By MICHELLE MUELLER
Contributing Writer © the Recorder 2019
Safe. Welcoming. Diverse. Innovative. Hard-working. Artistic and Musical. Forward-moving.
These are the words that best describe Albion, according to the community input gathered by Ben Muldrow, a community branding consultant based out of Greenville, North Carolina who came to Albion last week. He met with many Albion residents, from community leaders to passersby in the North West section of Albion. Muldrow’s goal was to create a “branding” package for the community, with colors, a statement, a logo, and signage. It seemed like an impossible mission, given that he only spent three days in Albion.
This was not a new task for Muldrow, who has helped almost 600 communities, including several for Project Rising Tide (PRT), which sponsored his work (the City of Albion is a designated PRT participant). Arnett Muldrow & Associates is the only out-of-state consultant firm that has been retained by the State of Michigan. Muldrow’s work shows that he has the expertise needed to bring out the best in each community. He arranged the stories, the colors and the goals in such a way to make a transformation possible.
Branding Tool Kit is in the Works
“The work starts with how the community feels about itself,” stated Muldrow, “not in how the city is shown to outsiders. The branding tool kit is like a living breathing thing, not like a corporate brand. It is used cooperatively with expandability, but probably not consistency.” Muldrow has also done community branding for downtown Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Hillsdale; Albion is his latest project.
His schedule was busy; the same morning that Muldrow flew into Michigan, he went on a walking and driving tour of Albion with the Greater Albion Chamber of Commerce President Eric Worley, and the Rising Tide Albion Fellow, Linda LaNoue. The group drove to the entry points of Albion first, to review the current “Welcome” signage. Then they toured the landmarks downtown including the American Molder sculpture by the post office and the river mural in the drive-thru alley near the former Huntington Bank. After walking the length of downtown Albion’s brick-paved Superior Street, they went to History Hill at Holland Park. They talked about the history of education in Albion. The tour ended with a walk to the corner of Michigan Ave. and Monroe St., where Collaboration Corner meets the Munger Place. The old Union Steel building sits in the background.
Albion Branding Task Force Meets
For lunch that same day, the Albion Branding Task Force met at the Albion District Library, enjoyed a Mexican food buffet provided by Lopez Catering, and engaged in a vibrant discussion of what makes Albion special.
Reverend Donald Phillips, pastor at Lewis Chapel, chaplain at Albion College, and president of the Albion Ministerial Association stated that in Albion, “There is a sense that people are willing to call this home. I have lived in different parts of the country, but this is home for us. It is a safe haven. People are willing to invest here.”
Is Albion Similar to Appalachia?
The similarity between Albion and Appalachia was noted by Dr. Mauri Ditzler, president of Albion College, who drove 300 miles that morning to be at the meeting. “There was one primary industry and that industry closed down. Then the area began to focus on its trails, its art and its music. It reinvented itself,” Ditzler explained.
“Albion was known over 100 years ago for its advanced manufacturing,” said Emily Dobbins-Verbeke of Caster Concepts. “People would come from around the world to learn how we did things here. We are still people who make things with our hands, brewing, baking and artists. But we also still have advance manufacturing skills.”
Rev. Phillips added, “Albion is a place to create, a place people can be creative…We have over 40 worship spaces; when times are good or bad, we can come together to pray. We have all different backgrounds and views, but we can all come together. In other cities I don’t find this.”
Local artist, Dennis Reid II, observed, “Everybody knows everybody here between exits 121 and 124 on I-94, and between the bowling alley and the Days Inn. We can see on Ancestry.com how we are related, but here we know it. Some of the best sports players came from Albion, student athletes, swim team, track; there were state champions with the highest GPAs of 4.0.”
Quality of Life
Ditzler, who serves on Albion’s Economic Development Corporation board, added that the EDC is excited to tell potential businesses manufacturers that what we have here is a place where (manufacturing) line workers who might get paid $15 or $16 an hour can afford to buy a house and live here. They can come and enjoy our music and our parks.”
Worley pointed out that in the past, the presidents of Albion College would build a wall around it. “Now,” he said, “there is still a divide, but places like the Ludington Center are bringing the college downtown more than ever before.
Others at the gathering commented on educational strong points in Albion, noting:
- the partnership with Marshall Public Schools,
- the presence of Kellogg Community College’s Eastern Campus
- Albion College
- Starr Commonwealth campus.
- “We have the GED program at the library,” Albion Design entrepreneur Maggie LaNoue affirmed.
“We are still a learning community!”
That evening, about 40 people gathered at a public input meeting held at the former Washington Gardner School. After admiring the old building again, and sharing some pizza, fruit and snacks, Albion residents shared more ideas. There were additional meetings with community leaders at the Chamber of Commerce offices, and Muldrow did “people-in-the-street” interviews on the Northwest side of town to catch folks who might not have attended the other meetings.
A “Reveal” presentation was open to the public that Thursday evening, (May 16, 2019) and by all accounts, it wasn’t just interesting –
“It was exciting,”
according to Albion District Librarian, Cynthia Stanczyk. Muldrow had whipped together a presentation video reflecting his discoveries about Albion and his concepts for branding downtown Albion. The presentation is now available on film at this link: http://bit.ly/albion_branding_2019.
The Bridges of Albion
Muldrow was particularly taken with the large number of bridges in Albion: a total of 21. He attributes this to the city’s being built at the Forks of the Kalamazoo River. “This is very unusual,” he said, adding that “bridges can be beautiful and fun to walk over and to see. There are parks all over the place; Albion is a lush community! And you can see churches all over town.”
Muldrow reviewed some demographic data, explaining that the average age of Albion’s population (29.1) is younger than that of Michigan as a whole.
“While it seems good to be youthful, what it also means is that there are not places to live for people in Albion as they age.” Albion has a much larger minority population (31% African American) than other small cities in Michigan. It also has many fewer people born outside of the United States than Michigan as a whole. The cost of an average home in Albion is $56,500; the average for the state of Michigan is $155,700. The median household income in Albion is $29,457; for the state it is $54,909. The poverty rate in Albion (31.2%) is double that of the state as a whole (15.6%).
Low Cost of Living
“So even though in some ways this does not look good, the dollars go further in Albion. This is due to the cost of living which is not as great as it is in other parts of the state. Housing costs are about 1/3 that of the rest of Michigan,” the consultant explained. According to Muldrow, Albion has many people who come in to work in town but live out of town. Some 1,336 people commute into Albion each day from out of town to work here. On the other hand, about 1,991 people who live in Albion commute to work out of town. In actuality, only about 448 people live in the city limits and work in the city limits. Most of the people work to the east of Albion and 16.4% of the ones who do commute work over 50 miles away.
Once he had reviewed the city’s data with the audience, Muldrow was ready to unveil the creative ideas for the branding campaign, beginning with a color scheme, the branding story, a logo, the uses for the logo, and examples of signage that follows the National Highway System standards for being near the highway. Albion’s community brand colors reflect the blue water of the adjacent Kalamazoo River, as Muldrow noted, also was used so effectively for the recent paint job on our local water tower. In addition, other core colors were green for the parks, and yellow and gold for Albion’s vibrancy.
The Branding Process – Feedback is requested
Linda LaNoue wants Albion residents to know that this is just the start of the community branding process, and that it will be ongoing. “If anyone is planning events or renovations, they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to request a pdf of the branding “toolkit” in order to incorporate the ideas into their project.” The branding initiative is just one of many projects under Project Rising Tide’s umbrella designed to help rebuild Albion’s economic framework.
Follow-up ideas to the reveal are already coming in. For instance, Gail Reed of the Albion Sister City Committee has suggested the inclusion in the branding campaign of one additional city asset: Albion’s dynamic relationship with Noisy-le-Roi/Bailly, France. “With local support, young people from Albion have a chance to go to France, and they send visitors here – this summer a group is coming to bike Michigan’s trails. The French government has said that Albion’s sister city program is the most active one for their nation.”
A second contributor is Dennis Reid II, an African American resident of Albion’s western neighborhood. “People on the west side have told me that they don’t feel included in what’s being done downtown. They’d love to see stuff happening on Austin Ave. and in West Ward, too – something that helps us feel like we belong, too! Since the hospital closed, the factories, the nursing home, it’s like there’s no value over here anymore,” he explains. “Maybe a forum to talk about positive changes for the west side could be held in a church or a neutral community building.”
This story is reprinted with permission from the Recorder.
To see a slideshow of a dozen ideas for branding in Albion, click on the image below.