketable engines of the city’s revitalization.
What is the brand, who does the branding, and other necessary questions.

What's the brand? Is it referencing price point, lifestyle, multi-cultural? What's the definition of downtown? Who gets to play? Why this marketing firm and not that other one? Is it for independent businesses, chains or both? Are ads on bus stops in Louisville really reaching the chosen target audience? What is the chosen target audience? Why not Columbus or Indianapolis? Why not all the people in Floyd County who still don't know downtown exists?
The campaign’s general theme, intent and parameters were unveiled at the YMCA on February 23, and I was there at the invitation of Paul Kiger. The reaction was muted, with insiders understandably jubilant and outsiders more analytical. Paul had requested that I ask hard questions, and I did. Overnight, my stock plunged accordingly.

Afterward, with the balloons and bunting safely packed away, almost seven months of silence ensued. Only last week, at an informal Merchant Mixer meeting called to discuss responses to challenges posed by the Sherman Minton Bridge closure, was the updated campaign described by the Dudgeon firm’s founder, accompanied by a new sense of inevitability and urgency (paraphrased):
The campaign is finished, the bridge situation demands that we implement it now, here are your marching orders, and we can talk about the details later.
Actually, last Tuesday’s plan seemed little changed from February’s preliminary bullet points, although with certain elements added (topical Interstate billboards) and others subtracted (Louisville bus stop ads) to reflect current, post-bridge-outage transportation realities.

One significant and purely terrifying addition was a proposed visual symbol and embedded tag phrase: Develop New Albany’s longtime logo, topped by the words “Come To City.”


Note that during the plan’s elongated seven-month gestation period, there was neither public discussion nor participation by the business community – especially those restaurants expected to carry the ball. As such, it is no wonder the discussion at last Tuesday’s Merchant Mixer meeting became somewhat agitated.

However, I find considerable hope in Tuesday’s final outcome, because something unexpected happened. A motion was offered. Another motion followed, and there was discussion and an amendment. An actual vote was held, and those in attendance overwhelmingly rejected the ridiculous “Come To City” portion of Dudgeon’s plan, favoring instead a temporary compromise using the DNA visual on modified billboards.

Do you see it?

This hitherto unstructured group of merchants entered into a process of debate, and by doing so tacitly made an abrupt passage from non-binding to semi-formality – a veritable union of business owners, as it were, and a transitional big bang, because the cliques-that-be did not challenge the decision of the collective. That’s huge.

Thus, even as former downtown business owner Don Preston flailed while mouthing his bizarre, Caesaresque, primal fear of “mob” democracy, grassroots democracy was emerging before his wide shut eyes. Liberated from the committee’s closed back room, with information openly on the table, the city’s business owning shareholders convincingly rejected a flawed, top-down idea and offered an alternative.

For at least one shining moment, the city’s historic boil was lanced.


Can we be honest?

This “joint venture” was a shotgun marriage from the very start. The impetus to work “together” did not evolve from the ground up, but was imposed from the top (City Hall) down.

Yet, it might have worked had the mayor and his sidekicks actually cared to engage in negotiation aimed at consensus and enlightenment, but unfortunately the task of persuasion was delegated from mayor to deputy, and then to the same tired DNA operatives as always, ensuring the UEA's role in conceptualizing the campaign remained miniscule, while its checkbook stayed within easy lunging distance when the bills came due.

To this day, no one outside a small circle of the anointed knows why the Dudgeon ad agency was chosen. There is no explanation for the secrecy involved. No City Hall official bothered to remain at last week’s meeting to offer insight. Rather, what we know is that once again, politicized methodology usurped possibility.

In February, the News and Tribune’s article ended like this:
Mayor Doug England said cross promotion is vital to sustaining the recent progress made downtown, and the joint venture is an opportunity to continue the growth. “It won’t work without everybody’s cooperation,” he said.
But the congenital absence of mechanisms purpose-built to encourage inclusiveness and participation thwarts cooperation, doesn’t it?

If you design a top-down process to achieve pre-determined outcomes (or in New Albany’s case, non-outcomes), that’s generally what will come out the other end of the meat grinder. Consequently, the joint marketing campaign now resembles little more than the faces of its handful of entrenched designers, seated before a mirror, looking back at themselves.

It breaks no new ground, nor offers a younger demographic any reason for future excitement. It is a testament both to the enduring prevalence of human design flaws, and the sheer, numbing and destructive nepotism for which the current administration chiefly will be remembered, and before the inevitable rejoinder is squealed: Contrary to popular belief, nepotism need not be remunerable to be toxic and capable of suppressing necessary public participation.

And yet, it is my sincere hope that with last week’s brief and transformative moment, New Albany’s small business persons may see a flickering light. Top-down is superfluous when the grassroots are mobilized, and now, more than ever, small business has the means to come together and take a seat at the table.

1 comment:

Antiques Attic said...

Thanks for sharing and your honesty.
I was one of the agatated in attendance. Actually I was more than agatated, I was Outraged.
To DNA; you have acomplished much in the growth and development of downtown New Albany. I am willing to give you your just recognition for that.
I have always promoted and shared your projects/events to my customer base. I have also promoted all things positive to New Albany including my fellow businesses.
Why you ask? It wasn't to receive recognition or credit.
I brought my success and customer base to New Albany because I have always seen and believed in what downtown could and hopefully would be.
If an organization wants my promotion and my hard earned money for a project, than give myself and my fellow businesses some say so or at least some choices. I am open minded enough to listen,choose,and make a decision based on what I see as good for the whole.
I fully understand the decision to use restaurants in the beginning and I know they attract people to us,which benefits us all. The marketing studies across the nation have shown that and hooray for recognizing that.
Why you did not or would not confer with those that would be involved during the brainstorming is beyond my understanding apparently.
My second contention was the slogan "Come to City", what does that mean,how will that be received. The blunt of radio talk shows or maybe even Jay Leno. Where was a choice,what do we want as a catchy slogan that represents or intices people to New Albany?Lastly, using DNA logo? You will receive your recognition anytime you speak to the media about YOUR campaign,also the website connection will grant you that,won't it?
Are we branding Downtown as Develop New Albany?
Enough of my views, and believe me they are the views of many.
Katrina Jones
Antiques Attic