The Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce and Rutland Economic Development Corp. have chosen a Brattleboro-based digital marketing agency to lead a multiyear effort aimed at reversing the region’s demographic decline and boosting economic growth.
Mondo Mediaworks, headed by Luke Stafford, was selected from a field of nearly two dozen bidders to oversee the first year of the campaign. Mondo, formed in 2010, works with a wide range of clients but describes its focus as being Vermont-based.
“Mondo’s creativity, demonstrated through their portfolio, interviews and an assignment given to the two finalists, made the final decision clear,” said Steve Costello, co-chair of the committee leading the initiative. “We devoted hundreds of man-hours to the selection, and in the end found ourselves selecting not just a marketer, but a company that demonstrated a remarkable ability to collaborate, inspire and excite.”
Stafford said the initiative is an ideal fit for the firm. “When I saw the Rutland request for proposals, I thought, ‘My entire career has led to this project,’” Stafford said in a news release. “For Mondo and for me, this is more than a job. It’s what we have striven to do since day one: build community through economic development, create opportunities for young Vermonters, and help others discover the magic that is Vermont. I have never been so excited about a project.”
The chamber and REDC have raised more than $200,000 from local businesses, the city of Rutland and surrounding towns to launch the effort. Its aim is to promote tourism, dispel the myth that there are no decent jobs in the area, and persuade people to settle in the region.
Over the last decade Rutland has experienced a persistent population decline, and, according to the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the trend is likely to continue even if economic growth remains steady. According to some projections, the city could lose between 5 and 10 percent of its population by 2020.
Chamber Executive Director Mary Cohen said one of the first things the marketing firm will focus on is selling Rutland to Rutland. “If we’re inviting people to come here and saying it’s a really great place to live, we’ve got to walk the walk,” she said.
Though REDC and the chamber are spearheading the effort, surrounding towns have been consulted, and many have pledged to support the campaign. Several will put the matter before voters on Town Meeting Day. Cohen said it’s a regionwide initiative that will showcase the county’s recreational assets and economic opportunities. The marketing firm will help in developing promotional materials, crafting a message and ultimately selling Rutland County to urban centers throughout New England and beyond.
Matt Bloomer, a former member of the Board of Aldermen who has served as a liaison between the city and business community, said the marketing campaign should be seen as a product of the good things already happening in Rutland.
Bloomer grew up in Rutland, moved to Boston after college, and returned to Vermont in 2010. He said the city has tremendous assets such as the Paramount Theater, Pine Hill Park with its network of mountain biking trails, and a strong sense of community — one of the key factors that persuaded him to come back and start a business.
Still, the city has struggled to overcome the ravages of the heroin epidemic and the perception that Rutland County is worse off than the rest of the state.
“I feel like within the state it’s an impediment,” said Bloomer. But for people in Boston or New York, he said, those negative associations are probably far less relevant.
“I don’t think it’s as difficult a hill to climb when you get outside of Vermont,” Bloomer said.
Indeed, the Killington Valley Initiative, which is part of the marketing push, seeks to capitalize on the name recognition that the resort already has and to tie it to the broader Rutland region. The Killington Valley website was launched in November during the weekend of the World Cup, and Bloomer said it is still very much a work in progress. The site describes the valley as an “outdoor adventure capital.”
Similar concerns statewide
Rutland isn’t alone in its efforts to invest in a long-term marketing strategy targeting population decline and economic growth. In May the state released a 170-page marketing road map titled “Telling the Vermont Story as a Great Place to Work, Live and Do Business.” It was drafted by Development CounseIlors International, a tourism and marketing agency, and Spike Advertising. It was based on meetings or interviews with people from more than 100 companies, businesses, universities and other organizations in the state.
The authors point out that Vermont has both an aging population and shrinking workforce.
“Vermont needs to do more to attract more workers and more companies to the state,” they write. “Simply put, there’s a pressing need to stimulate job growth in order to insure a healthy economy.”
Pamela Mackenzie, strategic planning and implementation director at the Agency of Commerce, said the state will look to enhance the efforts being undertaken in Rutland and other communities.
“There certainly is a synergy between the state and the Rutland area,” said Mackenzie. “More than anything, our approach to all of the communities in the state is to complement what they’re doing, not dictate.”
In his budget address, Gov. Phil Scott pledged to continue investing in marketing to help spur economic growth and attract young families to Vermont. Scott pledged $750,000 in economic development marketing that he hopes will be matched by private partnerships.
That money has not been appropriated yet, but Michael Schirling, head of the Agency of Commerce, said the general idea is to combine an external marketing campaign with educational outreach right here at home. From kindergarten on through college, Schirling said, the state needs to do a better job of showcasing opportunities that will persuade young people to stay in Vermont.
At the same time, the marketing campaign will seek to do a better job of highlighting the state’s economic diversity. Schirling said most people assume that Vermont’s No. 1 export is milk, cheese or maple syrup. Not so, he said: It’s semiconductors.
“What’s lesser known is the scope and depth of innovation and technology, of the diversity of companies and opportunities to work and live in Vermont,” he said.
Tourism will still be a big part of any marketing campaign, Schirling said, but clearly the emphasis is shifting to try to attract people who will not only visit but perhaps live and work here.
Still, the overall impact of any marketing plan will be difficult to measure, and cities and towns may be reluctant to continue to invest in digital strategies and promotional material without quantifiable results.
Art Woolf, an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont, who has studied demographic issues for the last 10 years, said the problem runs deep and Vermont needs to look at a wide range of solutions. Those include addressing fundamental economic issues like the cost of living, affordable housing, and tax and regulatory policy.
Woolf is skeptical that any kind of marketing campaign is the solution. “I doubt that marketing will have any kind of observable effect on Vermont’s demographic problem,” Woolf said.
However, he also praised the discussion and the effort. When he started writing about demographic issues 10 or 12 years, nobody was addressing the problem, he said.
Cohen recognizes the challenge, especially when addressing a complex issue like population decline that can’t be fixed overnight. She said that in the first year or two the metrics will be of the digital variety — the number of website visits or response rates to ads. But five years from now, she said, they hope to see a change in trends.
Bloomer, who has a web consulting business, said Rutland is uniquely positioned to attract young families from nearby cities who want access to the outdoors with some of the amenities of urban life.
“As a former board member and someone who grew up in Rutland my goal would be to get on the radar of people who are thinking about relocating or maybe have jobs that would allow them to work remotely,” Bloomer said.