Friday, August 31, 2007

Greenfire Development

Greenfire Development is an incredible company. It is a work in progress, but the culture is deep and strong. I'm incredibly impressed by this team, and they have several homegrown talents.

They epitomize Durham at its core.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Durham, Can You Spare a Change?

It must be generational that so many people email me or call me separately about this blog but so few actually insert comments. I'm just glad that my Mom and I have company

INC is on to something with the "Can You Spare a Change?" campaign. INC for all you folks who don't live in Durham is the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham. They are the umbrella for what arguably is the most diverse and active group of neighborhood associations that exists in any community... certainly any I've known.

Neighborhood activists are also a key part of Durham's brand.

Several programs have been tried like "Can You Spare A Change," but this one resonates. It seeks to educate residents, non-residents who work here and visitors to stop feeding money to panhandlers and instead give it to the many agencies seeking to help this population. It is a classic supply and demand problem. The behavior thrives only because people feed it.

Panhandling itself is a result of some decisions this country made 40 or 50 years ago, and in hindsight, they were very impractical and idealist. We dumped millions of people with mental illness on the streets as out-patients on the premise that someone mentally ill was still well enough to stay on medications.

Okay, along came our generation and the book and movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest," and we forever more glamorized mental illness by demonizing practitioners.

Fact is, there is nothing glamorous about mental illness. It is criminal what we do to the mentally ill in this country. To save a nickel here and a dime there, we deny them health insurance, we create a revolving door in and out of prison, we drain and destroy families struggling to solve the problem all on their own.... In the end, this is probably five or 10 times what it would cost to do it right.

But in the meantime, we can all make a difference by getting behind INC. For information contact INC at

Friday, August 24, 2007

Documentary Captures What Makes Durham Special

I saw a teaser from a new documentary a week ago. It's in the final stages of editing for premiere in mid-November at the Carolina Theater.

Documentaries aren't new to Durham. We're home to the most significant documentary film festival in the world, Full Frame.

But this one is a portrait of Durham by award winning Steve Channing, also a Durham resident. As I watched it and heard just everyday Durhamites describe what is special to them about this community, it reminded me of why it was such a clear-cut decision and honor 18 years ago to accept an invitation to come here and help start a destination marketing effort.

I've often thought and probably said, to myself at least, that I've succeeded at telling Durham's story if I can convey the essence that makes it attractive today and have it blessed by people who have been here 70, 80 and 90 years.

This was also echoed in some testimony folks like Carl Webb made at the end. This place is special... way down in its bones. There is a sense of place here and a passionate connection of people and place that make it extraordinary.

What a privilege it is to work for this community. By the way, documentaries are a work of love. Steve can still use some sponsorship. Let me know if you need his contact information.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Allegiance to Places and Teams Intertwined

I have a vivid 1957 or early 1958 memory... during recess on a bright sunshiny Rocky Mountain Idaho winter along the North Fork of the Snake River. Five nine-year-old boys stomping out a circle in the snow for some type of tag.

A spirited discussion ensued about whether one was a Yankee or Dodger fan. For boys that age, inspiration came from names like Mantle, Larson, Berra, Ford and Slaughter (who ironically is from Roxboro just north of Durham) or Hodges, Newcombe, Koufax and Campanella. The two teams had been rivals and the players our heroes all of our lives; we were often listening to World Series games on the radio as we worked on our respective ranches.

But the Dodgers had just moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. While we were proud the Far West finally had a MLB team, those of us who were Yankee fans couldn't fathom the move, and the two who were Dodger fans converted to the Yankees. I believe now our allegiance was as much to place as team. The two were intertwined.

Thus is the dynamic that mystifies many. Durham is a place that inspires strong allegiances. A Durham organization holding its golf tournament in Raleigh is about to learn what that means the hard way.

While often dismissed by major corporations, it can be argued that place brands... brands formed around the identity of cities, towns, counties, states, provinces and countries... are among the most enduring of all time.

By the way, I'm still a Yankee fan. But my allegiance to the Baltimore Colts stayed with Baltimore when the Colts moved to another city many years ago.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Urban Legends and Word of Mouth

Urban legends thrive in an atmosphere of bias. I took one folklore class in college and, in my business, it has turned out to be invaluable.

Urban legends are to word of mouth communication what radioactive dyes are to determining blood flow. It gives an immediate sense of how fast word of mouth travels and how often it circulates and re-circulates.

An example followed a newspaper article in the Raleigh paper a month ago that the largest source of relocations to that county were from Durham. The insinuation was that they were fleeing Durham. I missed reading it initially but people quickly brought it to my attention, obviously believing it to be true and alarming.

DCVB dug out the data upon which the newspaper article was based and discovered something left out of the story. Raleigh/Wake county is also the largest source of people relocating to Durham. Examination of patterns quickly revealed they have nothing to do with "popularity" and everything to do with personal issues, e.g., job changes, commuting, housing and land costs etc.

It isn't clear why the original story didn't give the full story, other than it wouldn't have really been news then. The data made it obvious the patterns had nothing to do with popularity. Otherwise Smithfield/Johnston County would be more popular than Raleigh/Wake and Durham more popular than Chapel Hill/Orange etc.

We let it go by, though, and only alerted a few opinion leaders. But that news didn't travel at all. Positive news rarely ignites word of mouth like negative information does. And a few months later, another news outlet picked it up and ran a story with the same premise. Then a Raleigh news executive began using the information to prove that people were fleeing Durham.

We made a mistake by not distributing the data more broadly. But the experience reminds us of how negative word of mouth works. Interdiction has to be swift, visible and repeated. Distributing information to provide perspective and amping up the positive can never outrun the effects of negative word of mouth. The longer that time goes without interdiction, the more virulent the negative word of mouth becomes. Just ask someone running for election.

It is not easy to practice interdiction. People who spread this type of word of mouth have put their reputation on the line. They have embedded it in their belief system. They almost always react with hostility, believing you are showing them up.

Oh well, I guess that's why there are destination marketing organizations.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Community Image Isn't about Your Castles

I was asked recently by economic development colleagues about what influences image. Before I could comment, the chorus began about new developments, super-regional malls, a new theater, factories turned into office developments and residential etc.

The room stiffened a bit when I responded that, actually, the needle on image doesn't move around huge developments, although there are many other great reasons for those.

I couldn't think on my feet or I would have used an analogy. Community image isn't about your castles and cathedrals. If they are surrounded by weedy lots, unkempt medians, potholes, inadequate signage etc. they won't improve image.

Like a person, community image is about two things. One is the way you're perceived, and that may have nothing to do with reality and more about stereotyping, stigmatizing, gossip etc. You combat that with information and marketing... balanced perspective, not spin as it is used in the pejorative.

The other is about overall appearance, a sense of arrival, clean streets and sidewalks, absence of litter, well-kept medians and wayfinding etc.

Community image isn't just about castles and cathedrals. It is about "curb appeal." And you're right, you have to have both, but the latter is indispensable.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

MiLB Understands Place-Based Tourism

With four national championships (three Duke, one NCCU), Durham has a great basketball tradition. But it is equaled by our community's connection with baseball. The Durham Bulls have played since 1903. Minor League Baseball (MiLB) was based here in the 1930s. The Durham Bulls and the movie Bull Durham resurrected national interest in minor league baseball, now the second highest in attendance among pro sports.

Now MiLB is planning to operate the soon-to-be-renovated Historic Durham Athletic Park, known affectionately as the DAP and home for the Bulls until they moved to the other side of Downtown in the mid '90s.

They will grandfather in the festivals that occur there, like the upcoming Bull Durham Blues Festival and the World Beer Festival. The DAP will remain the home field for the NCCU Eagles, and MiLB will turn the facility into a training center where minor league clubs will send front office personnel, grounds crews, umpires and others for training.

MiLB is also proposing a partnership on a Minor League Baseball History Museum, hopefully along the right field wall. MiLB also plans events like fantasy camps etc.

This is all about what's called "place-based tourism." As settlements begin to look more and more alike, the communities that will excel are those that develop place-based assets, meaning events and facilities with natural ties to the community and that make it different from other places.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Regional Alignment on Wayfinding

Not many travelers combine a visit to more than one community in what we call the Triangle region. It is a polycentric region with no dominant city or center. There is so much to do in each destination community that commuting just isn't practical or desirable for visitors.

But we collaborate on a wide variety of initiatives. Destination marketing organizations, like DCVB, from across the state meet monthly to shape co-op marketing strategies, and this includes destinations in what we call the Triangle. I say that because visitors have no concept of a "triangle" except that it is a geometric shape.

But the destinations in the Triangle have found ways to collaborate other than marketing. We each draw different visitors. They are different age groups, different income levels, they come from different origins, they are drawn with different elements, usually indigenous to each community. In that way, as a NYT reporter friend of mine once said, "one of you just as well be Tulsa and the other Kuala Lumpur." But we've worked to shape the Triangle – A Family of Communities campaign. We've drawn together an advisory council of destination marketing organizations to help better brand RDU International Airport.

For 7 years, I've unsuccessfully tried to convince Durham to do a countywide wayfinding system. Impatient, Downtown end-ran the system to get one for just that one area of town, but it works and it helps people understand what real wayfinding systems will do. So it's probably ironic to some that as unsuccessful I've been so far at the local level, I'm inviting my counterparts and their respective transportation officials, along with the regional transportation alliance, together to discuss a region-wide wayfinding system.

We all suffer from geographic elements that inhibit visitors, newcomers and, most of all, residents from fully enjoying their respective communities, e.g., distance friction caused by irregular road patterns, duplicate street names, hills and dales, no defining geographic reference points like mountains etc. and ... well you get the point.

I envision a regional system will be coherent and consistent but still locally based and locally executed. Each community's system will be branded and focused on getting people around that community. But a region-wide system means that when residents travel between communities in the region or newcomers look for the right fit or visitors experience more than one community, they will find a familiar, coherent signage system.

It is still a long shot, but it's great fun.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

What's Local?

It burns me when a business tries to make it appear it's located in Durham. I'm not talking about the organizations that rent a post office box in the Durham postal substation for Research Triangle Park. I'm talking about businesses that join the local chamber of commerce, for example, then send solicitations as a "local organization."

I got one today and had to read clear to the bottom to determine that, in fact, the business wasn't local; it is based in Raleigh. I guess, from Mars, Raleigh looks local to Durham, but not from here.

You see, local Durham businesses are not just businesses that try to do business in Durham. They are physically located here, pay taxes to support Durham services and build Durham facilities like the ballpark, hire Durham residents and buy services from Durham businesses.

Any economist can tell you that economic impact is measured by location. A business located in Raleigh taking business away from Durham businesses really located here is creating what's called "import leakage." And when the economy is measured that doesn't count as impact. In fact, economic development in part is the process of having more and more services provided locally so they truly impact the local economy.

I'm not against free trade. But I'm a huge proponent of "truth in addressing as well as advertising."