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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Correction Made, Question Remains

In response to "Local Economy Needs More Market, Not Marketing", I received the following e-mail from Commissioner Karen Lembcke:

I appreciate your opinion as to the letter to the editor. However when you are quoting people be sure you are getting the right people and comments. The commission is in favor of the marketing campaigne, and I do appreciate your interest. However I need to correct your statement, I did not make the comment about the city becoming stagnant, that would have been Mechelle Nordberg, perhaps you should have read Thursday nights paper, front page, this would let you know who said what.

Karen Lembcke
Prostrollo Auto Mall

Indeed, in my original post, I misattributed a quote by Commissioner Nordberg to Commissioner Lembcke. Commission Lembcke was quoted right before Commissioner Nordberg, and I was reading too quickly while working on my response to the article. I immediately edited the online version, although alas, the Madison Daily Leader published my essay right away in Friday's paper, so the damage has already been done. Following is the response I e-mailed to Commissioner Lembcke:

Dear Karen,

Oops! Thanks for the correction. I am sorry I got the wrong name on the quote. You rightly take me to task, just as I would any of my students who made a similar mistake. I will edit the online version of the text to properly cite Commissioner Nordberg's quote.

So, given that correction, I'm still curious why the city puts so much emphasis on creating an image. Rereading the article (yes, I did read the entire article; I just misread the tag on the quote when working on my response), I find your actual quote telling. "It seems like a lot of money, but we're going to have to find it if we want Madison to grow and prosper." Indeed, I'm all for growth and prosperity (within the framework of a reasonable plan, since bigger isn't inherently better), but I wonder, when we do find money, wouldn't we get a better return on those dollars first fixing our potholes, funding the bike trail, and making other real improvements to our infrastructure?

Keep looking for solutions! I'd run in the next election and come help, but for now, teaching is my calling to civil service. I'll be sure to use my own essay and your correction as an in-class example of how even English teachers need to check and double-check their sources.

Cory Allen Heidelberger

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Local Economy Needs More Market, not Marketing

Today's Madison Daily Leader (05.11.2006) reports that the City of Madison will throw $500,000 over the next five years into marketing our fair city. Those tax dollars will be transferred to the Lake Area Improvement Corporation, which has big plans to "market Madison through advertising on radio, TV, newspapers and magazines and create new banners, billboards, signs and possibly a new logo." Says LAIC Executive Director Dwaine Chapel, "We're already looking at ads in tourism magazines."

City Commissioner Mechelle Nordberg sounds particularly sanguine about the project. Noting that other communities are ramping up their marketing efforts, she says, "Unless we want to just sit here and be stagnant, we have to compete with those communities as well."

I am underwhelmed at Madison's efforts to make itself South Dakota's next "City on the Go." Remember that slogan? Watertown used that silly line to promote itself a few years ago on billboards and in TV ads. I remember the line only because my wife and I gleefully mocked the absurd tone of Watertown's ads and slogan. "City on the Go? Where's it going? Someone better catch it before it gets too far. Oh, wait, it's Watertown -- let it go!"

Luverne, Minnesota, is running similar ads for our amusement on local TV. As much as we revel in identifying the weak production elements of this montage of various Luverne landmarks on Luverne's apparently sleepy streets, we have yet to see anything in Luverne's marketing campaign that makes us want to leap off the couch, pull up stakes, and move to Luverne (or even go have dinner there).

Has the Lake Area Improvement Corporation seen these ads? Does LAIC think it has some magic formula that will make Madison's marketing campaign chuckle-proof? More importantly, does LAIC have any data that suggests these ads have contributed to any economic growth in these towns? Commissioner Nordberg's comment suggests the only successful marketing going on here is the campaign to market marketing: get a few towns to hire some image consultants and buy a few cheesy billboards and TV ads, and all the other towns will feel like they have to do the same to keep up.

If Madison needs to keep up with the surrounding burgs in anything, it's not marketing. I suspect that any economic growth Watertown has enjoyed in the last ten years has not come from impressionable consumers seeing the ads, crying "City on the Go?! That's the place for us!" and racing up I-29 to shop at the Watertown Mall. Economic growth comes from entrepreneurs taking risks, starting businesses, creating jobs, and providing goods and services that people want. When a town has strong businesses, their goods and services will draw customers by their own merits. Prostrollo's is an excellent example: Prostrollo's doesn't draw people to Madison by saying, "Look how pretty Main Street is"; Prostrollo's draws people by shouting "We've got the cars you want!"

Likewise, towns draw new residents not by packaging themselves in a slick media campaign, but by offering honest and varied opportunities. When my ex-students finish college and look for towns in which to work and raise their families, they look at the job listings, not the clever slogan on the sign outside town.

If the City Commission and LAIC are serious about drawing new businesses and residents, they should direct their money toward something much more lasting and useful than advertising. What could we do with $500,000?
  • Create a small business development fund. Offer grants for job creation: any small business, existing or new, could get $5000 for every job it creates. Imagine the boon to the community if that $500,000 fund led to the creation of 100 new jobs in Madison. (Remember, this doesn't apply if Wal-Mart comes to town, since they'll put everyone at Jubilee, Stan's, and Pamida out of work. We want new small businesses that add to the diversity of goods, services, and jobs in Madison.)
  • Create a new-resident home loan benefit. When a new resident moves to Madison and buys or builds a house, LAIC pays the closing costs or offers to pay $5000 toward the down payment. Such money would promote genuine long-term investment in Madison.
  • Create a small-business advertising fund. If we just can't get away from the idea that advertising will make Madison a boom town, then we could at least give the money to small businesses to advertise their goods and services to a wider market. Give the money to our local entrepreneurs and let them dream up their own ad campaigns. Maria's new Mexican market at Second and Egan is a great addition to the community; an advertising grant could help Maria's buy a big sign to catch drivers' attention on the highway or some radio and TV spots to draw creative cooks from around the area.
If Madison really is a land of opportunity, its businesses can promote themselves. If the City Commission insists on throwing money into the development effort, it can do so in more fruitful ways than trying to brand our city as just another "City on the Go." Savvy consumers chuckle at cheesy marketing campaigns; they spend their money on goods and services of real value. The occasional RV tourist may make a brief detour on the basis of a glossy ad; serious entrepreneurs and investors work and live in communities that create and support healthy, diverse local economies.