By Lauren Helper
The San Jose Downtown Association is spearheading a $50,000 public-private rebranding initiative to lure big-name business tenants to the city and shake its reputation as Silicon Valley’s underwhelming urban center.
“We have to start thinking and marketing like a big city,” said Dan Pulcrano, who chairs SJDA’s marketing, arts and dining committee, at the nonprofit membership group’s annual meeting Friday.
The theme of elevating San Jose was carried throughout SJDA Executive Director Scott Knies‘ annual State of Downtown address. He advocated for increased focus on urban planning and design, continued focus on business incentives and a more aggressive effort to curb crime and homelessness that merchants say are holding the city back (read more about that here).
Pulcrano, who is also the CEO of Metro Newspapers and a founder of the downtown association, said the new Downtown Branding Initiative will begin with a total of $50,000 in cash and contributed services from local businesses. The idea has been incubating since February. The association hopes to increase the budget to $100,000 by the time an initial logo, tagline, social media hashtags and other branding materials debut, hopefully in mid-2014.
The logo, he said, could serve as a launching point for new downtown signage, new advertising campaigns and local business marketing campaigns. Phoenix and Kansas City are two cities that Pulcrano has researched as potential models because both cities have initiated downtown branding campaigns.
Knies said he hopes to better define a “downtown lifestyle” complemented by quality restaurants and retail. He sees San Jose’s brand as “romantic, racially diverse and authentic.”
The SJDA will invest $10,000 in the project, bolstered by a yet-undetermined sum from the San Jose Office of Economic Development. Business contributions will include: a strategic plan crafted by San Jose branding company Liquid Agency; a social media plan by the agency PureMatter; the services of DeCarolis Design & Marketing and advertising in Metro Newspapers.
Liquid, PureMatter and DeCarolis all provide services for well-known Silicon Valley companies like Google Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and IBM Corp — an appealing demographic for San Jose. Pulcrano said it’s time for the city to compete with the likes of Mountain View and Cupertino because the two cities are best known as the homes of Google and Apple, respectively.
“We don’t want to give the Downtown Association a new logo — we want to give downtown a logo,” Pulcrano told me. “A city branding initiative can cost millions. We’d love to get to that point, but to get started, we think $50,000 to $100,000 can make a significant impact.”
The new initiative also comes just a month after Pulcrano’s inaugural Creative Convergence Silicon Valley, or C2SV, hybrid music festival and tech conference, which he says will return next year despite smaller than hoped for attendance for some portions of the event. San Jose is also home to other music and art festivals, which Pulcrano sees working in tandem with branding to draw more people and activity to the city.
“It’s all a part of it,” he said. “The beauty of downtown is it incorporates so many things.”
Ultimately, Pulcrano hopes the city will be able to grab a bigger slice of Silicon Valley’s regional prosperity by melding the branding efforts of the city, SJDA and other local stakeholders. The city’s nonprofit arts and cultural management group Team San Jose, which does its own citywide marketing, has not yet signed on.
“We’ve got to unify the effort,” Pulcrano told me. “We’re still going to have that discussion, but we’re hopeful that they’ll participate.”
Downtown issues beyond branding
Overall urban branding is one thing, but Knies said the SJDA is also focused on city policies that will help facilitate development — and not just any development.
He said the organization has tired of years-long planning studies that result in little concrete action, especially since “what worked in the suburbs did not necessarily work downtown.”
Instead, SJDA is urging the city to hire a new urban planner and institute stricter standards for architecture and project design. Without new city staff or adjustments in the planning process, Knies said there is “no clear path” on a way to hold new developments to higher standards.
Still, many of the organization’s members — who pay a mandatory annual fee for membership based on their location in the downtown Business Improvement District — are in the real estate industry. He said they do not all appreciate extra steps that could lead to extra costs.
“A lot of our members tell us to stay the bleep out of the way,” Knies said of the “tightrope” the organization must walk.
However, SJDA members do share one major overarching sentiment on the direction of downtown development.
“Nothing is more important to our constituents than public safety,” Knies said.
At the SJDA meeting Friday, downtown city councilman and mayoral hopeful Sam Liccardopitched what he called a “homeless court, for lack of a better term.” Such an offering would seek to take some of the law enforcement pressure off of San Jose’s understaffed police force, instead turning minor infractions like public urination or public intoxication over to the judicial system.
Liccardo said the court concept, if it becomes city policy, would seek to avoid harsh penalties and instead prioritize linking homeless individuals to housing and social services.