Town officials: What brand of town is Fenwick Island?

Date Published: 
July 29, 2016

Disney World and McDonald’s aren’t the only places that have a brand.

Big and small towns take advantage of branding to create a central idea of what it’s like to visit them, and Fenwick Island officials are now deciding if that’s the right move for the town.

What is branding? “It’s taking an image and … developing it into a system” of multiple images, particular fonts and color scheme that reflect the town, said Diane Laird, state coordinator of Downtown Delaware, at a July 22 presentation in Fenwick.

“We very much believe in the concept of proactive planning, because your downtown district is going to change” over time, Laird said.

Fenwick is an affiliate of the program, created by the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO) as a resource center for all downtown revitalization. That is less commitment than being a full-blown Main Street town, which requires paid staff and a downtown revitalization committee.

In May, the Fenwick council considered approving a $5,000 matching grant to hire a branding designer/consultant, but council members wanted first to hear what the program entails.

Since 2009, towns that have tried the program have included Millsboro, Newark, Georgetown, Bridgeville, Delaware City and more. “Historically happening” became a tagline for Dover tourism ads as a result of their branding efforts.

Laird compared it to shopping malls, which have a unified brand so there’s continuity throughout the whole visitor experience.

For a town, it’s continuity in the visual experience, so visitors have a unified feeling of how property owners feel about their town.

“If you’re satisfied with the way your town is, there’s no need to invest any more,” Laird said. “If you feel you would like to unify the look, beautify the experience driving through here,” she said, consider the program.

What does Fenwick Island get for $5,000? With the State’s matching grant, Fenwick would get a professional designer who’s worked with more than 400 communities nationwide. He would review the whole community and create a branding system in three days.

On Day 1, the designer would host a public meeting to ask what residents, property owners and other stakeholders like or don’t like about town. On Day 2, the designer would meet with the town council and the Business Development Committee. He would take hundreds of photographs of the town to get a feel for the atmosphere and create a color scheme based on actual scenery.

Day 3 is the big reveal, where the designer would present the new logo, color scheme and font for the town. He would give Town Hall a computer file of about 300 photos — variations on the logo and other graphics — ready to promote the town.

Town Hall can use it however they want, even giving access for the business community to pull images.

The investment isn’t just a flat $5,000. Fenwick would pass a resolution promising to implement the program within six to eight months. That’s a good-faith promise “to implement on some level, at least on the website, or in some small capacity, the investment we are making,” Laird said.

The marketing materials could be placed on the Town website, or used in local restaurant ads or tourism magazines.

Residents on July 22 debated the true cost, as some towns do web marketing, while others plaster the logos on letterheads, water towers and trash bins.

“Who pays for this?” is an important, but secondary question, Laird said. First, “You have to be in unison that the idea of proactive planning within the visual is an important route to follow.”

“How important is the buy-in from the businesses?” asked Councilwoman Julie Lee.

They’re one of many stakeholders, including citizens, residents, historians and the council, Laird said.

“Everyone that has made an investment in the town is a stakeholder. It’s a shared vision, and that’s why such community input is sought in the process,” Laird said. “If the businesses don’t want to buy signs, that’s fine. If they want to put it on a website, that’s good. As much as you can promote something like this, it’s good. It just helps unify the town.”

Ultimately, “If you want to get the value of a branding system, people have to see it” when paying a bill or walking around, “because it’s presenting an image of the town you’re trying to reflect,” Laird said. “When you see a brand, there’s an expectation” of whether the town is historic, forward-thinking, diverse, etc. “You’re trying to give people a visual of what it’s going to be like when they come to a town, or an emotion they might feel.”

For instance, she said, Laurel is using the river as an eco-tourism driver, so they’re promoting a natural, recreational vibe.

“You would tell the branding expert what the town wants,” which is different from what Milford or Milton would want, Laird said.

Even in this preview meeting, citizens said they were conflicted about what the town wants. Some would even prefer Fenwick stop attracting visitors — a goal the business community would probably oppose.

However, business owner Tim Collins said he had met a new property owner last year who didn’t understand why people kept talking about Fenwick as a quaint town.

“This town has absolutely no charm,” compared to spaces like Bethany Beach, he recalled her saying.

Collins suggested that Fenwick try to improve bit by bit, and not wait for perfection before improving the perception of town.

Fenwick is already a coveted space, said Laird, who has seen tears of pride flow at brand reveals in other places, where people weren’t always proud of their hometown. But that doesn’t mean Fenwick doesn’t need branding.

“I wouldn’t say you don’t have need for a visual system that creates beauty, unity and consensus and understanding for what is Fenwick Island all about,” Laird said.

Some people said Fenwick already has a brand, even if it’s not in official town limits: the Fenwick Island lighthouse, which is already used on the Town’s logo.

Program details are online at www.downtowndelaware.org.

The Business Development Committee is expected to discuss the program and make a recommendation to the town council soon.

Laird said Fenwick needs to make a grant decision in the next 30 to 60 days, due to a new budget year and new administration.

Downtown Delaware only has an annual budget of $25,000, so helping Fenwick obtain a $5,000 matching grant is a big deal.

Fifteen lighthouses

The Business Development Committee has sought to distinguish Fenwick even before a consultant was considered, and holiday pole lights are the first step in their effort to distinguish Fenwick Island from its three-lane-highway neighbor.

“We’re trying to help the business, trying to identify Fenwick from Ocean City, [Md.],” Councilman Gardner Bunting told the Coastal Point. “People see these lights at night — maybe they slow down, see some of our places of business, maybe come back and frequent the businesses.”

During the holidays, Fenwick has in recent years always hung nautical — instead of Christmassy — designs. That has meant conch shells instead of silver bells. Decades ago, a lighthouse pole light was custom-designed for Fenwick, Gardner said. It was so popular that the company kept the design in their catalog.

This spring, the Town got 15 more lighthouse-style pole lights (discounted after the holidays at buy-two/get-one-free).

“[We’re] trying to make the town stand out, help the business community, and they, in turn, wanted to help us by buying the lights,” Bunting said.

Donations also came from an individual in memory of loved-ones and from businesses in the unincorporated zone.

“They thought enough of Fenwick Island to buy one of those lights,” Bunting said.

But three businesses that originally volunteered to donate funding still haven’t written a check to the Town. Bunting said that he’ll visit those individuals this month to get the last payments.

In May, Bunting stated that the Town had collected $5,483 of the $8,940, plus shipping.

“These people had volunteered to contribute, and we took them at [face value],” he said.

He hypothesized that the slow, rainy early season meant that funds were low, and maybe now the commitment had fallen through the cracks of a busy summer season.

According to Business Development Committee minutes from April, “The new lights were all purchased by the business community. The only cost to the Town is the labor for installation/setup and removal of the old lights.”

But the Town hasn’t recouped the costs yet. Outgoing Town Manager Merritt Burke and Bunting, as council treasurer, co-signed the check for the purchase.

A few citizens scolded that method of purchasing the lights without having a dedicated funding source.

“Mayor Gene Langan added that, if there is a shortfall, the Town Council is committed to approving additional funds,” according to the Business Development Committte’s February minutes.

On July 22, Councilman Richard Mais suggested that the Town just pay the shortfall, but the motion came during a non-voting portion of the meeting, and Bunting said he would just go talk to the businesses.

Meanwhile, the other, older lights won’t go to waste, possibly hanging in the town park or over movie nights on the beach.