As you may have heard, New Hampshire now has a new official tourism slogan. Out with the generic “You’re going to love it here!” and in with the open-ended “Live free and…”
The new slogan is part of a branding effort, something that has been elusive in New Hampshire compared to its neighbors in the rolling farmlands to the west (cows and maple syrup), and the forested and rockbound coast to the east (lobsters and lighthouses). New Hampshire is arguably more diverse in terms of geography, activities and maybe even local culture than Vermont or Maine, and it’s been hard to pin down exactly what New Hampshire’s identity is.
As Peter Egleston of Smuttynose Brewing Company explained, “Made in New Hampshire” just doesn’t carry the same weight as “Made in Vermont” or “Made in Maine.” Egleston was talking about his hopes that people throughout the Granite State would adopt the since-retired Portsmouth Lager as a local standby, but that in fact people in Manchester don’t feel as connected to Portsmouth, as people in Brattleboro might feel toward Burlington, or those in Millinocket feel toward Portland. The Seacoast of New Hampshire is different from the mill cities of the Merrimack Valley or the small towns of the North Country in a way that the Green Mountains of southern Vermont and the Green Mountains of northern Vermont never will be. New Hampshire doesn’t bring up the singular imagery of Maine or Vermont, because the state’s simplify too diverse–and too close to other markets, like Boston–to have the same sense of unity, insularity, or whatever it is, as its neighbors.
So we have “Live free and…” and what? Well, as the slogan shows, it’s really “Live free and splash” or “Live free and hike” or “Live free and paddle”. It’s a slogan as open-ended and diverse as the Granite State, itself, yet it does a good job of summing up something special about New Hampshire at the same time. It’s taken a curmudgeonly (and I say that as a compliment) state motto too often co-opted by those who want to clear cut their land or avoid paying taxes, and turned it into something welcoming–that’s good branding.
And it got us thinking about branding the Queen City. Right now, Manchester’s economic development slogan is “Birthplace of Your American Dream.” That’s almost as generic as “You’re going to love it here!” and it follows the comparatively better “Where history invites opportunity.” But lately, even that seems to have been supplanted by “New Hampshire’s Business Capital.” What does that tell anyone about the city?
Manchester can do better. And it should–in part because of how disparate the Granite State can be. Unlike Vermont and Maine, New Hampshire doesn’t have a single principal city–Concord is the state capital, Nashua is the gateway, Portsmouth is the tourism city, and Manchester is the sports, business and of course population center, but it splits entertainment, culture, dining, education and history with Portsmouth, especially.
Manchester needs a strong brand to differentiate itself–for Granite Staters and visitors–from other cities in the state, and to compete–for businesses, residents, students and visitors–with cities like Portsmouth and Portland. Sure, Manchester will probably never be the tourism draw that those cities are, but it can attract some visitors, and it needs to attract and retain businesses, residents and day-trippers.
Even if tourists aren’t flocking to the Queen City, Manchester businesses certainly benefit from out-of-towners who visit the city for dinner, drinks, a show or a game, and from workers who stick around town after work before heading home in the surrounding towns. Most important of all, the city clearly benefits from having a diversity of residents living in its urban neighborhoods, including the 20% increase in the downtown population over the last decade, according to the 2010 census. Lovely as Portsmouth is, Manchester is the only truly urban option in New Hampshire, and it needs to build on that.
And a strong brand would help people–whether already in the city or visiting for the first time–identify what makes Manchester special. It’s not enough that Manchester benefits from New Hampshire’s low taxes, or that it’s close to Boston and not far from the mountains, or that it’s served by a good airport and will be by commuter rail if the state’s elected officials ever get their act together. Those are amenities, and even gimmicks–they don’t express anything about what makes Manchester the city that it is.
And frankly, the city hasn’t done the best job of promoting itself as a unique place, or building on its strengths. Manchester is a dense and diverse city, rich with Victorian architecture and industrial history, and with such easy access to nature–forget the White Mountains or ocean, and look directly at the underutilized Merrimack River, Uncanoonuc Mountains and Massabesic Lake right around the city–that it should be an obvious outdoor playground. With equal proximity to nearby outdoor recreation (how many cities have a municipal ski slope?) and urban amenities like fine dining, shows and professional sports, Manchester could be an obvious home for outdoor enthusiasts looking for an urban lifestyle, if the city plays its cards right.
Manchester straddles–and owes its existence to–one of New England’s premier rivers, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in America, and yet the city barely capitalizes on the Merrimack River. As LivableMHT and Manchester Oblique have both pointed out, the river feels distant from the heart of downtown Manchester, despite being a five minute walk away.
Locating the city-owned Northeast Delta Dental Stadium along the banks of the Merrimack, and adding the Hands Across the Merrimack footbridge as the centerpiece to the city’s growing urban trails network are great starts. As is the addition of the Elliot at the River’s Edge project as a southern terminus to the incomplete Riverwalk.
But after more than a decade of discussion, the Riverwalk barely exists north of the ballpark, and the city’s great riverside park is really a glorified parking lot. Arms Park works great for fireworks and festivals, but it’s lousy most days of the year. The city could work to encourage more restaurants in the mills along the river and along the cross-streets through the old boardinghouse district to connect the riverfront and Elm Street. At the very least, it should revive Riverfest.
And the city could work to attract a kayak and canoe rental company to allow novices to paddle around the serene waters above the Amoskeag Falls, as more experienced paddlers already do in the rapids through the city center. A couple years ago, Mayor Gatsas brought up the idea of moving the National Guard armory from its current location at the northern end of the planned Riverwalk, and opening the gateway site up for redevelopment. Something like an EMS flagship store–Manchester is the closest city to their Peterborough headquarters and deserves more than a store at the mall–along with other development, could be a great jumping off point for paddling around the canal remnants and river across the street.
So why not work on re-integrating the river back into the life and heart of the city–no longer as an industrial spine, but as its entertainment and recreational focal point? Since Manchester is the only large-scale planned city in New England, and one of the few major cities that is not also a port, it would make sense to capitalize on the city’s relationship with the Merrimack–brand Manchester as a city whose lifestyle revolves around the river. Of course, any branding effort would need to be accompanied by real investment and development, but something along those lines could really express something about Manchester beyond, “Hey, it’s a cheap place to live and work.”
Manchester needs a brand to promote itself. It’s just one idea–and we are no marketing experts–but how about something like, Manchester: New England’s River City.
What do you think? What makes Manchester unique? What would you like to see as a brand for the Queen City?