Rebranding downtown Waukesha will start with a clean slate

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Published on: 1/14/2014

There's dining, there's art and music festivals, there's the river walk, there's shopping, urban living and historic architecture.

So how do you combine all of what downtown Waukesha entails into an image that can be properly marketable?

That's what Savage Solutions, a Milwaukee-based marketing firm, along with the downtown community will brainstorm over the next few months.

Rebranding downtown's logo — that will be seen on banners and other wayfinding signs in and leading to downtown — was made possible after the Common Council approved a $15,000 contract with Savage Solutions at its last meeting.

"This is a great idea," said Alderman Adam Jankowski, one of 11 who voted for rebranding. "I love it. We're reimaging Waukesha."

Rebranding surfaces

Community Development Specialist Jeff Fortin said the rebranding effort came from two plans: the Central City Master Plan and the Downtown Integrated Street Master Plan.

The Central City Master Plan, which was adopted in 2012, looks at the complete street design to create a "coherent street system" of improving signs, streetlights, banners and wayfinding signs to better define the downtown.

The goal of the Downtown Integrated Street Master Plan is to create cohesiveness for the downtown area. The plan recommended new banners in downtown that would be more durable with brighter colors and larger to make them more visible.

Fortin said one side of the banner would feature the new logo and the other would allow for flexibility for downtown events to advertise. He added that since many streets were being overhauled and new banners would be a key component to that, rebranding was brought to the forefront. An ad hoc committee interviewed firms this fall after getting the go-ahead from the Redevelopment Authority.

Once an image is selected after public input, it will then have to get approval from the Downtown Implementation Committee, the Redevelopment Authority and Common Council.

The downtown is currently marketed as "historic." Fortin said there was concern from aldermen last year that it's crucial to modernize downtown.

"New banners should reflect what downtown truly means and much more than just historic downtown," said Fortin, who added 12,000 places in the United States call themselves historic in some fashion.

"We're trying to separate our downtown," Fortin said.

Why change?

Not everyone agreed with that notion.

"I like historic downtown Waukesha," said Alderman Eric Payne, who was joined by Alderwoman Kathleen Cummings and Aldermen Cory Payne and Daniel Manion in voting against rebranding. "I like the logo. That's who we are. A lot of people put in a lot of hard work over the years to make historic downtown Waukesha. A lot of communities aren't historic anymore because they leveled everything that's historic in their downtowns."

Alderman Vance Skinner agreed that downtown is historic, but said there's so much more that it offers.

"We certainly don't dispute that downtown Waukesha is historic," Skinner said. "That's one aspect of it. We want to focus on the larger picture. It's a historic place with a lot of history, but there's certainly more to it. Business centers refresh and rebrand all the time. It's something that's required."

Worried about the cost

Cummings also said she liked the historic label, but also had financial concerns (the cost of the study to come up with a logo is $15,000).

Community Development Director Steve Crandell said the money is coming from the Central City Master Plan's budget. Out of $100,000 there's still $15,000 in tax incremental financing to use.

"They're not new dollars," Crandell said. "There's still dollars remaining from the original allocation."

But Cummings was worried about the cost once the rebranding is complete.

Crandell said "absolutely" the cost will be greater, but added this is the same as when the city developed the Central City Master Plan in 1998 and many projects cost it millions of dollars.

"This isn't for one group," he said. "It's for the downtown property owners, it's for the retailers, it's for the professional business community and it's for the residents of downtown. But more importantly, this is for the city. It is a first phase in a citywide rebrand. It is a steppingstone to move this brand forward into the community and build on our sense of place and sense pride within this city."

Having their doubts

Cummings, however, had her doubts despite Fortin saying "there is no preconceived notion" of an image and that the consultant is "going to start with a blank slate.".

"I don't believe it's the right time," Cummings said. "I do believe that there's already preconceived notions out there on what it should be. I don't think $15,000 should be spent at this time. We don't know the end cost. I've been on so many committees and commissions and people are put on commissions to end up with predictable results and I already know what that result is going to be. We are much more than just guitars in the City of Waukesha."

Downtown property owner Victoria Hekkers said while she's supportive of rebranding, the timing isn't right with reconstruction projects taking place over the next few years.

"Downtown is going to be torn up," Hekkers said. "We don't know what the downtown is going to look like when we're done. It feels kind of like we're rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the Titanic is in trouble and going down. You don't rebrand at the beginning of the project because you don't know what it's going to look like at the end."

Getting community input

Fortin disagreed and used the City of Oconomowoc as an example on a community that recently rebranded. He said, while it too was reconstructing a major street at the time, rebranding its city before — not after construction — "set the tone" for a successful transition.

"It got stakeholders on board and got people to drive downtown when most would try to avoid it," Fortin said. "We would have a brand in place as roads are reconstructing and we can incorporate this into that. Not all at once, but as the Central City Master Plan is implemented we would like to see a new brand go with the implementation."

But he stressed that with the city taking the lead in this effort, it will ensure "maximum public participation."

"Input of all stakeholders is crucial to this," Fortin said. "Nobody's going to embrace a logo if they don't have input. We'd like to have property owners, businesses, customers, elected officials — anybody who is using downtown — to have some input in this, to tell the city, to tell the consultant what downtown Waukesha represents."