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Mon, Jun 21, 2004 - Page 12 News List

A small town in Oregon seeks salvation -- in frogs


Milton Freewater City Manager Delphine Palmer talks about the concept of using frog symbols to brand the town, during an interview on May 17. A growing trend among struggling cities hurt by major job losses is to brand themselves like products, trying to emulate the wild success of the I Love New York, campaign for New York City.


A town struggling to stand out, desperate to court tourists and hot to rescue a near-dead economy has to get really creative these days.

It cannot, as this northeastern Oregon town did in sleepy eras past, merely come up with a slogan, say call itself the "Sweet Pea Capital," the "Apple Capital" or "Home of the Low Cost Utility."

It cannot simply hang a few banners on Main Street and expect people to notice.

That is where the frogs come in. Milton-Freewater, one of a growing number of the nation's towns and cities to embrace a strategic staple of corporate America, is reinventing itself completely and branding itself like a product.

The brand here is frog-related. Milton-Freewater is now "Muddy Frogwater Country" and a "Toadly Awesome Place to Live."

But its new identity goes far beyond slogans and mottos.

"I couldn't sell this town," said Delphine Palmer, the city manager of Milton-Freewater, a town of 6,000. "We're having a lot of problems like other cities. And we can sit here and do nothing, or we can try something different"

The branding discussed at civic meetings over the last year envisions frog festivals, frog art, frog T-shirts and statues of frogs on skateboards at the skate park.

The city hopes to attract tourists already drawn to the area's many new wineries.

The concept guiding officials in this town -- where the deep woes of the agriculture industry -- the state's budget troubles and an 8 percent unemployment rate have left its economy moribund, is called municipal branding.

The idea, being tried across the US, builds on national efforts in the 1990s in struggling countries like Poland and Croatia.

But the slogan, said Greg Stine, president of Polaris Inc, the marketing firm working with Milton-Freewater, has to promise something appealing and then deliver.

Most shop owners and residents say they support the frog brand. But a few are ambivalent about being identified with slimy frogs, and note that except for a few tree frogs, frogs are not indigenous to Milton-Freewater.

"If it helps bring business to this town, great," said a restaurant owner who insisted on anonymity, saying she feared retribution for her frog opposition.

"But I'm not painting my building green," she said.

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