Steamboat Springs Old Navy has a recognizable brand identity, as does Jennifer Lopez. Maybe downtown Steamboat Springs needs a brand of its own, too.
That's the first question the directors of Steamboat's fledgling Main Street Project intend to tackle.
Main Street board member Nancy Kramer said she doesn't think downtown Steamboat's theme has ever been clearly defined. Kramer, who also is a city councilwoman and director of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council, thinks the city has sufficed with a value-based description of what it stands for.
"In the 30 years I've lived here, it's never really jelled," Kramer said. "It's Western heritage. Is it old Western? Is it modern West?"
The Main Street Project is a time-tested method of injecting historic downtown shopping districts with new energy and a clearer focus. A group of business leaders from within and outside the downtown area are exploring how they might implement a form of Main Street Project here.
Main Street Chairman Tom Ptach said the impetus behind the effort is last year's consumer preference study that detailed the dollars leaking out of the local economy in the form of goods and services purchased elsewhere. The
survey revealed that area consumers spend almost half of their money outside the Yampa Valley.
Plugging some of the leaks and "busting the perception" among residents that downtown prices aren't competitive, is the motivation for undertaking the Main Street Project, Ptach said.
Before the local Main Street Board sets about taking corrective measures, its members want to begin with a clear definition of what downtown Steamboat represents.
A "brand" can symbolize the emotional connection between a company and its customers, or between a celebrity and her fan base.
Old Navy, part of the same mega-retailing group as the Gap and Banana Republic, sells a combination of trendy fashion and economy to teens and college-age students. "It's cool to be cost conscious," the Old Navy brand seems to say, Vivian Manning-Schaffel wrote in a recent article for brandchannel. com.
J. Lo appeals to a similar customer base as Old Navy. It's no accident that she comes across as an unpredictable personality, Angela Phillips Towle writes in the Hollywood Reporter. Lopez is a mix of the pop singer who consorts with rappers and the movie star who plays working girl characters such as the modest young woman in "Maid in Manhattan." She's a good girl, and she's a bad girl. It's all by design.
Now, Main Street participants want to determine downtown Steamboat's brand identity.
Main Street Chairman Tom Ptach said he thinks downtown Steamboat's brand should be conceptualized while keeping one of the underlying philosophies of the Main Street Project in mind: Ranking the needs and interests of residents highest. If it succeeds in that regard, it also will be an area that will be sought out by visitors, Ptach said.
"The main emphasis of this project is on our residents -- to make downtown Steamboat the heart and soul of our community and a place that is valued by our residents," Ptach said. "When we talk about branding, we want to take that philosophy and overlay it onto what we've already got."
Ptach, who owns Pilot Office Supply, said he understands that at least half of downtown businesses will depend heavily on tourists to supply their customer base. Another 25 percent will rely on a mix of residents and visitors and 25 percent will see 90 percent of their business coming from residents. But even businesses that don't cater to tourists rely heavily on Steamboat's resort industry, Ptach pointed out.
Ptach was careful to say that the Main Street Project in Steamboat will focus on a broader area than Lincoln Avenue. The area of concentration stretches from the Yampa River across Yampa Street and Lincoln Avenue, north to Oak Street and its alleys. From east to west, the downtown district begins at one end with Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Center and Dr. Rich Weiss Park and continues to Lincoln Park.
During a meeting this week, Main Street board members agreed that defining Steamboat's image or brand is an important first step in the project.
Board member Cami Bunn said that during a recent Main Street workshop in Arvada, she received a clear message that Steamboat should resist the temptation to chase after the visions of other communities.
She was advised "to avoid themes that are false to Steamboat's history," Bunn said.
"The image piece really needs to take the lead here," city planner Tim McHarg said. He serves on the design committee charged with enhancing downtown's public spaces so that they attract more pedestrians.
"Design relates to what downtown Steamboat wants to be, building out for the next 50 years," McHarg said.
People interested in the future of downtown need to address the question of whether it wants to function as an "old-school mall" or as a commercial area that is integrated into the residential neighborhoods of Old Town, McHarg said.
Board member Mike Forney said he took his own financial company through an in-depth branding process and found it a valuable exercise.
"It blew me away how effective that process was," Forney said. "I think we will need to reach out beyond this board," to involve a wide variety of stakeholders in branding downtown Steamboat.
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