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Rebranding York County: A 'maker's spirit' meets history

The people of York County and beyond have spoken.

Many saw an opportunity to revitalize the city of York. They described it as unsafe because of crime but improving — an up-and-coming place to try new things.

The county's major asset was its central location among major metro areas, and opioids and crime were among its top challenges.

Central Market and a place in American history were important parts of what made the area unique.

North Star account manager Jessica Mitton speaks during the Downtown Inc and York County Research and Strategy Presentation at the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. North Star, a destination firm out of Nashville, Tennessee, researched a York County brand with input from a survey filled out by people who live and work in the county. The rebranding project was initiated after Downtown Inc and the York County Community Foundation received a tourism grant from the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau this summer. Bill Kalina photo

North Star, a destination branding firm out of Nashville, Tennessee, presented the results of four months of research on downtown York City and York County on Wednesday, Dec. 13, at the Appell Performing Arts Center.

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The rebranding project was initiated after Downtown Inc and the York County Community Foundation received a tourism grant from the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau this summer.

A steering committee that included several community organizations was established for a study that would focus on downtown York City and York County. 

The first stage involved gathering data from community members and beyond about what makes the York County area unique. Now, the creative stage is underway —  figuring out how to use that data to tell the community's story.

The firm's senior vice president, Ed Barlow, shared several conclusions, but he stressed that they were not taglines, just a focus for the next step.

One major takeaway was that York County has a "maker's spirit." And the city is its "creative core" for new ideas — the place to try new things.

"We make things here. And we make things better," said a community member surveyed during a site visit.

The city is a "magnet for change makers," Barlow said, and the county has a "history of makers" with projects such as the York Plan, which gave the community international acclaim.

In its four months of research, North Star gathered input from people who lived and worked in York County, neighboring communities, focus groups, one-on-one interviews, anonymous "man on street" polls and an online community survey.

Quantitative research was done in Baltimore and neighboring Maryland and Pennsylvania counties in which participants were surveyed on communities including York County, without knowing the research study was geared toward the county.

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Lancaster and York City both made the top of the list in having an active arts scene, vibrant downtown, unique dining options and being the downtown area people were most interested in visiting. Baltimore participants were the most likely to visit York City's downtown.

Many did not associate anywhere in particular in Pennsylvania with outdoor recreation, showing that the reputation for the county's outdoor draw was not getting out. 

York County and York City residents' own opinions were much more negative than those of outsiders, highlighting crime and other issues as bigger problems.

"It seemed like people in York have a much more negative perception than people outside," said Dru Peters, who owns a farm in Newberry Township with her husband, Homer Walden.

"Perception is a funny thing," Walden added. "I don't have a fear of York at all." 

"There's crime everywhere," he said, no matter what city.

Ninety-four percent of outsiders said they had a good experience visiting the city, and about 86 percent had a positive experience visiting the county, which means getting people to the area might be the key. 

More:Central Market partners with local hospital for healthy classes

Downtown York City will be the first focus of the next step. A committee met to discuss moving forward with the creative stage for the city, which will be followed by an action plan. 

The plan will take two years to implement, including checking in after a year to see if any adjustments should be made.

"We were thrilled with how much arts plays a role with the downtown strategy and is seen as an asset countywide," said Kelley Gibson, of the Cultural Alliance of York County, which is part of the steering committee.

Gibson also thinks it's important that the brands of the county and city will be working together in a more cohesive role.

"From rural to urban, charming to bustling, industrial to artistic, tried and true to something new, traditional to progressive, nature to architecture, wide open to up close," the firm concluded, York County offers a full spectrum of experiences.