Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Proverbial Conundrum of Community Revitalization

A good example of what I mean when I say that community marketing is 2/3rds “lowering barriers” is an aspect we backed into during my final startup 25 years ago in Durham, North Carolina.

Even today, this part of the job is under the radar of or considered an inconvenience by far too many destination marketing organizations.

We came to earn a franchise for this aspect while leveraging data or information-based strategy-making and marketing decision-making, somewhat novel at the time, and it seems still only given lip service by many economic development organizations in general.

Not only did that approach help us much more quickly leapfrog much more established competitors but a side effect was that within a few months of startup we had earned a “go to” reputation with financiers, developers and those seeking commercial tenants.

I noted it when a week or two after start up out-of-town appraisers began to drop by up to several times a week and were extremely impressed with the results of even our initial metrics.

It was particularly clear that our perspective and back up was reversing negative impressions volunteered about Durham while they were conducting similar appraisals in other parts of the state, especially in a nearby rival community.

Word quickly spread among local businesses and soon I was assisting four or five appraisals or reappraisals a week and did so until I retired more than two decades later.

Reappraisals are the updated value computations required by lenders before renewing or extending finance for existing developments.

Soon new project developers caught on and we became the “go to” place to inform appraisers and financiers on the front end of projects while at the same time, we were earning a reputation for developing reliable estimates of community impact for local officials.

None of this had fit under the customary heading of community marketing unless as I did at the time, you put it under the heading of community relations and do it on the side as a way to further leverage information we had developed to inform promotional decisions.

Promotion of existing assets and community development always go hand in hand.  Community-destination marketing organizations are involved in what economists call “demand-driven” economic development.

This is the process where marketing fuels demand for existing developments and the market responds by generating new or adaptive reuse of existing developments.

But lowering the barriers to sustainable financing is a function of information which is best leveraged from destination marketing organizations where the data is already gleaned to shape and measure their primary task of telling the community’s story.

As I would soon learn from earning this franchise, unusual for the time, parallel redistribution of marketing data for uses such as these may be equal in importance to the role of many traditional promotion techniques.

As word spread, DMOs in other communities began to call because they were being asked for similar information.  But what was easy for us because data was a strategic pillar to our marketing, seemed overwhelming and foreign to many peers.

Seemingly effortless to some, distilling and applying perceptions and insights from data must be cultivated.  It is a way of thinking about and shaping action that doesn’t derive from titles or position.

The value was confirmed to me during the early 90s evolution of an adaptive reuse project in downtown Durham that subsequently triggered and continues to trigger a chain reaction of of millions of square feet similar projects.

Leaving a presentation, a banker told me in front of others that in his opinion we had stumbled onto the answer to the proverbial conundrum of “chicken or egg” in community revitalization and development, at least for Durham.

He went on to make me self conscious in front of strategic partners by lavishing praise on the data we had provided, both hard data and analysis.

To him, it had removed any obstacle to providing the financing, but I knew that was only part of closing any deal, aspects of which were the forte of economic development partners on the supply-side.

To me, it confirmed the time we had been devoting to communication and data to lower barriers to financing was as important to un-inhibiting visitation as this same communication and data was to promoting Durham to prospective visitors.

The barriers to lower went far beyond correcting misimpressions.  When millions and millions of dollars are at stake, data-driven insights also proactively put the community narrative in a perspective necessary for the financial markets.

His and subsequent words from lenders and appraisers over the year also confirmed the wisdom of the North Carolina General Assembly for legislation restricting the diversion of dollars meant for community marketing into product development to no more than a third.

The meaning of marketing was also stipulated.

Durham’s community organization is so fortunate that my successor has an even better ability to distill data into insight.  This qualification for succession even rivals the indispensible grasp of and and ability to convey both the organization’s story as well as the community’s.

Hopefully these observations are useful to a new generation of community marketers.

No comments: