Community branding process highlights Albion’s rich history

Albion, MI residents gathered to discuss the city’s identity – the end product tells a larger story. 

Written by: Linda LaNoue, Albion Community Development Fellow 

Downtown Albion
Downtown Albion

Cultural and natural assets abound in Albion, a small town along the I-94 corridor between Jackson and Battle Creek. While the local post-secondary school, Albion College, has gained significant press in recent years, locals often refer to Albion by the larger cities it sits in between. There is rarely a chance for Albionites to focus specifically on the many elements that blend together to create the community’s identity. However, in May of 2019, residents from across the city gathered to do just that, for the sake of developing Community Branding Strategies.

A community brand needs to be dynamic and multi-layered in order to be adaptable to the many needs found in a city’s structure. Meeting such criteria was no challenge for Albion; in fact, it was said more than once that defining “Albion” generated too many stories to tell. With a population of approximately 8,600—diverse by age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status—Albion is home to many engaging people and their tales are ones that you want to hear. During the branding input sessions, one resident shared that the reason Albion’s international programs (e.g., sister-city and foreign exchange student programs) have been so successful is that there is plenty of “room” within the city. What they meant is that Albion has both the cultural and physical capacity to welcome diverse groups of people; this pattern of inclusion is perhaps one of the most defining aspects of Albion’s identity. 

Albion is among one of twenty Project Rising Tide (PRT) cities throughout Michigan’s “Prosperity Regions” as identified by the State of Michigan’s offices for economic development. The PRT initiative is intended to provide a wide-range of technical assistance deliverables and local project coordination efforts to assist communities in the process of rebuilding their economic framework. This year, ten fellows were placed in the 11 Round Two cities, and as Albion’s community development fellow, I took the lead engaging the community through the branding process. 

Initially I recruited representatives from Albion’s business community, faith community, city hall, Albion College, and residents with marketing and design expertise to convene a branding steering committee. The purpose of the committee was to generate more awareness of the community branding process and maintain an outlet to receive stakeholders’ feedback. I also created Facebook events and wrote press releases for the local news outlets to invite the public to an input session and to the community reveal. I then called upon my network of more than 80 civic and organizational leaders, business owners, and key stakeholders to participate in the feedback process. Lastly, I helped facilitate the input sessions and coordinate the branding steering committee’s review of stakeholders’ comments and suggestions. In total, more than 50 people provided their insight to cultivating the community’s assets and identity. Listening to their stories and gathering their feedback is what prompted me to extend the benefit of the Community Branding Strategies with this blog.

Albion is no stranger to weathering the storms of broad economic downturns and facing challenges that require bolstered support. The city’s main economic framework was built on foundries, which saw initial signs of deindustrialization more than 50 years ago when the city’s first factory closed. Since then, hundreds of jobs have left the community with the loss of several other industrial manufacturers, the city’s hospital, grocery and retail stores. Most recently in 2016, Albion Public Schools permanently closed through the process of annexation with Marshall Public Schools by a vote of the people. Such immense loss has taken a toll on the morale of Albion’s residents, requiring genuine redress while working toward reestablishing a community that preserves this history and generates more widespread prosperity. 

That is where Ben Muldrow of Arnett Muldrow & Associates enters the scene. Muldrow is an expert in community branding, having worked with hundreds of communities across the U.S. and several countries. His work allows locals to see a familiar landscape with new eyes and his insight into how communities function provides context in the current times of uncertainty and transition. After receiving tours of the city and hearing from Albion’s stakeholders, Muldrow created a 70+ page community branding strategic plan. The community branding reveal was recorded and can be viewed online here. Beyond an outstanding toolbox with a style guide that features typefaces, color palettes, and images, Muldrow’s plan offers rich text that tells a story of transformation. 

Local leaders have used that word—transformation—for the last five years to shift the city’s narrative from one of loss and grief, to a larger context that includes the city’s abundance. Albion is said to have more parks per capita than any other city in the world, and Muldrow counted a total of 21 bridges within just four square miles. The city is part of Michigan’s interconnected non-motorized trail network, boasting the intersection of three major paths: the North Country Trail, Great Lakes-to-Lake Trail, and the Iron Belle Trail. And Albion’s River Trail is continuing to expand, with plans underway to weave together all of Calhoun County by foot or bicycle paths. 

These natural resources are one of many assets Albion has. Other themes that surfaced during the branding input process include the city’s generations of social activism, including local visits from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, and Desmond Tutu. Albion Public Schools graduated countless All-American athletes and high academic achievers who created a pipeline of volunteers eager to assist in Albion’s revitalization. A spirit of volunteerism and innovation is also found in Albion’s network of entrepreneurs from all backgrounds and ages who are playing an integral role in stabilizing and rebuilding the city’s economic framework. 

Albion’s perseverance is a story in and of itself. The community branding process was simply an opportunity to review the city’s legacy of strength in the face of adversity, and lasting connections in the midst of economic instability. “A strong community brand is owned by no one and shared by all,” Muldrow emphasized as he revealed the strategic plan. The adaptability of the plan and a variety of applications Muldrow provided are already proving to spruce up the city. The Greater Albion Chamber of Commerce has championed branding efforts and sponsored banners that went up on lamp posts downtown, just in time for the city’s annual Festival of the Forks. The ongoing support and maintenance of the brand is being stewarded by the Chamber, while it remains a flexible strategy that is open to feedback from stakeholders. 

You can learn more about the city of Albion here. Or better yet, come see this picturesque town along the Kalamazoo River for yourself. Hop off of I-94 and head downtown to see Albion’s National Historic District with its red bricks and bright, newly branded banners. If you come on the first Monday of the month, you can check out Blues at the Bohm, in the beautifully restored Bohm Theatre. This hidden gem received the prestigious Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation in May of 2015. Bring the kids or grandkids and make it a weekend by staying at the new Courtyard Marriott and having a ball at Kids ‘N’ Stuffone of the best children’s museums in Michigan! 

For more information on Project Rising Tide, Albion, or the city’s community branding process, email Community Development Fellow Linda LaNoue.

This post is a part of a series highlighting CEDAM’s community development fellows. Our Community Development Fellowship places fellows in Project Rising Tide communities to add capacity and help build strong planning, zoning, and economic development plans. The fellows work with a local steering committee and implement transformational projects within their community.