The City of Dade City is in midst of an evolution that undoubtedly will alter the community’s aesthetic — perhaps for decades to come.
The charming town in East Pasco is poised to see some 14,000 new homes on the books within the next five years, plus a slew of exciting downtown amenities and other unique, adventurous hotspots on the outskirts of town, just outside the city limits.
It’s longtime moniker, “Proud Heritage and Promising Future,” may no longer be quite apt — because, as it turns out, the future is happening now.
So, city leaders face this looming question: How does Dade City go about rebranding itself as a tourist destination, and what specifically does it want to promote, to best encourage visitors and foster economic growth amid an unprecedented period?
Melanie Romagnoli, the city’s community and economic development director talked about those issues during two city commission workshops, held in October and November.
“We need to decide who we are and what we want to be,” Romagnoli said, addressing the Dade City Commission. “I think the whole thing about the brand is actually having our vision of what we want our future to be and sticking to it. How can we market the city as a destination, like Clearly Zephyrhills, like Florida’s Sports Coast?”
Following the monthly workshops and three-plus hours of discussion, at least one conclusion is apparent — much more brainstorming is needed, before the city become serious and throws thousands of dollars to a branding consultant to develop an image profile (photos, videos, graphics, logos) to best promote the town’s features.
Built into the city’s budget for this year is $40,000 toward a marketing and advertising plan, promotional activities and other contractual services.
Before that money (and possibly much more) gets allocated, however, commissioners believe additional input is needed from the community and the public, including local businesses, residents and other stakeholders.
The input could take form in charrettes, surveys, monthly forums, and even door-to-door visits.
Commissioners also agreed that it may be prudent to wait until some new amenities throughout the city are established.
In other words, don’t put the cart before the horse.
“I do think branding right now is a little premature,” Mayor Camille Hernandez said. “There’s a lot of things happening, but I think what we need to do is go back to this community (for input).”
She also added: “I think we’re just a few steps away. It’s right under our noses.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Shive likewise was vocal about fostering grassroots community feedback on branding the city for the future.
“I don’t think we have actually talked about a real vision of what we want, or expect from the future, when it comes to development, when it comes to growing the city,” he said. “I think we need to have the public on board with this, especially when you’re talking about branding.”
Commissioner Normita Woodard, too, pointed out that some of the best ideas or designs may first come from a talented local volunteer, which may yield some cost savings instead of hiring an outside branding firm. Woodard also added she’s in “a reserved state” about spending thousands of dollars just yet, as the city is in a transitional period and still navigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
First things first
In the meantime, sprucing up the city’s downtown is necessary before doubling down on a full-scale rebranding effort, commissioners agreed.
Commissioners expressed concerns on proceeding with a full-on rebrand until noticeable improvements are made along the city’s Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) district in the form of wayfinding signage, speed limit and lighting fixtures, façade improvements and filling commercial property vacancies.
Some solutions could come via a commercial minimum maintenance standards ordinance, which staff is drafting — based on a consensus reached by commissioners to proceed in that direction.
If a maintenance standard is approved, it would require upkeep from property owners and business tenants on building paint, signs, window coverings, dumpster enclosures and fencing or security upgrades. Besides the CRA, standards would likely apply to the city’s main thoroughfares along U.S 301, U.S. 98 Bypass, State Road 52/21st Street intersection, and Meridian Avenue.
Emphasizing the importance of cleaning up the city, the mayor said: “Nobody wants to go to an icky, dirty place.”
Also before spending thousands on branding and marketing, another pressing issue is solving the city’s sizeable commercial building vacancy rate.
It presently exceeds 40% just in the downtown area, Romagnoli said.
“What are the vacancies telling our visitors: That there’s not anything going on. You walk down a street and you see a long wall of nothing but empty,” she said. “What makes them want to go to the next store?”
Commissioner Knute Nathe said it’s a “chicken-and-egg” dilemma that can’t quite yet be fully quantified: “You know, it’s kind of hard to market a place as a destination, without a ton of stuff already there; but it’s hard to bring businesses into town when people aren’t going there,” he said.
One way to create more consistent foot traffic is to have the city retain an event coordinator, Romagnoli suggested. The coordinator could host artisan and craft vendors somewhere downtown each weekend.
Commissioners expressed optimism with that idea.
Branding options abound
Aside from blighted areas, Dade City is beaming with opportunity on the horizon.
The city is in the midst of developing a 2-plus acre downtown park on Church Avenue, slated to include a multi-use water splash pad, bike-share shelter, amphitheater, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-accessible playground, open space, concession area and other amenities.
Just a stone’s throw away is a forthcoming event and entertainment center on Seventh Street, known as The Block.
The site of a former car dealership, and spearheaded by development partners Larry Guilford and Melanie Armstrong, The Block will include a wedding and event venue, outside patio, brewer, catering business, space for food trucks and a CrossFit gym.
Also on Seventh Street is the Dade City Center for the Arts, which has begun making inroads to facilitate community art events, as well as indoor and outdoor arts and cultural exhibits.
Other imaginative and creative marketing and branding possibilities seemingly abound.
Possibilities include leveraging the fun, family friendly experiences at Treehoppers Aerial Adventure Park and Snowcat Ridge, the state’s only snowtubing park, off St. Joe Road. Those attractions are just outside of city limits, but have a Dade City address.
The city also may be able to capitalize on another niche: Its budding reputation for rural, rustic destination weddings.
There are about nine such spots in East Pasco, including several with a Dade City address, Romagnoli said.
The city could consider a branding campaign that hypes local wedding spots, while encouraging other activities nearby, whether it’s biking the local trails and roads, shooting at West Armory’s indoor range, strolling the downtown shopping and dining scene, touring Pioneer Florida Museum, and so on.
The city’s economic director said another opportunity to piggyback on the destination wedding angle, includes attracting photographers, caterers and wedding planners to lease one or multiple empty building spaces downtown.
Yet another branding concept? Promoting the city as a wholesome place to raise a family.
In any case, a challenge going forward will be fighting through some established perceptions and misconceptions, Romagnoli said.
A case in point: Forbes magazine once listed Dade City among “The Best Places to Retire.”
That label no longer fits, or is appropriate, Romagnoli said.
The city’s median age is around 36.
“We’re no longer the best place to retire, but we’re a great place to raise a family,” she said.
Published December 02, 2020