Group searches for something special about city

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 3, 2009

By Mark Wineka

Salisbury Post

Try to give Salisbury a brand, and you’ll find it’s not easy to articulate.

About 25 Salisburians discovered that Monday afternoon as they spoke about what the city means to them and what they think the city’s image is or should be.

“Simply put, a brand is a promise,” said Ben Muldrow, whose Greenville, S.C., consulting firm has been hired by city officials to help come up with a branding and wayfinding strategy.

Muldrow asked those attending a public input session Monday to consider what Salisbury’s promise or brand should be. Once that’s established, he added, the city has to deliver on that promise.

Doing so builds trust and creates the most important thing — brand equity, Muldrow said.

Muldrow and his partner, Aaron Arnett, spent about an hour Monday soliciting opinions designed to figure out what message about Salisbury could be broadcast in various ways and whether Salisbury can deliver on that message.

The branding process can be confusing, Muldrow said. Many times, people assume it’s as simple as coming up with a logo.

But his firm, Arnett Muldrow & amp; Associates, will be trying to create a system — tools Salisbury could use to establish and maintain a consistent brand or message.

The wayfinding portion of their job involves having a strategic sign strategy to make it easy for people to find their destinations, direct them to parking and, after they become pedestrians, guide them to places of interest.

It aims at helping both residents and out-of-town visitors. The difficult part is arriving at an overall strategy that doesn’t clutter things up with too many signs, Muldrow noted.

To assist the consultants, Salisbury City Council has appointed a Branding and Wayfinding Committee headed by Councilman Mark Lewis. Several members of the committee attended the public session Monday afternoon at the Rowan Museum.

Participants generally agreed that Salisbury is strongly identified with history. But, as Arnett noted, communities claiming to be historic are “a dime a dozen.”

That said, Arnett and others said Salisbury is different from most other cities in that its history is the real thing.

Randy Hemann, executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc., said Salisbury should establish itself as “authentic,” not something that has been recreated. Another word used was “genuine.”

Things mentioned that connect with Salisbury’s historic image included its historic districts; a downtown that’s intact; its diverse architecture; the railroad; specific landmarks such as the Bell Tower, depot and Confederate monument; and famous people connected to its past.

Harold Poole, a retired city planner, said Salisbury is not just a legitimate historic city but an historic Southern city.

Muldrow pressed the audience to say what makes Salisbury “stick out” from other communities in its region.

Geof Wilson said it’s a welcoming feeling and quality of life. Tripp Edwards said the city has been a place for success stories, such as Food Lion, Cheerwine, Stanback and historic preservation.

“I think that spirit’s still here in this community, no doubt,” Arnett said.

Janet Gapen, a city planner, said Salisbury is a place where people invest in the community.

Poole mentioned attributes such as the city’s size, its proximity to larger metropolitan areas, its colleges and a strong downtown.

Hemann said he keeps coming back to old slogans or repeated themes such as “Salisbury’s the place” or “There’s something special about Salisbury.”

Muldrow said it’s clear that Salisbury has an historic preservation ethic, a growing and diverse arts community, an entrepreneurial business spirit, intact neighborhoods, a progressive government and strong colleges.

What is it, he asked, that creates the spirit for supporting these things?

“I feel like all of that spirit is coming from the same place,” Muldrow said, adding that there’s “very much an energy that exists in the community.”

Muldrow and Arnett, who have consulted for numerous other cities on similar branding assignments, said Salisbury has a strong combination of positive attributes that communities its size seldom have. For that reason, they have a big challenge in coming up with a branding strategy, Arnett said.

In one exercise Monday, Arnett and Muldrow asked participants where they take friends and out-of-town visitors when they come to Salisbury.

The answers included places such as Dunn’s Mountain, Hap’s Grill, Dan Nicholas Park, the city’s historic districts, Hurley Park and the depot.

Diana Moghrabi said she takes friends to a play. Another person said they attend a symphony performance. Another person said they treat visitors to Cheerwine and barbecue.

What people want, Clyde Overcash said, is trivial stuff — not the kinds of landmarks most of the people were listing Monday. People want to know where his “junk store” is, Overcash said as an example. Or they want to know how to find the buried foot in the Lutheran Cemetery.

They want to go to Hap’s Grill, he added.

“The trivial things are what gets people here,” Overcash said. “… I could give you a whole page of them.”

Overcash added he has always said he could write “the other tour” for Salisbury. He emphasized that visitors mostly need something to buy, something to eat and a bathroom.

The consultants asked what people thought was Salisbury’s greatest asset.

The answers included a sense of place, roots, permanency, quality of life and how easy it is to become involved in the community.

George Busby, a consulting architect and town planner, told the consultants they could learn a lot by interviewing people and businesses who have left Salisbury and ask them why they left.

They also should interview visitors and ask what’s important to them, Busby said.

Muldrow asked what parts of Salisbury would the participants want people to avoid. Christine Wilson mentioned the East Innes Street corridor leading from Interstate 85.

“It doesn’t tell our story,” she said.

Geof Wilson said the front page of the Salisbury Post also can give a bad impression.

He held up Friday’s newspaper, whose front-page headlines related stories about a man’s being found guilty of murder, a mother of three dying in a car crash and a woman accused in the death or her newborn baby.

The Branding and Wayfinding Committee met for lunch earlier Monday and listed more than 90 places that could be considered destinations in Salisbury. Committee members assigned categories and locations to each of the destinations.

Arnett and Muldrow will return Jan. 18 with some priorities on wayfinding and could have a draft brand for the committee’s consideration.

The committee also is scheduled to meet Feb. 8, and the consultants will make a report at City Council’s retreat Feb. 15-16.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or