SPRINGFIELD Is Springfield a crime-ridden city that no one wants to visit? Some people think so and the conclusion of a panel at the Fifth Annual Communications Conference at Western New England College (WNEC) on how to repair the image of Springfield is the effort must not just be undertaken by the Chamber of Commerce or the city government, but by Springfield's residents.
The panel opened the conference and was moderated by Brian Zelasko, the director of community relations at WNEC.
"It pains me when I hear people from Westfield, Agawam and Northampton say they never come to Springfield -- there's no reason to come here," Zelasko said in his opening remarks.
The panel was comprised of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, Anthony Cignoli of A.L. Cignoli Company, Brian Connors, the deputy director for economic development for Springfield and Barbara Campanella, WNEC's vice president of marketing and external affairs.
Cignoli said the political adage that perception is reality is true in Springfield's case. He has seen how cities in worse condition than Springfield -- he cited Baltimore, Md., and Providence, R.I. -- have been turned around thanks in part to a strong leader willing to be a cheerleader for the city.
Sarno, though, believes the ultimate solution is in solving basic problems.
"You can market all you want, work with the media, but you have to get to root causes," Sarno said. A theme in his campaign, the mayor noted that public safety is "number one, paramount," followed by improving the city's schools.
However, Sarno recognizes the importance of marketing the city. He said he would like to tie in much of the city's image with the Basketball Hall of Fame, even down to painting basketball hoops on municipal trash cans.
And Sarno said he wants to use the arts and Springfield's status as a nationally recognized "green" city to change the perception of the community.
"I'd like to drive the agenda with positive, legitimate stories," Sarno said. "If there's anything good, put it out there."
Sarno said he is looking to hire a green point person to go after funding for green initiatives.
"Why not harness it and make Western Massachusetts the hub for green activities?" he asked. He added the city is looking to purchase solar-powered trash compacters and green vehicles for the Parks Department.
The mayor would like to make downtown someplace attractive to a growing baby boom market: middle-aged people who want to live in an urban center near the arts, restaurants, transportation and shopping.
Connors said that while it's great the city has three television stations, he noted how a murder in the city was the main story on local broadcasts from a Saturday morning through Monday night. The number of media outlets "also backfires on us," he added.
Zelasko said there are a number of organizations striving to present positive aspects of the city. He announced that Keep Springfield Beautiful will have its 2008 campaign kick-off at the Karen Sprague Cultural Center at American International College at 11 a.m. on Jan. 16 and the public is invited. He also noted that the work of the Springfield Preservation Trust is maintaining the architectural character of the city and a new Web site, www.choosespringfieldmass.com, that is designed to help draw new homeowners to the city.
Campanella said that everyone in the city concerned about its reputation should spread "good rumors" and engage in a grass roots effort to restore the city. She distributed a number of suggestions individuals and businesses can implement, including the following:
Prepare talking points for a business' employees on why Springfield is a good place
Include a paragraph or two in every brochure a business produces on its hometown of Springfield
Individuals who belong to professional or social organizations should work on having their organization's meetings or conventions in Springfield
Take visitors to local restaurants and call ahead to make arrangements for them to receive the establishment's specialty dish
Audience member Nicholas A. Fyntrilakis, director of community responsibility for MassMutual, said that hundreds of jobs are unfilled at employers such as MassMutual and Baystate Medical Center. He said a new program that would help people working in Springfield to buy a home here might help attract people to the city who are accepting jobs here.
Marketing professional Suzanne Boniface asked how the city can create a successful brand. She said marketing messages about the city need to be coordinated. The panel ended before the topic could be fully explored.