Branding Fort Bragg

The Fort Bragg City Council met at Town Hall last Monday night in another meeting running to the legal maximum of 10pm.

From the outset, it looked ominously like it was going to be a long meeting but, in spite of the dense agenda, there was a curious buoyancy. There is something so inherently upbeat about spending money that it generates a positive vibe even when warning lights are blinking massively.

One major attraction of being on the basically volunteer Fort Bragg City Council is the exotic gratification of knowing that one has stumbled somehow into the power to blow huge amounts of hard cash without thinking it through and not get in trouble for doing it.

This awesome power only dimly imagined by the masses is unique to the craft of governance. The Fort Bragg City Council is learning all about it.

Crafty agenda planning subjected the council to terminal fatigue before they got down to brass tacks. Perhaps no accident. First, there was a surprise about grant guru Jennifer Owen and lots of fun to take the edge off the serious stuff.

In her regular staff comments, with severely calculated understatement, outgoing City Manager Linda Ruffing glibly mocked the City Council with the news that Jennifer Owen, “state expert” on CDGB grants, was leaving for a new position at the North Coast Brewery. It is rumored that she will be CFO.

This going-away present from the Linda faction to the city was calculated to have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon. Linda was wickedly eloquent in her sharp little message to the despised council that has fired her so rudely. She might have to go, but she was taking her pet grant writer with her (Damn you all).

The basis of city financing for the entirety of Linda Ruffing's long tenure was a devil’s bargain by which the low income of a majority of city residents qualified Fort Bragg for federal funds. As a city, we are formally economically disadvantaged. Ironically, this has been the basis for our comparative solvency since the mill closed in 2002. Jennifer Owen was the key person in all of it. These happy chunks of federal cash were used to feed a pro-Ruffing constituency and the 7.5% of the grants that the city gets to keep are useful to offset the beefy salaries of the city administration running the circus.

In biology, it's called a symbiotic relationship.

Jennifer Owen’s function was to actually drag down the federal dollars while her pals at Development did their part to keep most development and anything like general prosperity from interfering with our qualifications as a disadvantaged community.

It sounds too rude to be true but a voting majority of the city now clearly understands that for 20 years economic distress has been built into the financial architecture of the Ruffing system.

It worked, just not for everybody. Now they are mad and they are taking their CBDG grant connections with them. Jennifer Owen is not going to do her money voodoo for the crude misogynists that fired her pal.

They whizzed through the Consent Calendar and started off with fun things.

The City Manager’s selected marketing consultant Aspen Logan of the Color Mill, told us what was going on with the TOT (transit occupancy tax/bed tax) gathered from our hotels and allocated to market the city to prospective tourists.

Ms. Aspen was giving us a progress report on how things were going now that Linda has successfully thrown the locals under the bus who were succeeding so strikingly on dirt cheap social media. Adults resumed proper control and engaged appropriate consultants.

Ms. Aspen, the local coordinator for the branding and marketing effort, described a complex intellectual process, involving (this surprised me) all of us. Together we would create a brand. A “Brand,” we learned, involves many subtleties, sophistications of association, color schemes and carefully crafted elements of identity, and yet branding actually springs as we learned from within the human heart.'

We were shown color pictures taken somewhere else demonstrating how nice it is to be in Fort Bragg.

Solemn assurances were made that when the mysterious oysters of creativity had produced their pearls, our color pictures and “taglines” would be the equal of anyplace, anywhere. The Color Mill branding expert had an unflappable confidence in her occult craft.

She thought even my disparaging grumbling was positive in the sense that with sufficient interpretation the apparently negative can actually be positive. Nothing got her down.

When a naive councilman asked her humbly what was going to happen with all of this visionary photography and tagline poetics, she was a little vague. Little sprouts of community introspection grow into their perfect expression and go looking for eyeballs.

I confess to being doubtful, but perhaps genius will amaze me and we will go viral on the sheer power of a truly inspired tagline with just the right colors.

I could not help but wonder if our little village of 7,000 will not have to pay hard cash for what will likely be expensive and therefore limited conventional advertising exposure.

I guess “branding” will surprise me, but I had to reflect that his super collaboration and communion with our collective soul is a long way from Sharon Davis's guerilla marketing.

The Chamber of Commerce CEO was palpably bringing people to our city without “taglines” on social media and doing it for peanuts. Linda's grown-up marketing, on the other hand, is the groundwork for a generic ad campaign. It aspires at best to make one of the most novel and exceptional places on earth look just like every other beach community in California.

Linda almost lost control of the bed tax money when Davis committed the treason of succeeding brilliantly.

The CEO of the Chamber got caught running an operation that got results using a small, tight innovative local team. Ms. Ruffing was not amused. The Chamber of Commerce team forgot to consult the experts before they achieved results. Linda Ruffing with no particular apology crushed success and gave the money back to the professionals who know how to conduct a good study before they do something. Now we are back in our comfort zone, studying it to death.

The odd thing about the creative enterprise to find a brand for the city is how curiously similar these initial best efforts were to everything else in the advertising universe.

Their conceptions did not distinguish our old distinguished city. Instead, they made the case with generalities that Fort Bragg is not entirely unacceptable.

True enough, but it seems a pretty weak argument for coming here. The glossy shots on the beach were any old beach, and the creative “taglines” about unwinding and finding one's own unwind work perfectly — any sandy where on earth. I wonder how the taglines and branding are going to synthesize Paul Bunyan Days into their proposed nature-centered narrative.

Someone should send them an invitation to the joyously belligerant annual celebration of extractive industry excess which is certainly far and away our most popular civic celebration.

The last consultant (Carl) that the city hired for $35k to provide hard data on who comes here and why, earned his money decisively by telling us our best strategy is to be ourselves and to be right out there being ourselves. If you buy into the nature narrative with its focus on dancing on the beach and long walks into the sunset, being ourselves might seem somewhat jarring. I hope not, but the whole thing reminds me I like Fort Bragg more in the winter.

The meeting took a break at 8pm and then went back into a convoluted and digressive discussion on the complexities of retail cannabis licensing in our little town.

This is the kind of thing that they love.

There was ample opportunity for general discussion, no possible community opposition and it was not technical. They painfully hacked out a consensus. Other projects of comparable complexity have taken other City Councils years. The resolution amounted to four licenses for dispensaries not to be located in the residential zones and not in in the core of the central business district. That took hours. You could see them getting tired.

Town Hall had been filled to its capacious brim at 6pm but by the time they got around to the evening’s real business, which was to spend $1.5 million, there were only three people left in the room other than the dog tired City Council and their minders from the city administration.

Two of the determined survivors worked for (actually owned) Akeef Construction — the firm that was about to get the contract. Linda Ruffing hit the alarm bell by merrily asking that they forgo the reading of the staff report on account of the lateness of the hour. A chastened council scoffed at that and the numbers came tumbling out.

Uncharacteristically, there was more than one bid for this major city project. There were two. The bids for the $1 million water tank came in at $1.4 million and $1.7 million.

There was a little rumble of dismay and perplexity up on the dais about going over a million at all. The CDBG grant for the water tank was for $1.1 million. The engineering firm contracted by the city to provide an estimate of the tank allowed that it would cost $1.6 million. The low bid was $1.4 million. At the Monday night meeting, they had to go back to the council for $300k. This surprised and shocked the City Council still shell-shocked by the Streets & Alleys debacle. The pros from City Hall thought nothing of it.

An innocent unfamiliar with the operations of civic expenditure might have wondered if the city engineering staff could not have stuck to the one million they had from the feds by just making the tank a tad smaller.

But when the numbers came back, the City Council grumbled a little but largely held their peace. You could see the City Council did not entirely understand or enjoy being hit for an additional $300k.

There was puzzlement perplexity and grumbling. Nobody at City Administration cared or even took the City Council seriously enough to even offer them an explanation. The Council forked over the $300k from the water fund and went home.

One Response to "Branding Fort Bragg"

  1. Marco McClean   December 29, 2017 at 12:56 am

    In the early 2000s teevee show /Slings and Arrows/ about a Canadian Shakespeare rep theater and all the characters involved in it, the business manager of the theater company gets bamboozled by the con artist at the head of an ad agency/branding firm named FrogHammer.

    That’s what this reminds me of.

    Great show. Six episodes per year, three years. The first year they do Hamlet, the second, Macbeth, and the third, King Lear.

    Reply

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