Turning Visitors into Investors

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Blair County was represented at the inaugural City Nation Place Americas conference in New York City recently. Mark Ickes, Executive Director of Explore Altoona, and Stephen McKnight, President and CEO of Altoona Blair County Development Corporation, took advantage of a unique opportunity to partner in attendance at this forum focused specifically on the challenges and opportunities for communities across the Americas. The conference agenda offered more than just place marketing, more than just place building; the emphasis on place brand strategy encompassed these elements as well as provided direct value whether one’s primary focus is on tourism, economic development, policy, talent attraction, or citizen engagement. The event was jointly organized by City Nation Place, Resonance Consultancy, and the NYU School of Professional Studies.

“Economic development is increasingly about the attraction of people. It is people who make decisions on where to locate a business, invest in businesses or to simply live and work in a place that they love. Tourism offers a great pathway for people to come into a community, get to know it, explore its attractions and then possibly become residents, investors and business owners,” explains McKnight. “Both destination marketing campaigns and the diversified initiatives of economic development agencies target new financial investment from outside the existing business community, as one part of each organization’s core mission. There is definite synergy that a potential visitor could become a potential resident and vice versa. In certain key ways, there is a shared target audience which both organizations recognize and will continue to collaborate on to enhance this synergy,” adds Ickes.

According to McKnight, “Two places stand out that are relevant to our market experience, Asheville, North Carolina and Kalispell, Montana. Each has made tangible investments in the arts, culture and recreational assets in their communities to draw people in and then turn those visitors into residents. Both are mountain towns like ours with similar four season outdoor experiences, main street communities and economic histories linked to natural resource extraction. Over time each has transitioned from single sourced economies to more diverse market structures. Our advantage is that we are much closer to major metro markets and already have a strong-base of people who either once lived, visited or went to school here.  We must take advantage of that.”

Both organizations plan to enhance certain targeted efforts in the near future, and have already started with the initial step of Explore Altoona’s placement of ABCD’s First Frontier logo in targeted ad placements, along with additional partners – the PA Tourism Office and the Alleghenies, thus demonstrating the concept of place branding on several levels. Another more specific example includes Explore Altoona’s initiative of co-hosting a trail town workshop, along with Allegheny Ridge Corporation, communicating with key stakeholders on how the September 11th National Memorial Trail will have the potential of transforming communities along the Main Line Canal Greenway and the Lower Trail, like Hollidaysburg and Williamsburg. “One part of this workshop will provide real life examples of the potential growth of the entrepreneurial spirit which trail towns exude. This type of effort will potentially complement ABCD’s First Frontier initiative,” explains Ickes.

“Economic development and tourism need to stay connected and in touch. While the day-to-day activities of our organizations and missions may be different, in the end, the goals are the same. Attract people to our community. Visitors can become residents and investors. They can become rooted for the long haul. That is the message.” stresses McKnight. In summary of attendance at the conference, Ickes states, “the more opportunities both organizations have to promote Blair County’s sense of place and its related experience to the outside world will only translate into increased exposure, investment, and opportunity for the overall benefit of the business community.”

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