Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Communities Go Undercover to Improve Their Appeal to Visitors and Newcomers

By Matt DeVeau, Project Associate.

This past June, two chambers of commerce in Kentucky sent delegations to visit each other’s cities. When the groups arrived at their destinations, they were not greeted with an official Chamber welcome or the usual pomp and circumstance that might be expected on an intercity exchange. Instead, they were left entirely to their own devices. But this wasn’t a terrible oversight – it was precisely the point.

The delegations were participating in an “undercover” scouting program designed to help the communities of Henderson and Hopkinsville assess the impression they make on visitors and newcomers. The Henderson-Henderson County Chamber of Commerce and the Christian County Chamber of Commerce organized the event using the “First Impressions” community improvement program. This model, first developed by the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension in the 1990s, provides communities with a method to gather feedback from objective, third-party sources.

The approach is essentially a modified version of “mystery shopping,” which retailers and other customer-centered businesses have been using for decades to evaluate their services. Since 1991, the First Impressions approach has been used by at least 200 communities in nine states. Most of these have been in Wisconsin, but the model holds universal promise.

Communities that actively pursue economic and community development frequently self-analyze their strengths, weaknesses, and progress toward goals. Often missing, however, are outside perspectives, and this can be problematic. As the First Impressions website puts it, “Too much self-evaluation and too little outside evaluation may mask real problems and opportunities.”

The process certainly yielded valuable insights for Henderson and Hopkinsville. The two Eastern Kentucky communities, located about an hour apart, are similar in many ways. Henderson is located just south of Evansville, Indiana, while Hopkinsville is positioned just north of Clarksville, Tennessee and the Fort Campbell Army base that straddles the border between the two states. Both communities have populations of less than 75,000 residents in their primary county. Hopkinsville, a high-capacity community, has partnered with Market Street Services on two economic development strategies, and the community has successfully come together to implement the recommendations. The fact that Hopkinsville and Henderson have pursued this exchange program further indicates that they are willing to critically look at potential areas for improvement – and act on them.

Each community assembled a volunteer contingent of 10 to 12 individuals who were tasked with going undercover to evaluate various aspects of the other community, including its aesthetic appeal, ease of navigation, customer service atmosphere, and overall friendliness. The teams presented their results at board meetings of the respective Chambers approximately two months after the visits. The Christian County Chamber published the Henderson team’s assessment of Hopkinsville on its website.

The Henderson group praised Hopkinsville’s “forward thinking” in developing major projects such as a convention center and a college campus, and found some area developments to be “attractive” and “cool.” But the group was surprised to find that some Hopkinsville residents with whom they interacted had less positive perceptions of their own community than did the visitors. In response, the group suggested that the area needs a central community anchor, or as they put it, a place that residents can point to and say, “That’s Hopkinsville.” The Henderson team suggested that this place could be downtown.

Revitalizing downtown and improving area residents’ perceptions of their community are key objectives in Hopkinsville’s most recent strategy, Christian County Cares Vision Plan – 2015, and the community has since worked hard in these areas. In downtown, buildings have been renovated, city offices have been re-centralized, and programmed activities such as a farmer’s market have been launched. But the feedback from the Henderson team indicates that additional work is needed to fully realize downtown Hopkinsville’s great potential and boost community pride.

This conclusion might have been difficult for an individual with deep roots in the community to see, and it illustrates the usefulness of the First Impressions approach. Whether the intention is to attract additional investment, talent, or tourists, all communities engaged in comprehensive economic development strive to provide a welcoming environment. Though it seems counterintuitive at first, a key first step to achieving this goal might just be not rolling out the red carpet.