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[whitespace] 'Urban Pioneers' Urban View: Sacramento's Urban Pioneers, like Take-No-Prisoners Randy (pictured) and John Bodrozic, may see the day they become real action figures.

How to Sell a City

Sacramento leaders hope their 'Urban Pioneers' campaign--complete with billboards, hip new nicknames and thousands of dollars in marketing money--can reinvent their city as the next big boomtown

By Mary Spicuzza

THE COUPLE LEAPT OUT from their surroundings at the busy South Second Street bus stop. The woman stared straight ahead confidently, her hair perfectly coifed and makeup flawless, curling her arm as if showing off her biceps. The young man next to her, sporting Adidas-inspired casual wear and swanky shoes, stood frozen in a hip martial-arts pose.

Every day I wandered past them, the pair jumped out from the bus stop and seemed larger than life--even though they were both squeezed on the side of a bus stop billboard.

These two young professionals, pictured in advertisements as action figures, are real-life Sacramento residents Pam Marrone and Randy Lintecum. The pair sprang into action this fall as Urban Pioneers, poster children for California's capital city and its new marketing campaign, SacramentoUP. The action figures, Take Command Pam and Take-No-Prisoners Randy, are just the beginning of what Sacramento business leaders hope will be a 4-year-long campaign aimed at overhauling Sacramento's image.

Makeover masterminds at the Sacramento Regional Marketing Campaign, a nonprofit funded by public agencies and private corporations, vow to shake up the city's image and encourage business development with the help of public relations spin doctors.

According to Barbara Hayes, executive director for the Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization (SACTO) and a council director of SacramentoUP, the group has devoted the first year to changing misconceptions about Sacramento among its own residents and throughout the Bay Area.

"We've been ramping up for this year," Hayes says. "We're going to go national."

Meaning Pam and Randy fans, who noticed that some of the Sacramento propaganda posters have disappeared in recent months, can rest assured that they and other Urban Pioneers have only begun their assault on the billboards of America.

Building a Boomtown

BARBARA HAYES eagerly chats up Sacramento, even though it's the early morning and she's not yet in her office. While driving, talking on her cell phone and stopping for coffee on her way to work, Hayes seems to be a professional at multitasking.

"We're still targeted toward the Bay Area and we're ramping up for our national campaign," she says. "Right now we're in the fundraising phase."

Hayes and her group have already managed impressive fundraising feats, considering that they only started to launch their Sacramento cheerleading campaign last year. SACTO's board of directors laid down $50,000 toward developing a marketing strategy back in 1999. By January 2000, the Sacramento Regional Marketing Campaign was born, and only months later had gathered $400,000 from various businesses and agencies. Hayes and others convinced groups like Intel, fiscally challenged Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Sacramento Municipal Utility District and both Sacramento and Placer counties to donate funds toward the big makeover of California's capital.

"The campaign will culminate with the 2004 Olympic trials," Hayes says. "So the big push will be coming in the next two to three years."

No one seems exactly sure what that push will entail, which is probably why the marketing council brought in advertising specialists from several firms, including Ogilvy Public Relations. SacramentoUP hopes that professional spinmeisters can help solve Sacramento's identity crisis. So far the campaign is working to boost the self-image of the city among its residents, as well as helping Sacramento get an identity in the national scene.

One of the biggest hurdles seems to be their quest for a catchy nickname, like San Jose's Silicon Valley or Los Angeles' City of Angels.

"We're still working on that one," Hayes says with determination.

Incredibly boring nicknames plague the city right now; names like "Sacratomato," "River City" and "Sactown." Even "The Big Easy Chair," a name coined by local politicians and popularized in a controversial Los Angeles Times article last winter.

"We haven't really focused on finding the right nickname," Gilles Attia, an attorney with the Gray Cary Ware and Freidenrich law firm who also heads the marketing committee for the regional council, says. "These names tend to be adopted for you and not by you. And it's difficult to come up with a nickname because Sacramento is so diverse."

While hunting for the right moniker, the marketing council hopes that Pam, Randy and the next batch of Urban Pioneers can speak for themselves. Even the term "Urban Pioneers" was carefully crafted to create a cutting-edge vibe for Sacramento.

"Urban is a very psychological thing," Alicia Ritter, an employee of Ogilvy Public Relations, one of the firms designing the campaign, told the Sacramento Bee (July 18, 2000). "There's a drive and an edge to it."

Meanwhile, "pioneers" pays tribute to the area's Gold Rush past.

Other ads use exclamation points to emphasize that Sacramento's an exciting place these days. For example, one billboard reads, "Sacrah!mento." Another, "Sacramentoh!"

SACTO's Hayes says, "This started because Sacramento was just so hot!"

"The 'oh!' reflects the emerging high-tech growth," Attia explains. "The 'ah!' communicates the good feeling about the quality of life and the 'rah!' represents a rooting on of local pride. With the Sacramento Kings and the Olympic trials, there are tons of reasons to be enthusiastic about the region."

Wheels of Fortune

ON YET ANOTHER Sacramento billboard, a chic, geeky young man sits in the foreground while a hazy woman awaits him in the distance. The advertisement boasts, "Forbes Magazine ranked the Sacramento area ahead of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley as one of the best places for business and careers."

While Hayes and public relations types manage to keep press interviews on an overwhelmingly positive note, Sacramento pushers clearly hope to lure upwardly mobile Bay Area types by gently citing other cities' shortcomings.

When asked what she would tell central California residents about the positives of Sacramento life, Hayes sighs with relief.

"You just asked the million dollar question," she says. "I grew up in Marin, so let's start with housing costs. You can buy a perfectly nice home in Sacramento for $150,000 to $175,000."

She continues on a tour through the school systems--some of the best districts in the state, open space, and ends with a proud low-traffic note.

"The average commute time is 22 to 26 minutes," Hayes says. "And that's if you don't work where you live."

Others indulge in more direct bashing of Silicon Valley and other California cities overshadowing Sacramento's emerging image. Michael O'Brien, publisher of Sacramento Magazine, snarls at the L.A. Times portrayal of his town as the "Big Easy Chair" and its references to the capital as a "hot, dull backwater full of government drones" and "the puny kid lost in the crowd."

"What the author overlooked," he snips, "is San Francisco's spectacular cost of living, Los Angeles' egocentric hypocrisy and ongoing law enforcement gaffes, San Jose's excessive asphalt and San Diego's growing congestion."

All good points, but marketing masterminds still face a huge public image hurdle ahead of them.

"Quantitative research--conducted in and outside California--indicates that those within California view Sacramento as nothing more than a 'stopping point between San Francisco and Tahoe' and a 'hot, dry, government town.'" an Ogilvy public relations campaign document reads. "Those outside of California have little to no awareness of the Sacramento Region."

With all of the billboards and bus stop advertising, the campaign is already reminiscent of the fliers that American companies pasted up throughout impoverished European cities last centuries, promising streets paved with gold and milk and honey for all.

Still, Attia says that making over a city's image isn't that unusual. He compares it to the "I Love New York" campaign of the 1970s, when the city struggled to change its image among residents and tourists alike.

Hot Town

'IN REALITY, San Jose markets itself too," Mayor Gonzales' aide Joe Guerra says. "But I don't think we've found it necessary to compare ourselves to other places."

Rather than creating clever nicknames for CEOs like Oracle's Larry Ellison and John Chambers of Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose has opted for industry advertising in Fortune, Forbes and Urban Land Institute Magazine.

"We do direct advertising to industry groups, not marketing to people to move here," Guerra says. He adds that San Jose did help publicize some Downtown Redevelopment projects and promoted the Cultural Tourism concept for Silicon Valley.

Guerra chuckles about rumors that companies are fleeing the asphalt and strip malls of Silicon Valley and relocating in Sacramento's greener pastures.

"We've had very few companies leaving here. There have been some instances of companies opening offices in Sacramento. For example, Intel put a plant there," Guerra says. "But they obviously didn't leave."

Plenty of folks dismiss Sacramento as anything close to a cutting-edge town and don't really believe the catchiest nickname can help the city get a life outside of its political networking. But as Hayes cruises for her morning coffee, reminiscing about Bay Area gridlock, she and SacramentoUP campaigns swear they're the ones getting the last laugh. Even when it comes to current woes like crashing dotcoms and power outages, Hayes proudly reports that Sacramento is doing much better than other cities.

"Actually we've just seen a little ripple effect from you guys. I think that's because the developers and builders were much more conscious about that here. We heard stories about brokers taking stock options, and that just didn't happen here. And we just haven't had the folding of companies that you all have had," Hayes says. "And we have well-positioned municipal utilities."

Still, plenty of Bay Area residents aren't ready to make the move to Sacramento anytime soon, even when reminded of the low cost of living.

"Of course they have to say that," one Silicon Valley political insider grouses. "They have to live in Sacramento. It better be cheaper there."

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From the April 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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