Earlier this I was in Seattle and a seemingly very cool person found out I live in Utah. That person’s response: “you seem way too cool to live in Utah.” Significantly, I’ve had almost the exact same exchange with people from Salt Lake when they find out I live in Provo.
Most of these people are well-meaning and so I accept what they probably mean as a compliment (though my gut reaction is always to say “you seem too cool to have such a myopic misconception about Provo/Utah and such a bloated sense of self importance.)
The reality, however, is that Provo does a great job at attracting some people to the city, but and a much worse job at attracting others, namely young professionals interested in a vibrant social scene. That split needs to change both because growth is vital for development, and because diversity is vital for prosperity.
It’s worth mentioning that there are people in Provo who don’t want to improve the city’s reputation. They take seriously ideas about being a “peculiar people” and about being a bastion of “morals” in a so-called decadent society. Though I don’t take issue with those concepts in theory, taken to the extreme they will isolate any city and eventually destroy development. People can be “moral” even in a diverse culture, and so the most hardline conservatives in Provo — who want the city to maintain a boring, PG-rated, BYU-only reputation — are not my audience here.
I think there are two ways to improve any city’s reputation:
1. Improving the city itself
2. Improving the publicity about the city
I’m optimistic that Provo is actually improving. The city was, without a doubt, worse off when I arrived most recently in 2003. And while I hope for development that makes the city more diverse, walkable, sustainable and artistic, I ultimately think we’re underselling what we currently have.
So how do we improve our publicity? How do we stop underselling?
I think the biggest publicity problem that Provo faces is a failure to identify and understand it’s target audience. Provo — as well as its major businesses and institutions — is run by a fairly homogeneous group of people. Most of them are white, most are middle aged and most are Mormon. There are some notable exceptions, but as I observe the city’s branding efforts, they seem designed to attract these same sorts of people: white, middle-aged Mormons.
That’s certainly a demographic that is worth attracting, but unfortunately it seems like the only demographic that is being attracted. And since young, diverse workers are the engines of growth, Provo’s lack of PR focus undermines its growth.
Perhaps I’m wrong. I’m certainly becoming less right, as the city makes efforts to embrace youth culture. But can anyone think of programs, initiatives or efforts that city or institutional leaders have undertaken to reach out to young people? Has anyone actively tried to brand the city as a place for young people? I can’t think of much. In fact, after I graduated from BYU, I was saddened to discover that among some politically active people in the city the anti student sentiment is much more vehement than I ever imagined.
This is a problem because Provo needs to attract more young people. It needs to become a place where non-natives consider settling down, or setting up shop. To solve that problem, Provo needs to identify the people it wants to attract, and target them.