Our opinion: A brand new day in Tallahassee?

From the Tallahassee Democrat

It’s time for hyper-politicized city to consider consolidation and step outside the shadow of the Capitol

“A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

OK, we’re in.

But if you think this is an exercise in creating logos, slogans and snappy creatives, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Whether Tallahassee’s brand needs a tweak, an enhancement or a complete overhaul, the process should be deliberative, transparent and, well, difficult.

It should reflect three key constituents – residents, visitors and business.

And it should be driven by what makes us unique – what sets Tallahassee apart?

Anybody who plops down at a table and says: “THIS is what our brand should be!” is missing out on the tidal nature of formulating these types of things. The magic is in the collaboration. This is not about winning a slogan contest or some fictional battle of best ideas — it’s about laying out threads and then seeing how they tie together.

To that end, this tractate is an effort not at solving the puzzle, but of assembling some of the pieces that would constitute Tallahassee’s brand – or at least contribute to it. Some of these are reflections of our current state; others are recommendations for future conditions.

1. It’s time to create and demand a culture of honesty

Too many are only willing to talk about Tallahassee in terms that fit their agenda.

The entire city is corrupt and evil.


This is an A-plus city.

It’s time for the demonizers and glorifiers to step aside.

We need a brutally honest assessment of our city.

The list of positive attributes is long – small town feel; everything that comes with being a three-college town; amazing natural resources that bring endless recreational opportunities; proximity to the coast; capital of the state; and the list goes on.

But there are also giant, persistent problems – one of the worst crime rates in the state; too many people in poverty, leading to economic segregation; a “good old boy” network that often brings a dark-cloud to community decision-making and leads to a lack of confidence in ethical practices; battles over how and even if Tallahassee should grow.

There should be immense pride in the positives and a weariness over the negatives, many of which have been on that list for far too long.

But mainly there should be a willingness to discuss and assess these strengths and weaknesses fairly and honestly.

2. It’s time to shed the moniker “government town.”

There are 50 state capitals in the United States. Not all of them have succumbed to the idea that because the state workforce is based in a state capital, the city’s destiny is sealed.

Is Austin, Texas, a “government town?” Nashville? Raleigh?

From the Research Triangle to Music City to Austin’s eclectic arts and outdoors identity, these Southern state capitals (and many others) have stepped out of the shadow of their Capitol domes and established new brands.

Sure, they all have legislators, lobbyists, lawyers and the like. But the economic base is diversified. The brand is far from government-centric.

None of that should diminish the important role government plays in that market nor tarnish the contribution of those who enter into public service.

But being a “government town” simply isn’t a brand that travels.

3. It’s time to look – seriously, soberly and thoroughly – at consolidating government

For us, this isn’t mainly about efficiency (although that should be created) or saving money (although that should happen as well).

Related: Officials say consolidation isn’t among top priorities

This is directly related to the point above.

This town is hyper-politicized. Part of the reason government has dominated Tallahassee’s brand is that we have all let it happen. Perhaps it is just trickle down from the state legislature, but a city this size shouldn’t have so many career local politicians, local political consultants and the like.

This also goes to the issue of a culture of honesty and transparency – the more layers of local government, the more likely there is to be posturing and spin when it comes to the city’s image.

This leads to the ultimate “brand trap,” according to Greg Clark, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, who studies community brands. In a Wall Street Journal interview last year, Clark said: “The worst situation is when your product is worse than your image.”

If Tallahassee can’t solve its crime problem, there isn’t a catchy slogan in the world that’s going to overcome that reality.

Maybe a unified countywide police force and the consolidation of other city and county services won’t solve the problem. Maybe it will. But at the least, it will go a long way toward de-politicizing our system and surely that’s a good thing in the long run.

4. On the other hand, it’s time for the private sector to put on its big boy pants

There is a legacy of private sector obsequiousness that must be overcome if this market is to flourish. The shedding of the “government town” label is as much about the private sector doing more heavy lifting as it is the government taking a step back.

We are pleased to see the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce taking steps in this direction – severing the financial pipeline from the city and county as well as taking strong, written positions on the key issues of the day affecting business.

We also think the United Way’s reclaiming of its mantle as the chief advocates for a stronger, safe, healthier community is an excellent step.

Who else will step up to fill the void? Who else will show the leadership required to reinvent this magnificent city and county into something even greater?

5. Economic development – what’s taking so long? Where is the laser?

Our initial enthusiasm over a new economic development structure has waned a bit as the process seems to be dragging. It has been almost 18 months since the Chamber-EDC breakup and seven months since the city and county voted to accept the new economic development structure. Yet as of this writing, none of the various board and advisory positions have been officially filled.

Further, we continue to advocate for a laser focus on the things that distinguish this market from others.

Tallahassee entrepreneur Rick Kearney recently spoke at a Chamber CEO conference and was singing off the same page. Kearney talked about how university research is the game-changing amenity that should allow Tallahassee and Leon County to climb to the next level economically. We couldn’t agree more.

To wit, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, based at Florida State University, should be an absolute calling card of this market.

If Tallahassee’s brand is going to be revitalized, there will have to be a private sector driver – building an economy around the marvelous research and technological resources at FSU and FAMU seems an obvious place to focus.

6. Speaking of, how about touting our “brainpower?”

Why does being a “college town” have to conjure up visions of tailgating, frat houses and a bar scene?

Having two universities and a community college should be as much about the brainpower as the extra-curricular stuff (and that includes football). How many cities Tallahassee’s size can claim three top educational institutions?

Our schools of higher learning should make this a mecca for brainpower and top talent and that should be a key part of our community brand.

7. Check egos at the door

Anybody who sees a rebranding process as a chance to further their own personal/business/political agenda should immediately step back and let those with purer intentions have a seat at the table.

This is about selflessness not selfishness. This is a town where – particularly as a part of the state legislative process – “what’s in it for me” rules the day.

That can’t happen if Tallahassee is to become an even greater market than it already is.

Maybe one way to address this is to pull new voices into the conversation. The usual suspects – many of them in government – have had plenty of shots to address the problems listed in the first section. Let’s hear some new ideas from fresh faces.

Whether old or new, the community must hold all accountable on this point – if egos or self-interest creep in, a spotlight should quickly be shone on that lack of collaboration.

8. It’s also time to tune out the extremes

This is tough, because we are in a culture of polarization, demonization and hard-lined stances.

But Tallahassee will never grow so long as factions and individuals hold on to radical positions. You know them well and they come from corners of the ideological chart. Any of these sound familiar?

We should protect all our trees at all costs!

There is no such thing as bad development!

People over profits!

Not in my backyard!

It’s my land, I can do whatever I want with it!

And then, there are the go-to words and terms of the morally superior: Shame on you!

Cities and counties don’t do amazing things because people shouted louder or insulted more strongly.

They move a market forward with collaboration, cooperation and compromise.

If you aren’t willing to adopt those characteristics, you should not be invited to participate in whatever process is created.

9. Get outdoors!

The great work that has already been done to make Tallahassee-Leon County a playground of trails, lakes and outdoor opportunities will surely be a part of a new brand.

From the proximity to the coast, to amazing natural amenities, to the man-made parks and trails that crisscross our market, outdoor living is and will always be a calling card for this area. Imagine what a lure that can be when paired with a new influx of high-tech jobs.

Yes, this brand stuff is, as Bezos put it, doing hard things well.

But clearly there is a rising discomfort in Tallahassee-Leon County with the status quo. Being a sleepy college and government town isn’t enough when we are competing with other markets that are on the move.

This brand conversation is vital to our future. It must be conducted with great care and collaboration, but also with urgency and intensity.

We live in the capital city of the third largest state in this great union.

It’s time to start acting like it.