Town as a brand? Selectmen like idea, ponder cost

Creating and publicizing a Ridgefield brand — telling the story of the town, and why it’s a place people want live and work — is a concept the selectmen all support. But committing $80,000 of taxpayer’s money to a digital initiative advancing the RIdgefield brand? Well, that’s a tougher sell.

One selectman walked out on the board’s May 26 meeting, frustrated by a two-hour discussion of a proposed appropriation to help support the inRidgefiled branding campaign.

“We all agree, the times are a-changing. We all agree, branding is in the interest of the community,” said Selectman Steve Zemo. “We need to vet it very carefully.”

“I think $80,000 is a tremendous amount to ask for a web promotion,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.

“I support this 1,000 percent — the concept, the idea,” said Selelctman Bob Hebert. “But I have some questions, perhaps some difficult questions, some concerns.”

It was Selectman Zemo who walked out of the meeting.

The presentation and discussion on the inRidgefield town branding campaign headed by Wayne Addessi, jeweler and downtown landlord, had gone around and around, back and forth. The selectmen had begun talking about delaying a vote on the proposed allocation, so more questions could be answered.

Addessi, sitting at the selectmen’s table with two public relations professionals involved in the project, sought to head off a delay.

“I’d like so suggest, we take a vote tonight,” Addessi said. “There’s a lot of people here…”

“Excuse me, I’m done,” said Zemo, getting up from the table and heading for the door. “I just need to stretch.”

On his way out Zemo said to Addessi, “You’re not running the show.”

It was a testy moment, and reflected tensions that had run all through the meeting, as First Selectman Marconi, backed by Addessi and his team — mainly Julia Nable of the public relations firm Sandormax Media — tried to steer the board toward appropriating $40,000 that would be part of an $80,000 total that would essentially match what Addressi had raised privately to get the project off the ground.

The plan was to take $40,000 out of $54,000 in the current year’s 2018-19 contingency account, with another $40,000 to be found in upcoming 2019-10 budget and put toward the inRidgefield campaign.

The heart of the argument presented for inRidgefield was that while there may be many organizations working to publicize aspects of life in Ridgefield — the Chamber of Commerce, the Playhouse with its shows, numerous restaurants and realtors, a variety of charitable groups — nobody is promoting the town itself, the overall community.

InRidgefield’s mission would be to tell the world what makes RIdgefield a place people love, with a conviction that telling the town’s story would attract people to Ridgefield and eventually come back to benefit everyone.

The town might seem to be doing well without a branding campaign, Marconi said, but that economic strength and the benefits that flow from it can be quickly eroded.

“I don’t want to wake up some day and say: ‘What the hell happened? We had a great thing going. How did we lose it?’ ” Marconi said.

The inRidgefield campaign has an approach: “This new marketing initiative uses storytelling, social media, and public relations to widely promote all that is wonderful about our town,” the presentation said.

It has a vision: ”To experience unparalleled compassion, culture and creativity in our community.”

And it has slogan: “Ridgefield, the art of living.”

It’s a broad-based effort.

“It’s not just a website, it’s a platform — it’s Instagram, it’s Facebook,” Addessi told the meeting.

Julia Nable of Sandormax Media, the public relations firm that set up the inRidgefiled program, was asked about hits. How many hits has the inRidgefiled website been getting?

“Between 500 to 700… for a specific event like the spring stroll,” she said.

But the selectmen weren’t sold.

Marconi and Selectwoman Barbara Manners seemed supportive. And board members Steve Zemo, Bob Hebert and Maureen Kozlark liked the branding concept, though not the idea of using taxpayers money to accomplish it.

“I still have some questions I’d like to address, but they get into the weeds,” said Selectman Bob Hebert.

Hebert suggested that he meet with Addessi, discuss the proposal in depth, and then the full board could discuss the matter at a meeting in June.

“Thank you. We’ll remain optimistic,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi.

There were concerns about overlapping efforts with some groups —most notably the Chamber of Commerce and the town’s Economic and Community Development Commission, or ECDC — that are already working to publicize Ridgefield and draw people to town.

“We have The Chamber, we have the ECDC, we have all the great work that you’ve done so far. I don’t want to see that wasted,” Hebert told Addessi. “I’d happily sit down with you and the ECDC and the chamber and work all that out.”

“I did feel the ECDC was working very hard at their website, and to promote Ridgeifled,” Kozlark said. ”…They came in to ask for more money and we turned them down.”

Some ECDC members in the audience were asked how many hits their website has been getting.

“We’re getting approximately 14,000-15,000 a month,” said John Devine, the ECDC’s lead member on the website these days.

“We market all the events for Downtown Ridgefield,” he said, referring to the village merchants’ association.

“We’ve filled every vacancy on Main Street within a four month period of time,” Devine added.

Marconi noted that three people from the ECDC — chairman Arnold Light, Paul Levine, and former member Bob DeFalco — had been very involved with the inRigefield effort.

“The ECDC,” Manners said, “…they’re geared to tell an economic story, not the story of the town as a whole.”

There was a lot of talk of “silos” and the various groups each operating in their own silo.

“I”m concerned with creating another silo,” said Maureen Kozlark. “I think the important thing is for us all to work together.”

“The groups themselves would continue to do their own promotions,” said Selectwoman Manners, who was out of town and attended the meeting by speaker phone, “but under one umbrella.”

Other questions grew out of the presentation, which included a “team collaboration” diagram of 14 different stakeholder groups — schools, sports, nonprofits, restaurants, realtors, merchants, religious organizations — reporting to an 11-member leadership team with the first selectman at its center.

“The leadership team will be making the decisions,” Marconi said. “My job will be to pull that leadership team together.”

And, of course, the money was an issue.

“This kind of dollars begs to be discussed in the context of the whole budget,” said Kozlark.

Zemo suggested the the town commit not to a dollar amount, but to a percentage of what Addessi could fund-raise — but with a cap.

Manners suggested that the board “commit $30,000 or $40,000 from this year’s contingency, with the understanding that once we have, there’ll be another round of fundraising to match.”

“Barbara, you’re talking 50-50,” Zemo said. “I’m talking 80-20 — so there’d some skin in the game from the peopel who benefit,”

“I like what Barbara was saying,” said Addessi. “We’ve already raised $80,000, so we’ve got some skin in the game.”

As proposed by Marconi, the $80,000 sought by inRigefield would be split, with half coming from the 2018-19 contingency account, and half to be found in unspecified accounts in the just-approved 2019-20 that takes effect July 1.

“We’re asking for $80,000 from the taxpayer, and you’ve already rasied $80,000,”Hebert asked, “and you’ve already spent a part of that?”

“All of it,” replied Addessi.

A slide in the inRidgefield presentation showed an $80,000 budget broken down into two areas, each with subgroups.

Some $50,000 for “content” and was broken into allocations to “storytelling, event promotion, social media, e-news, photography, videography, tourism content, seasonal content and interviews.

And $30,000 for “promotion” was broken down into “print/outdoor, public relations, local sponsorships, social media ads, digital ads, analytics, media advertising and influencers.

There was a similar breakdown of an envisioned $160,000 budget, with $74,000 allocated for the “content” areas and $85,000 going to the “promotion” categories.

“We can’t do this with volunteers,” Addessi said. “…You have to have paid professionals.”

Still, board members were uneasy with the expenditure.

“If we’re going to enter into this,” Hebert said to fellow selectmen, “I’d like to see a contract with what the deliverables are.”

Kozlark was uncomfortable nearlay emptying the town’s contingency account — taking $40,000 of some $54,000 now in it — for a non-emergency purpose.

“This isn’t an emergency,” she said. “This isn’t a dam that’s breaking.”

She also thought Marconi should check with other town agencies to see if they had needs to be filled.

“We have $50,000 in contingency. Are there other ways to spend it?” she said.

“Or, ” suggested Hebert, “do we return it to the taxpayers?”

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