It was 1997 and Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim asked me what it would take to turn around Bridgeport’s image.
You take success stories, I told him, and market the city in a statewide radio and television campaign. But first you must build a credible foundation by addressing those issues that concern potential visitors, and then follow up with economic development and tourist destination commercials. At the time the biggest issue — real or imagined — was crime. People need to feel safe if they’re going to make that leap.
The city has always had a bad knock on crime, even though crime stats consistently show that it has a lower crime rate than Hartford and New Haven. The campaign wouldn’t work if we tried to persuade an audience that the city was some sort of overnight Shangri-la. The campaign was called The People of Bridgeport…Working Their Way Back. Ganim liked the idea and was willing to budget city dollars to improve the image of the state’s largest city. Joe, of course, also liked the idea because it was a way to inflate his profile during his ambitious quest to become governor.
He asked me to help sell it to the City Council. My first call, however, was to city Economic Development Director Mike Freimuth because the campaign would come under his umbrella. If you can get the council to buy into, Mike said, let’s do it.
My next calls went to Bill Finch, Pat Crossin and Auden Grogins, and a few others who were friends on the council. Finch loved the idea. In fact, I explained that we wanted to kick off the campaign featuring a mother who could speak directly into the camera about feeling safe taking her child to a city park. Finch suggested his ex wife Claire who had started a new family. Claire was perfect for the campaign.
Finch helped me line up several of the city residents that would be featured during the early part of the campaign, from all parts of the city. By the time 1998 rolled around, radio and television spots featured the Bluefish, the zoo, Captain’s Cove, Discovery Museum and a bunch more. In one television commercial, Joe was morphed out of the rubble of the old Jenkins Valve site that would become the ballpark at Harbor Yard proclaiming “If we built it…you’ll come.”
They did. That ballpark was full during the years 1998-2000 when the campaign was in full glory. Bridgeport native John Ratzenberger (Cliff in Cheers) eventually became a spokesperson. Did the campaign work? Ask Zoo Director Gregg Dancho, Barnum Museum Executive Director Kathy Maher, or Kaye Williams, operator of Captain’s Cove, if it worked.
Polling and focus groups, validating the city’s marketing campaign, showed increased attendance at city attractions. In fact, there’s a direct connection to the attendance drop off at the city-owned ballpark in 2001, and subsequent years, when the campaign ended after Joe got in trouble. Bluefish attendance has not yet recovered. But there’s a way to fill those seats.
Cities such as Bridgeport must market destination points during good times and bad. For all of John Fabrizi’s love for Bridgeport (it’s real) he failed to invest in city-owned assets. Promoting the city is an investment, not a cost. Invest in the city and suburbanites and beyond will spend money.
And now nearly two years into Finch’s mayoralty the man who was an enthusiastic supporter of the city promotional campaign when he served on the City Council has yet to promote city attractions. There’s a lot to promote. One of the finest public library systems in the state, a new downtown restaurant district on Fairfield Avenue, Gathering of the Vibes, classic rock concerts at the arena and Klein (both city-owned venues) first-rate shows at the Downtown Cabaret Theater and Playhouse on the Green. Feature the Finch family on a tour of city destination points.
Several new down county and New York developers have recently invested dollars downtown. Use them as testimonials in a radio campaign to reach New York-based investors, with the city’s economic development department as the point of contact.
Ganim budgeted upwards of $1 million for the yearly campaigns. Doesn’t have to be that much. A concentrated, organized campaign of $200k can do a lot. And perhaps ask the business community to be a partner in the promotion. But if they won’t do it, the city should pony up.
The city spends money on all kinds of crap. It can find the money to invest in its assets. City residents will feel good about their city and visitors will plunk down moolah to support restaurants and attractions. It’s worth it.
(Check out my daily blog at www.onlyinbridgeport.com)