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Development expert weighs in on Bremerton revitalization
The City of Bremerton has a long way to go on its path to revitalization, but an internationally renowned expert in branding, downtown development and marketing laid out a roadmap last week.
“Your problem is you haven’t really given us (folks in Seattle and the other side of the Sound) a reason to come over here,” said Roger Brooks, the expert that has made two trips to Bremerton in recent weeks. “We’ve got everything over there that you’ve shown us over here. That’s why you do branding. What sets you apart? You’ve got the Navy, now what? How’s it working for you? Has it revitalized downtown?”
City officials and elected officials from Bremerton and Port Orchard gathered last week in a reserved auditorium at the recently opened SEEfilm Bremerton Cinema to hear from Brooks, who has crisscrossed the country and the globe for 30 years, about ways to recruit more businesses and tourists to the area. He also visited Bremerton late last year for a similar visit with a wider audience of residents and business owners.
Jerry McDonald, a Harborside Condominium resident who arranged the Brooks visits, has so far been pleased by the local reaction.
“I think that it’s ignited a lot of interest,” McDonald said. “A lot of people are talking about it and it’s got a lot of people thinking. I think we can do it. It’s just a matter of getting the right people going.”
For McDonald, any talk about revitalizing Bremerton, needs to include a discussion about Port Orchard.
“My thinking on this whole package is to market both cities at the same time for the same reasons so that people bring more money than they go home with,” he said.
Brooks, who claims his company, Destination Development International, has recruited more than $2.8 billion in new tourism development projects in 45 states, across Canada and Europe, sounded a similar refrain.
“If you don’t hang out in downtown Bremerton and Port Orchard, neither will we as visitors,” he said. “This is the age of third places — home, work and the third place where you go to hang out. Starbucks built an entire brand out of third places.”
McDonald said he was one of the original buyers of downtown Bremerton’s waterfront condos, a purchase that at first seemed like a good deal in an up-and-coming town. But the condos were a year late, the economy tanked and the property values nosedived.
“I lost a good bit of money and the best way I can figure out to get it back is to make the communities better,” he said.
Since then, McDonald has helped organize Seattle hotel concierge tours and tried to work with the state’s ferry system to boost tourism among other efforts.
“I think the key to our success here in Bremerton and Port Orchard is to get people on our ferry,” he said. “That’s the easiest and cheapest way to do it,” McDonald said, later acknowledging what is perhaps an even bigger obstacle. “The biggest problem for both cities is a lot of empty storefronts with a big percentage of the businesses closing after 6 o’clock.”
During his presentation last week, Brooks laid out a step-by-step process in which local citizens can successfully brand and market a community. Some of those steps include a wide-reaching survey, the creation of a “Brand Development Committee,” feasibility studies and, perhaps most importantly, action plans that include a to-do list to achieve success.
Under Brooks’ model, a small group of committed citizens gather, assess and boil down community input on various branding ideas. Those ideas could include turning a town into a culinary destination, making a town and region a sanctuary from the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life or whatever else is possible.
“You build your brand on feasibility, not just local sentiment … At the end of the day, this is about cash,” he said.
As part of the process, a Brand Leadership Team, or “Brand Cops” are eventually selected that will champion the cause and be the “voice of the brand.”
“Brands are not for the faint of heart because not everybody is going to agree,” he said. “Behind the scenes there are those that are going to say, ‘We don’t want change,’ but without change communities die.”
Brooks also emphasized that branding a town cannot rely on chambers, economic development organizations or local governments.
“Politicians are elected to be all things to all people,” he said. “You’re not asking for their permission, you’re saying, ‘We just want to know if you will help us in the private sector where feasible?’ The best thing you can do with a city is push them rather than wait for them.”
Beyond the branding process, Brooks talked about the critical importance of plazas and public markets in towns.
“If you can combine the two you’re gonna be in heaven,” he said.
Brooks also touched on various parking strategies, the need for restroom facilities, the impact of business and occupation (B&O) taxes, visitor spending patterns, beautification and more. He also touched on some other areas in which Bremerton can dramatically improve.
“The problem you have in Bremerton with the lack of way-finding (useful signage) is a crime,” he said. “This is a town where you don’t connect the dots at all and you need to connect the dots.”