Staking a City's Claim

Town, Inc. author Andrew Davis discusses how cities position themselves as
unique and valuable during the Municipal Association’s Annual Meeting.

A speaking engagement in the City of Warsaw, Indiana, had a profound impact on the perspective of marketing veteran Andrew Davis, and led him to a new understanding of how
city vitality works.

Davis, who had passed through numerous struggling communities before arriving in Warsaw, was struck by the attractiveness and vibrancy of the downtown. In spite of its less-trafficked
location, he found that its population had grown steadily since its incorporation in the 19th century. He eventually traced the city’s prosperity to Revra DePuy, inventor of the fiber splint, which was an improvement over the wooden splints once used to set bone fractures. When DePuy founded the first-ever commercial orthopedic manufacturer in Warsaw, he put the city on the path to becoming the “Orthopedic Capital of the World.” As Davis noted, the address has become a place for serious orthopedic enterprises amounting to $17 billion a year, just as Nashville, Tennessee, has become the place for serious country musicians.

Davis eventually wrote a book exploring the concept of a city staking a claim, Town, Inc., and served as the keynote speaker during the Municipal Association of SC Annual Meeting on
Hilton Head Island in July.

Needing to go to a particular place for a specific industry or profession, Davis said, is “location envy.”

“It’s an emotional belief,” he said. “It’s not rational at all, they just believe this is the place to be.”

Staking a claim does not require international renown, Davis said. It could be national, state-level or regional, but he said a claim creates “a sense of place” more concretely than any physical attribute of a city. He gave examples of less effective claims, such as historical industries no longer present in a city, or the proximity of attractive geographical features or other cities.

An engaging claim “allows us to tell stories, it invites people to get engaged, to dive deeper,” he said.

Davis said that origin stories are often critical. In Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for example, home to the FAME Studios that played a role in the careers of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, the sounds of the Tennessee River were legendary for inspiring musicians. For a South Carolina
example, he cited the Town of Ninety Six, a name said to derive from the location’s distance to the Cherokee Keowee settlement.

“It’s a perfect analogy, it owns a piece of my mind. Now I can explain it to anyone,” he said.

A critical ingredient of success in positioning a city, Davis said, is crafting and pursuing a vision of what the community could be. He cited the City of Hamilton, Missouri, a city of about 1,800
people. Hamilton is home to Jenny Doan, a quilter who gained fame for her quilting YouTube channel. Doan’s Missouri Star Quilt Company has become the largest seller of quilting supplies in the nation, and the largest employer in Caldwell County. Doan and the company pursued
a vision of making the city “the Disneyland of Quilting,” which is now home to numerous crafting businesses and the Sewing Center, a quilting-focused hotel and event center.

“You can follow [similar] towns all over the world who have actually embraced this simple idea of staking their claim,” Davis said. “And in a short amount of time, increased their revenue, attracted new people, the talents, the innovators, the dreamers to their towns and cities,
and they’ve made a big difference in the lives of not only the people that have lived there, the people who live there, the people we serve. They are leaving the legacy we all hope to leave.”

Find presentation material and recordings for the Annual Meeting, the Municipal Association’s 2021 Annual Report and 2021 Legislative Report online