By Jeff Woodburn
Two years ago, Coos County, the state’s beautiful and beleaguered northern outpost, embarked on an ambitious branding campaign built around the county’s three grand hotels. But the branding effort — with its slogan, “Grand Resorts, Grand Adventures” — may be in grand trouble as it fends off a barrage of criticism from the county’s three elected county commissioners and other North Country leaders.
At the heart of the debate is the basic identity of the region and its people, who are decidedly not feeling too grand these days as the harsh economy destroys jobs, businesses and optimism.
As part of the campaign, each community in the county will be asked to support changing the region’s brand name from “Great North Woods” to “Grand North.” It would be the third such name change the region has undergone in a dozen years. But the greatest controversy has been caused by the selection of businesses in the region to be showcased in the marketing effort.
Not surprisingly, those that made the cut and have been certified as “grand” defend the selection criteria, while those that didn’t are more critical. The loudest voice in opposition has been County Commissioner Tom Brady of Jefferson, whose family’s Western theme park, Six Gun City, was stripped of its top billing because the brand leadership team felt it didn’t meet the criteria.
For three years, the Northern Community Investment Corp. of nearby St. Johnsbury, Vt., has been working on the creation of a single brand for the Coos County region. Eventually, NCIC secured funding through various federal grants, the three grand hotels (The Balsams in Dixville Notch, Mountain View Grand in Whitefield and Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods) and the Tillotson Fund, among others.
In December 2008, Roger Brooks, a Seattle, Wash.-based community branding guru hired for the effort, presented his plan to, as he said, “use the grand hotels as the hook.”
His plan was warmly received with hardly any criticism.
Coos County is New Hampshire’s anomaly, and a distant reminder of what state use to be. With nearly 2,000 square miles of wilderness, it is geographically the state’s largest county — nearly as large big as Hillsborough, Rockingham and Strafford counties combined. Isolated by a meager road system, mountainous terrain and famously aggressive weather, the county is slightly populated, with just 18 people sharing each square mile.
Katie Paine, a prominent marketing executive who moved her company from Durham to Berlin several years ago, notes that there is a mythical frontier mentality that draws and keeps people in the county. And since few people live there because of a job, it is a heightened definition of place that dominates the region’s politics.
Brooks recently returned to Coos County to unveil a new Web site and reveal nine “grand adventures,” which included the three grand hotels, a theme park, a rally school, hiking, canoeing, ATV and snowmobile trails, a mountain-climbing railroad and auto road and a canopy tour.
The Web site promotes two dozen businesses that are certified as the “best of New Hampshire Grand.” The local “Grand North” brand manager, Samantha Kenney, explained that businesses were vetted through a process that included being nominated by a group of volunteers and then privately inspected. Several businesses expressed surprise by their inclusion, while others were involved in the organization from its inception.
From the start, Brady’s family theme park was on the list of Grand Adventures, along with its neighbor, Santa’s Village, but as the criteria formalized and inspections occurred, the brand team became troubled by the park’s “deferred maintenance,” said Cathy Conway, NCIC’s vice president.
“It missed some of the criteria,” she said, but the problems were “not expensive items.” This enraged Brady, who said his family had spent $200,000 in repairs over the summer and some projects were not completed because of poor weather. “We’re not being treated fairly,” he said. He insinuated that the action was retribution for his vote to cut economic development funding from the county budget. He said he has pondered legal action.
Brady was not the only businessperson who felt snubbed by the branding effort. Mary O’Connor of Christy’s Maple Farm in Lancaster, was surprised to learn that her competitor was selected as one of the best businesses and she had not heard a word from anyone about the program.
It “bothers me,” she said. “How did they get there and we didn’t?”
Defenders of the branding effort say it is essential that the experiences they promote are indeed grand. The process, NCIC President Jon Freeman said, “is not perfect, but it’s for everyone. We have to have criteria.”
He said his organization is ready to provide technical assistance to businesses that want to be certified. The goal, he said, is to have more, not less, participation.
The basic premise of taxpayers’ money being used to promote one business over another troubles Coos County Treasurer Fred King of Colebrook. Access needs to be available to everyone, the former state senator said. Government should not be critiquing competing businesses with a process that essentially says, “These sheets are cleaner than those sheets,” he said. “It’s grossly unfair.”
George Bald, the state’s commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, who met with members of the Coos County Delegation begged them to stay the course. “We need to do something different,” he told them.
For and against
Some damage appears to have already been done. Brady’s two colleagues on the county commission joined him in criticizing the NCIC’s branding effort and refused to support a $3.5 million federal grant to improve signage throughout the county.
Paine, who is well-versed in the business branding business, is confident the plan will work, but said it needs time and support. “All they know how to do is knock holes in things,” she said of the naysayers.
Nevertheless, some observers have their doubts about the use of the word “grand” as part of the region’s brand.
John Harrigan of Colebrook, a veteran Coos County newspaper publisher, said the branding concept “smacks of elitism and doesn’t reflect the workaday world” of the area.
Dick Hamilton of Littleton, a retired tourism official and North Country native, doesn’t like it either, calling it “an insult to most of the residents. It’s not what the North Country is about. There’s a hell of a lot more here than the grand hotels.”
But Stephen Barba, who ran The Balsams in Dixville Notch for 35 years before moving on to become executive director of university relations at Plymouth State University, spearheaded establishment of the Great North Woods region, takes a broader view.
He acknowledges that the word “grand” may not capture the true essence of the region, but he added, “it doesn’t matter. No one theme could ever please everyone, and this theme can work so long as it’s given a fair chance to succeed. It is really important for Coos County to come together. Doing it the way it’s been done has not been effective and it doesn’t work.”