Nearly a year after Sandy Hook tragically lost one of its biggest commercial traffic generators with the closing of Sandy Hook School, property owners, economic development officials and members of the Sandy Hook Organization for Prosperity (SHOP) are about to launch a marketing initiative with hopes of bringing more shoppers and patrons back to the local village district.
Earlier this month, Kimberley Parsons-Whitaker, Associate Director of CT Main Street Center and consultant Tripp Muldrow completed a series of meetings and focus group sessions bringing residents, business owners and community leaders together to brainstorm about promoting Sandy Hook.
The resulting multi-tiered marketing program launches during the Sandy Hook tree lighting celebration December 7, according to Ms Parsons-Whitaker.
Elizabeth Stocker, Newtown’s Director of Economic and Community Development, and a local Economic Development Commission Steering Committee selected a team organized by Connecticut Main Street Center (CMSC) to coordinate the economic recovery program for Sandy Hook Village.
According to Ms Stocker, Phase I includes market research for Sandy Hook Village for shopping, dining and gathering, to engage more people to come to Sandy Hook, and to craft a marketing and promotion toolkit for the Village to better share its assets with residents, visitors, and investors.
Besides assisting Sandy Hook Village business and property owners with economic recovery, the effort is expected to introduce former and new visitors to the vibrant social center that officials say reflects the true nature of the community.
Ms Stocker first met Ms Parsons-Whitaker in March at a Main Street workshop in another community.
“She was looking specifically at what Main Street could do to help start a conversation in Sandy Hook. She wanted to introduce me to SHOP, and in early May I attended a SHOP meeting to talk about the Main Street program,” Ms Parsons-Whitaker said. “I began to talk about how Sandy Hook Village can take all of its assets – the knowledge that people in Newtown know about how special Sandy Hook is – and tell that story to a wider community.”
Ms Parsons-Whitaker believed the introduction of that branding, centered around community identity. Around the same time, she met Mr Muldrow at a conference in New Orleans.
“He was giving a presentation on communities in recovery, particularly Gulf Coast communities post-Katrina and post-BP oil spill,” she recalled. “I knew I had met someone who is just right to help Sandy Hook Village.”
The first phase marketing and branding plan is complete, and the second phase which will roll out on December 7, involves organizational capacity building, operational planning and really shoring up SHOP to help the volunteer organization be as effective as they can be.
Mr Muldrow told The Newtown Bee that he began looking at what brought Sandy Hook to the situation it is facing, and framing that situation in a way that was very different from communities facing the economic fallout of Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill.
“It was a concern we faced when I first arrived here in late May, with a community facing such an intimate and personal tragedy,” he said. “The perspective here is different, and we had to quickly get to a place where we understood where the community was at that point.”
Having worked in many communities struck by natural and manmade disasters, Mr Muldrow knew he had to reach that point of understanding even though it was so soon after the Sandy Hook tragedy struck.
He considered the hits the commercial district took between losing regular customers who were prevented from coming to Sandy Hook last holiday season because of the onslaught of post 12/14 traffic and media, as well as the loss of hundreds of parents, students, staff and visitors to Sandy Hook School who came through the village center every day, patronizing various businesses there.
Mr Muldrow said Sandy Hook School was a critical employer in the village, bringing daily economic benefits to the entire district.
“There was the takeaway of the regular pattern [of traffic] the community was used to, the economic driver that was the school, and the addition of a very unusual and disruptive pattern – the residual effect of being shut down because the media was encamped here,” he observed. “Then there is the slow burn of folks as they begin looking and considering whether they want to come back here, the memories they are going to have as they come back.
Mr Muldrow said the community has done a very effective job of understanding how its neighbors are feeling, the difficult emotions it brings when people come to Sandy Hook.
He believes Sandy Hook needs to consider “the emotional impact, the economic impacts and the story [Sandy Hook] has to tell and why this place matters.”
“It’s about connecting the economics and the story and telling folks it’s ok to come back - that it’s ok to have the feelings they are having,” he observed.
“But realize this place means something to the community. It’s a place where people gather – one of the best places to stroll and walk; to enjoy a collection of shops restaurants and services all within walking distance, even a river running through it,” Mr Muldrow said.
He said to facilitate the recovery, Sandy Hook has to realize it has both local and global potential, but it has to begin rebuilding its commercial viability from the inside out.
“It’s never been a tourism destination that would bring folks from Hartford or New York here. Although if they came here they would love it because it’s so charming and beautiful,” he said. “But we really need to look at reconnecting to people who live here and in the surrounding communities first and foremost before we go to a national or super regional [campaign].”
Mr Muldrow said he had to learn all about the market and understanding the economics.
“It’s very dynamic,” he said. “Sandy Hook and Newtown together represent one of the most wonderful markets we’ve ever studied in the United States. We’ve got an affluent community, a community that is growing faster than Maine, Vermont and other places in New England. Those are very good signs for Sandy Hook and Newtown.”
He said marketing campaign will develop a series of words, images and tools to tell the community and the world the positive story of what a fantastic place Sandy Hook is.
“I’ll never forget my first impression arriving here – just how beautiful this place is,” Mr Muldrow said. “That’s something we want to communicate.”