SoMa is working to revitalize downtown Elkhart.
It’s hard work. There are a lot of pieces to put back together and new ones to add.
It’s important work. Downtown Elkhart needs a champion.
But sometimes the champion gets tough questions. Here’s one:
Did it practice what it preaches when it comes to supporting local businesses?
SoMa is orchestrating an advertising and media campaign to get people to “Do Downtown Elkhart.” It got $150,000 from the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau and another $100,000 from the Elkhart Redevelopment Commission.
Cities need to market themselves these days. It’s just part of the cost of doing business. It’s a hard sell in an era of shrinking budgets, but cities that don’t market themselves or work with groups like SoMa or the Chamber of Commerce to do it will suffer.
The issue here is who SoMa hired to do the marketing job.
Axiomport, a full-service advertising company in Indianapolis, is getting a chunk of the money to orchestrate the rebranding blitz. Diana Lawson, executive director of the CVB and one of the main drivers of SoMa, said that the Indianapolis company got less than $50,000 to develop the slogans and branding.
Whatever happened to buying local? What about the slogan or “Live. Work. Play.” that SoMa has put out there before?
Axiomport had experience in community development, according to Lawson.
"It doesn’t mean that any of the agencies in our region might not be able to do something,“ Lawson said. ”We didn’t hear from any agencies and we don’t have any relationships with the agencies here because we’re an in-house agency. We pretty much do our own.“
She said they have worked with AdStream, a local company doing web design on the project. And much of the money will be spent on local advertising. In addition an Elkhart native worked on the project for Axiomport, Lawson said.
But what was most troubling is that she said that marketing or ad agencies could knock on SoMa’s door.
SoMa is working to bring people downtown and build business downtown. But it wants to be absolved of knocking on doors or bidding out a project when it comes to something like this? Isn’t that exactly the kind of work it’s doing?
It’s been very good about inviting others to the table on these issues. SoMa had the opportunity to engage others in the process. It could have solicited ideas from a variety of agencies in Elkhart and Elkhart County. It could have put ideas out there for a community vote. It had an opportunity to involve the community in a different way, an exciting way.
It could be that Axiomport has perspective and experience this community needed. But even if SoMa officials didn’t feel a local agency had the skills to do the work, this has the appearance of not giving local companies a chance to compete. That’s exactly the wrong message. And that’s counter to what SoMa is trying to do.
SoMa’s work to revitalize downtown has been smart and spirited. This was a misstep. But this is too important not to get right. Elkhart needs a vibrant downtown. It needs good ideas and people thinking creatively here. And it needs money to be put to good use — spending it locally when possible.