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Published: Sunday, 12/29/2013 - Updated: 7 months ago

COMMENTARY

City branding effort just one part of pitch

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

It may be a mark of how fledgling it is; or how much more money it needs; or how big the job really is. Or maybe all of the above.

But most people don’t know that Toledo has a branding initiative.

I didn’t.

And what is a branding initiative, you ask?

Well, it’s an attempt to give the city a thumbnail, or even bumper sticker, identity for the purposes of marketing.

Nashville has a brand.

So does Cleveland.

Columbus doesn’t quite have one, though it is booming. Its branding effort is part of a larger long-term, multimillion dollar plan for the city.

The town of Grand Rapids, Mich., has a brand. It is the midsize “arts” city. But this seems to have happened organically. There may be a lesson there.

So how is Toledo’s branding initiative going?

Who do we tell the world that we are?

The short answers are:

It’s just getting off the ground.

And we are still not sure.

I spoke, a few days ago, with Jeff Schaaf, the brand manager. He is a bright and extremely hard-working young man. He gets it. But he can’t do it alone.

Mr. Schaaf is the second person in this job and he mans a one-person office, which has not been well financed.

Much of the $500,000 that has been spent on the effort so far has gone to a couple of glossy hand-outs developed by a San Francisco firm, which has been replaced by a Toledo firm.

The material they came up with, I, at least, find pretty underwhelming.

For example: “Live the best for the least.”

Or: “Live, work, learn, enjoy.”

The economic themes are: “The new manufacturing economy” and “a new industrial revolution.”

None of it speaks very eloquently, especially of Toledo.

To me, “You will do better in Toledo” is a whole lot better. And there is a youth culture in Toledo, electronically and personally interconnected by social media, art, and local watering holes, that agrees. Local leaders of the next generation, like Dustin Hostetler and John Amato, recently spearheaded “You Will Do Better in Toledo Day” at Wesley’s. A thousand people were on the invitation list.

Again, organic.

The branding initiative cannot succeed in isolation. Or on a shoestring. Joe Napoli of the Mud Hens and the Walleye, says the city would need about $3 million a year to brand and market itself well, which is to say, to the outside world.

And that, says Joe Zerbey, president of The Blade and a major player in Toledo civic life, is what we must do: Sell ourselves, not just internally or regionally, but worldwide.

Mr. Schaaf told me about a video Cleveland made to sell itself. It’s funny, hip, and irreverent. It has gone viral.

What makes Cleveland hip? A progressive youth culture that has been allowed to define the city of today and tomorrow. We have the same kind of youth culture here. We simply need to empower it.

Mr. Schaaf also makes a couple of small remarks that make sense to me. (Small is good, because it is doable.) One is that the Grand Plaza (once upon a time the Sofitel and then several other things), which is still a beautiful hotel with great views and a good but almost secret restaurant, would be a boost to the city if it succeeded. And it might succeed if we could get it associated with a major name-brand hotel chain again.

The second is that Toledo needs a family restaurant downtown where parents could take children after a visit to the Imagination Station. It probably should be a recognized chain name.

These are doable things.

I think we should combine all the various economic development activities under one umbrella and put Mr. Napoli in charge. He has a track record of success. What he proposes tends to look real and beautiful, rather than half-hearted. And it actually happens. We need a czar here — not more meetings, committees, or studies. Mr. Napoli is spearheading $15 million to $20 million of investment into his end of the downtown — the baseball and hockey venues and the Warehouse District. He estimates his investment will bring 150,000 more visitors downtown per year.

We also have the Berdan Building's development into 116 residential apartments coming. That’s huge.

Branding is important. But it will be easier if it grows naturally — out of stuff that is really happening and something people actually feel and readily articulate.

Lets keep at the branding but also invest in Mr. Napoli and the young.

What I feel, as someone who has chosen to come back here after 25 years, is that Toledo is an eminently livable city — just very livable.

A high quality of life is not all about entertainment and buzz. New York and L.A. have both but are not very livable. It's not all about neighbors and safety, either. Mayberry makes a classic TV show and espouses fine values. But who wants to live there? Livability is about balance. Some buzz and neighborliness; stuff to do and safety and convenience.

Toledo is more than inexpensive or convenient to drive in. It is both alive and friendly; folks can be active and connected. Ours is a livable city. And most people really can do better here.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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