Chris Bender, one of the men behind D.C.’s campaign for new residents, says that clearing up the confusion behind the city’s high-profile new slogan”city living, dc style!”is just a matter of time.
“A lot of people can’t say it yet. They say, you know, ‘city style-dc’ or ‘dc living’ or whatever,” he says. “But the brand has only been out for 10 months. We’ve got 10 years to get it saturated.”
Bender used to work at the Gap, where he was in charge of getting people to buy more denim. Now, as the director of communications for the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development, he’s partially in charge of getting people to buy more D.C. real estate. And he likes to compare selling the city to moving $50 crew-neck sweaters.
“At the Gap, it was never just jeans by themselveswe’d combine them with a sweater or a T-shirt. We’d try to get people to think outfit. This is the same way; we get people to think about living here, and then we get them interested in shopping and everything else. It’s all partnered.”
D.C.-as-corporate-product had its big rollout this past weekend, at the first “city living, dc style!” expo at the new Washington Convention Center. The event is meant to be the centerpiece of a 10-year campaign to attract 100,000 new residents to the city. Organizers plan to hold the expo each year, offering information on everything from how to secure a mortgage to which neighborhoods are most desirable for singles. The first installment featured 75 exhibitors.
According to Bender and other city officials, the expo is designed to showcase an up-and-coming city whose amenities are growing more numerous and irresistible by the week. But if you strolled the floor for a while this weekend, you couldn’t escape the conclusion that the event, in fact, hypes a different set of products altogether.
A key part of the inaugural expo were various seminars designed to teach comers about the city and all it has to offer. Some of them were helpful: The Department of Housing and Community Development schooled attendees in the homeownership programs available to low-income residents, and the D.C. Heritage Coalition took potential buyers through a tour of the city.
Yet some of the sessions had that unmistakable infomercial feel. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, for example, led a session on “Renovation, Reversed and Alternative Lending,” and representatives from Coldwell Banker Pardoe Residential Brokerage took questions at a session called “So Many Realtors, What Do I Do?”
In a session called “Making Sense Out of the Home Mortgage Game,” a representative from Countrywide Home Loans informed the packed house that “Countrywide really prides itself on the concept of fast and easy.”
Suits intent on feeding off D.C.’s housing boom dominated the convention floor. At 9:30 on Saturday morning, a half-hour after the expo had begun, the 50 or so potential new residents who had made their way onto the floor were outnumbered by mortgage brokers and development-company agents, who stood next to representatives from banks and retail outlets giving away toys and angling for new business.
The city spent more than $600,000 on the expo and the “city living, dc style!” campaign, about half of which came from public funds. For an event that was supposed to get people excited about the city, there was little in the way of a cultural presence. Take away the booths from the theater district and the neighborhood associations, and just about the only difference between this expo and a generic homebuying fair was the taxpayer subsidies.
In fairness, it should be noted that the city did deploy a few musical acts and popcorn machines to drum up floor traffic. The H.G. Woodson High School marching band, for example, performed OutKast’s “The Whole World” under a sign for the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District.
But the expo’s skyline was dominated by firms that build for a living. The William C. Smith Co., for instance, had erected a 20-foot-high white house on one section of the floor, complete with green shutters and an enclosed porch. On the ground next to the mock house, the company had installed carpeting meant to be evocative of a meandering river, and it had set up benches next to a brown-carpet path where potential new residents could rest and gaze at the flowerpots the company had provided. Signs towering above the benches advertised Smith’s properties around the city.
“It’s pretty commercial,” said Nina Boughton, who has rented an apartment for three years in Arlington and is considering buying a home in D.C. Boughton, who had the Washington Post apartment listings spread out in front of her on a table, said she was frustrated that most of the housing advertised at the expo was intended for low- or high-income people, not middle-income folks like herself.
It was a common complaint. Roslyn Stevens, who lives near the National Cathedral, said she is being driven out of her neighborhood by regular rent increases. She had lived in Southeast D.C. for 15 years, she said, but she refuses to go back to a neighborhood where she was robbed regularly. Now she is considering leaving the city.
“I’m not poor, but I’m one of those people who’s stuck right in the middle,” she said. “I want to live in D.C., but there’s nowhere for me to go.”
Brad Keller, who is “thinking about buying a house but [doesn’t] have any money,” was spending his time looking through a pile of cards that provided information about different areas of the city. “The cards for the crime-ridden neighborhoods look the same as the other ones,” he said, smiling. He doesn’t believe the expo is going to make much of a difference. “There’s some good information, but it’s not going to change anybody’s mind,” he said. “This isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to tip the scales for people.”
Perhaps Keller isn’t on the city’s demographic shopping list. The inaugural expo, which attracted between 5,000 and 6,000 people, was marketed to a target audience of professionals, empty-nesters, commuters, and current renters who might be enticed to buy. The unifying factor between these groups is disposable income. Nathaniel Wilson and Lawrence Leonard, who currently rent a property in Logan Circle, came to the expo to talk to lenders and see what different developers had to offer, and they were happy with their experience. Future expos will target groups such as families and graduate students, says Bender, but at this point, market research suggests that the city should focus on other sectors.
“You start with one main message, and then you change the product,” he says. “You turn jeans into cords and drag the consumer along.”
One of the centerpieces of this year’s expo was a series of drawings for a $2,000 down payment that the winner could use to buy a property in the District. Mayor Anthony A. Williams took the stage in a black “City Year” sweatshirt to pick the lucky home buyer. “The winner of the down paymentwait, I need my glassesthe winner is…Ro, or Bo, Polermo,” he said. Ro or Bo didn’t show up in the three minutes he or she had been given to come to the stage, and the mayor shrugged and left. Another name was called out, and Rachael Akinkoye came to the stage to claim her prize. Little boys and girls in red fire hats given out by Home Depot ran around the stage as Akinkoye stood next to a huge novelty check and posed for pictures. CP