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Imagine summing up what is most relevant and distinct about Los Alamos in one sentence.
How would it read?
That is the challenge that North Star Destination Strategies is taking up for the county. Community Brand Supervisor Adam Winstead and Director of Strategic Planning Ed Barlow spent three days in Los Alamos last week, launching a four to five month process of developing that brand, which will be the end result of a $50,000 contract with the county.
“Every community is different across the nation, and so we aim to really uncover what is most relevant and distinct, and what Los Alamos County’s patent advantage is,” Winstead said. “Obviously you have a broad variety of assets and strengths, so we have to keep all that in mind as we develop a strategy.”
The pair met with representatives of the county, members of the community involved with tourism, economic development and the Creative District. They toured the county, ate in the restaurants and talked to the managers and owners of the businesses they visited.
A brainstorming session for business owners Tuesday attracted a fairly large crowd.
Many of the questions were standard: What comes to mind when you think of Los Alamos County? What assets does the community have? What are the challenges it faces?
Many of the answers were also unremarkable. The group shot out words and phrases such as “the lab, outdoor recreation, affluent, remote and secret, arrogant, educated, safe and quality schools” to define the county.
The loss of retail dollars to shopping meccas like Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the difficulty of cultivating and retaining small businesses, the lack of affordable workforce housing and the way the town rolls up the sidewalks at night were among the challenges identified.
When Winstead asked “What do friends and family say when they come to visit?” someone responded, “Wow, we’ve rolled back in time to the 1950s.” When asked to define that, they said, “It’s like Pleasantville … For most people that’s a positive but there’s a negative aspect to it for some.”
Other plusses included a “hidden international aspect. A lot of people who live here have broad and deep international connections;” “You can walk down to the supermarket and talk to world class people in a stunning array of fields;" "Huge talent not only in science but the arts;” and the range of club and recreational groups.
There was disagreement over whether the county was “wacky and eccentric” or “conformist.”
In fact, one response to the question “If Los Alamos County were a consumer product brand, what would it be and why?” was the Goodwill resale store, “because our focus is on function, not form; utility, not style; practical, conservative, engineering mentality, conformist. It’s our best quality and our worst quality.”
Someone else suggested the county was like a dial phone: it hasn’t been up to date for a while.
“In my mind, if you want people to spend money, I would up the weirdness factor,” someone added.
One answer to the commercial brand question seemed very appropriate. Someone suggested Heathkit, a mail order business that offered kits to build computers, radios and other electronics.
One of the more interesting questions was “If Los Alamos County were a famous person, who would it be, and why?”
Perhaps the best response was Richard Feynman, because it’s “quirky and smart.” The downside to that answer was that the consultants did not know who that was, a likely response for much of the country.
Yet another suggested Kinky Friedman, “artistic and cerebral at the same time, but not too far over the edge” and “The Big Bang Theory” character Dr. Sheldon Cooper: “poor dresser, anti-social, very smart.”
Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation Executive Director Kevin Holsapple felt good about the consultant’s methods.
“It seems like they’re doing the correct thing, which is starting by trying to understand things and gather a lot of information and different perspectives and opinions.”
Holsapple suggested the county already has a brand —which someone else called “the elephant in the room” — Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“If you just say Los Alamos, that’s really a brand in itself,” Holsapple said. “It’s a very powerful brand in a positive way with very many people who know something about science and technology, and it can be a negative brand in the mind of people like the concerned citizens for this and that, that don’t like some of the aspects of what goes on here.”
Holsapple also noted that many of the things people take pride in, such as “great trails, great outdoor environment, and great events” are common to many mountain communities. He noted that both Bandelier National Monument and the Valles Caldera National Preserve are very distinctive, but those are regional assets.
“Should we think of ourselves more broadly than just the County of Los Alamos?” Holsapple asked. “Maybe we should think of ourselves as part of a Jemez Mountain experience.”
North Star will spend the next few months conducting surveys inside and outside the county to look at such things as the types of people who live and work inside the county as well as the types of people who live in the region.
“We will start to synthesize all that information into a story that we’re able to tell about Los Alamos County,” Winstead said. “At that point, we will present to the county council a strategic plan platform: a one sentence statement that really reveals what’s most relevant and distinct about the county. We’re trying to get a good understanding of economic development, resident recruitment and tourism in the county, so that statement will keep those different target audiences in mind.”