Identities and labels can reshape our city

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As a new resident of Colorado Springs, I’m frequently asked by friends and family to describe my first impressions.

My responses tend to include an item-by-item evaluation of experiences since moving here (for example, “I’ve enjoyed accessing the mountains without having to deal with I-70” or “…discovering a vibrant community of local artists,” etc.).

What I’ve not been able to articulate is a succinct narrative that encapsulates this community’s identity. I struggle to articulate what defines Colorado Springs and how this differs from other cities in Colorado and beyond.

Many cities and regions develop labels that communicate their distinctiveness to residents and other interested audiences. Well-known examples of this labeling include San Francisco Bay as “Silicon Valley,” which conveys an abundance of technology firms within the region’s boundaries; Detroit’s “Motown” label, which denotes its automotive (motor and town) and soul music affiliations, and Las Vegas’ “Sin City,” which refers to the city’s adult-oriented past.

Given these examples, it should come as little surprise that these community identities are affected by, and affect, local economies. Entrepreneurs and businesses migrate to regions because of perceived location-based advantages, tourists visit regions because of their affiliations with a meaningful historical past and/or a culturally resonant present, and physical structures and events emerge to celebrate a region’s distinguishing features.

In talking with others at UCCS and in the community, I’ve realized that the discussion about identifying Colorado Springs’ uniqueness and communicating that to potential visitors, business leaders, and others is ongoing.

Consequently, I thought it might help to highlight a recent research project in which my colleagues and I examined how individuals and organizations banded together to resurrect Eugene, Ore.’s all-but-forgotten identity of “Track Town USA.”

The label emerged organically throughout the 1960s and ’70s as local residents and athletes helped popularize the sport of track and field throughout the nation. Although our findings pertain specifically to the renewal of place-based identities, their implications are generalizable to any communities struggling to define, and to label, their uniqueness. To that end, I offer three findings from our paper that may shed light on the discussion here:

1. Effective labels reflect collectively held identities, which represent longstanding understandings about place. Labels ring hollow if they are a) not differentiated from other similar labels or b) viewed as inauthentic by residents or interested audiences. Communities often spend thousands to develop slogans and fancy advertising gimmicks, which inevitably fall flat if they fail to continually meet the above criteria.

2. Place-based identities require wide acceptance from a city’s populace. Eugene was largely successful at resurrecting the “Track Town USA” identity because individuals and organizations from all walks of life saw opportunities for personal and/or organizational enrichment. Classical music enthusiasts, sport apparel manufacturers and sustainability advocates represented just a few of the groups that committed time and financial resources to renewing the identity.

3. Identities and labels require experiences that confirm and regenerate authenticity. The Olympic Trials proved crucial to Eugene resurrecting its identity because new residents and visitors saw record-breaking performances in person and didn’t have to rely solely on storied athletic performances of the past.

In sum, our research suggests place-based identities and labels need to originate from grassroots activities to be authentic and long-lasting. Unlike organizations, which make top-down decrees about identities and back these up with employee protocols and investments to substantiate their claims, communities that develop long-lasting identities and labels do so after bottom-up understandings form about their distinguishing characteristics.

A good place to start exploring the existence or creation of a Colorado Springs identity is to begin a dialogue about what differentiates us from Denver and/or Fort Collins and then ask:

“Do these differences unify us as a community and can they be periodically regenerated by the sustained involvement of organizations and individuals?”

As I get to know this city and ponder these questions, I’m sure I’ll continue to have additional positive experiences to report to friends and family.

Matt Metzger, former manager of a family-owned coffee roasting and retail business in Wisconsin, is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and innovation in the College of Business at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.