Approaches to Marketing Trenton

Written by Harry Jackendoff

This essay provides six ideas for marketing our city. Each of the six uses an entirely different connotation of the word “marketing.” I’m talking apples and oranges, with the assumption that if we are to rebuild our town right we’ll need a whole fruit-basket of approaches.

Marketing generally means one thing to most people: broadcasting. To broadcast a product, one creates a message (through one or more media) to send out to several hundred thousand people at a time. You hope to attract more than several dozen to spend money and tell their friends, because a hundred people spending a hundred dollars each in a year only brings $10,000 in revenues.

Though we shouldn’t have to broadcast to Trenton’s own residents, unfortunately, most of them believe there’s nothing here to compete with the malls and shops of Hamilton, Lawrence, and Ewing. “Wee Willie’s (Wm Trent’s) Almanac” is the way to broadcast to the Trenton “insider” who doesn’t know what’s going on. “Kovacs Radio Corner” is my idea for broadcasting our merits to the world outside.

There is another thought associated with “marketing.” It is old and simple; it goes “Location! Location! Location!” The idea is that people, by nature, are on the move. You needn’t broadcast your presence to anyone if you’re already in their line of sight. The problem is, we HAVE the perfect location. We are half-way between New York and Philadelphia. The river here at the rapids has historically been the best crossroad for animals, Indians, and AMTRAK, the Lincoln Highway, and the Trenton Makes Bridge. So we got location, but hardly anyone stops. Those who actually do stop here for extended stays are the indigent and poor; but there are better ways than garnering state tax dollars and philanthropy funds to rebuild our city, as I describe in “Trenton’s Recovery Mission.” My vision of turning our city into a place renowned for streetcorner cafes takes the location metaphor and uses it on our residents, to bring them out on the street. “Bodega Cafés” describes how to pretend we’re the 21st Arrondissement of “Paris on the Delaware.”

There is another model for “marketing” which says the market experience itself is your product. This was the idea behind the malls—which are suffering today because people order their movies on NetFlix, gift-shop on Amazon, date in chat-rooms, and consider twelve-year-old game-playing wizards in Seattle or Albany as “their community get-together.” I once heard a suggestion we kick out the non-taxable state buildings and build malls right here in town. Raze the buildings, and make it look like Thunder stadium. Turn our city into the central-most suburb of itself—an imitation mega-mall selling all the same things its suburban competitors sell. But the crucial issue is that human behavior no longer follows predictable patterns of the past. As the automobile changed the world for the storekeepers, the internet has changed the world of stores. To get people out into a thriving marketplace—to walk, drive, park, learn, buy, eat, play in our downtown, we must recreate a unique 21st century urban experience. My thoughts return to 19th and 20th century models of recreation, of which “The Spring Flatbed Festival and Big Shad Parade” are examples.

The last concept of “marketing” I propose, is called “narrowcasting,” where you send a personalized message directly to pre-selected people with particular interests. The use of Craig’s List to solicit specific talents for the “Kovac’s Radio Café” from a sixty-mile radius is an example of this. My thoughts on “Synergy Services’ Training” explain how we might train home service providers to become “Narrowcasting Specialists,” promoting community affairs and increasing city participation from residents on a customer-by-customer basis.

1.    Bodega and Food Kiosk Cafés

We need to come up with incentives to allow convenience stores to put café tables and a coffee cart outside on the pavement. This may seem counter-intuitive for the hood, but people sitting outside will eventually reduce crime. Cops will always know where to stop and ask questions. The “unwanted elements” won’t be hanging there. Once there is a place for old-timers to sit and play checkers and chat, gang activity will move down the street and out of sight. Since there is a convenience store on every corner, it will make it hard to do deals. Putting tables on the sidewalks is what Mayor Giuliani did to cut down petty crime on the streets of downtown Manhattan.

Stimulus money through United Progress, Inc. is already sponsoring forty food carts for Trenton streets this spring. WE MUST help them succeed, and may need to rethink Ordinance 113 to do so. Convenience stores, CVS and Rite-Aids should have enough traffic to help food carts survive, and as long as they carry different foods and serve different drinks, the food carts, with tables, will help bring people out to eat and spend money at the stores. There is no reason they should consider each other “competitors,” but rather symbiotic businesses.

2.    Flatbed Festival & The Spring Shad Parade

Trenton has always been a parade town with lots of ethnic organizations planning and building floats all year round. It’s about to get bigger. We’ll create something that won’t exactly rival the Mummer’s Parade for size, but should turn the entire town into a year-long “Two-Street,” planning and practicing, saving and spending for the big event.

“The Big Shad Parade” is meant to piggyback on Lambertville’s Annual Shad Fest, scheduled for the Sunday after. It’s an invitational for bands across the region, with a gimmick. All registration fees go to Artworks to create a beautiful enameled & brass Sousaphone bell for the grand prize. For that competition, thousands of band members’ families will be here from all over the state on that day. Together with the Shad Fest on Saturday in Lambertville, area hotels will be booked solid Saturday night. All for the price of a gilt-enameled Sousaphone bell!

On Saturday in Trenton, our wards will hold Trenton’s own Flatbed Festival.  Four flatbed trailers in each of our four wards will serve as the stage for every karate school, dance academy, drum corps, hair salon, and VFWs to stage a competition. Oral arts free-styling and band competitions will be held at night. Trenton Quoits games will be run all day around the stages. The winners will ride in the Big Shad Parade, and compete in front of the War Memorial for their own grand prizes. With area bands and ethnic floats, with fashion shows and boxing matches, auto detailing competitions, and quoits rivalries between Army, Marines, Airforce, and Navy vets, our town will spring back to the feel of that 1930’s Trenton everyone is always bemoaning.

The parade route (Washington’s Monument to the War Memorial Theatre) is to be decked out in flags, with an inter-church flag-making competition promoted by a few thriving businesses such as Switlick Parachute, Hibbert and  Hutchinson. The winning church wins the prize-money for their own competition— bids from area artists to propose a valuable crucifix or sculpture or painting to be created for the church. (BTW: this is how cities did things in the 19th century.)

3.    Wee Willie’s (Wm.Trent’s) Almanac

I see us creating and marketing a little old-time broadsheet called “Wee Willie’s (Wm. Trent’s) Almanac to every household, tenants and homeowners, in the city. The almanac is laid out like “The Coffee Times” you find at diners and stores throughout Lawrence Twp and Princeton. It’s a two-sided 11”x17” broadsheet that costs ten cents to print. Picture a single newspaper page on heavy antique-colored paper. For the price of fifteen $100 ads we can print about 15,000. The goal is to blanket a different neighborhood each month, and deposit copies in a neighborhood’s stores if it’s not their month. We can coordinate distribution with the local Chinese restaurants, who already hire kids from the recovery houses to put their flyers on our doors. By joining hands with them, we can make their flyer distribution legal and help find them foundation funding to help us all out (although Ordinance #150-12 on Handbills may need revisiting).

Each issue would include an events calendar, an article highlighting free services and non-profit programs available around town, and a short bilingual Q&A explaining Trenton’s 160 ordinances. This is what is called “an educational prophylactic.” Here’s an example: “Did you know that if a petition is filed with the Housing Inspector by at least five residents regarding possible violations of the Trenton Housing Code, that the Housing Inspector can obtain a warrant to inspect the premises?  [Section 132 Para.11])” Finally, The Almanac will continue the Beautiful Trenton conversation, and eventually come to push its own pet programs. Speaking of which, why don’t we organize pet shops to sponsor a way to schedule dog-owners to coordinate their walks for a city-wide Neighborhood Watch?

4.    The Kovacs’ Radio Corner – a Pod-Cast Workshop

Ernie Kovacs got his radio and TV career started at Trenton High.  Ernie Kovacs was one of the fathers of modern media comedy—he pressed the envelope of wacky to the extreme, and created a model that could, in fact, serve Trenton well. Today, we are known for the wacky wit of murder mysteries—Janet Evanovich.  Every little street in our town is known by her readers around the country. So if we plan it right, we can make those streets come alive on radio—national radio—marketing our town and making it a tourist destination for a select group of listening audience.

The idea is to start with an evening workshop in pod-cast development, six nights a week. It is open to the public, with a mini-radio booth built into a coffee house. Different student (or faculty) hosts will spend the first year creating sections of a radio show. They would put out calls on Craig’s List for contestants, interviewers, and performers to come to Trenton (and bring their friends to the café) to participate in the podcast, and possibly win a spot in the future radio show. Let me provide a few possibilities:

A pod-cast for game-players—the host talks about internet gaming, simulations, and comic book realities. “Bent and Crooked Streets,” a panel on politics—suggesting Trenton’s signature is its bent streets, which is why no politician can stay straight in New Jersey’s capital! “Trenton Tales” could play on the Evanovich and Kovacs’ theme by inviting tall-tales from Trentonians and area residents. “Café Improv” is a TV talent show which has run for twenty years out of Princeton, garnering national awards. Its host lives nearer to Trenton than Princeton. There is currently no national showcase for the college fad of A-Capella singing groups. Trenton’s central location makes it superbly suited to invite groups to compete from Rutgers, Princeton, Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia area colleges.

In the café, high school and college kids will learn to build electronic media. Over time, like Kovacs’ himself, they can develop their talents and material to create a major national show marketed over NJN. Meanwhile, we’ve brought a small invited crowd of people to downtown Trenton every night, so that all our restaurants and stores can stay open, and people will start feeling safe in town. Where we put the café only matters to the stores nearby. It will work, and the café will pay for itself in donuts and Danish.

5.    Our Recovery Mission

One of Trenton’s biggest drawing cards, at least for some unfortunate people in New Jersey and PA, is that it has more food pantries, flop houses, social services per square mile than any town around. Given our size, we house more homeless, more drunks, druggies, and prostitutes per capita than any town on the East Coast. This is why we can support a bar on every corner. Just like when the factories were booming!

Trenton is, in point of fact, a major Mega-Recovery Mission for the entire Central and South Jersey region. Yet once people recover, they get good jobs and move to Bordentown, Yardville, or Ewing, instead of staying here. Yet their roots are here—for we gave them got back their life. All these people have good incomes now, and love our city. So the better we serve the recovery community that gravitates to the capital city’s services, the better their chances of recovery, the higher statistical chance of creating good citizens for our own recovery and growth.

Starbucks has debunked the myth that a restaurant or club need alcohol as their “big profit item.” Café International charges a cover for its Friday night poetry bashes and packs people in—SRO. With Passages Theatre and Café International on E.Front Street, with Artworks and the big DMV parking lot almost accessible we have the basis of a magnet. We just need a little theatre or meeting room to hold AL-ANON, AL-ATEEN, AA and NA meetings within a block’s walk of the parking lot. Creating an alcohol-free club zone will be unique to Trenton. We can bring recovery people from Doylestown to Tom’s River to our city.  They are looking for a meeting a day, and might just move here to find it.

Were a Starbucks or a Chai House to open a café on the square alongside Passages, then invest in a fine piano, invite music students from area colleges to practice on it during the day, we’d have free recitals. Jazz at night isn’t such a novel idea. But is finding a donor for a good piano and recording equipment unthinkable for the sake of making our town a mecca for the arts?

6.    Synergy Services’ Training

Modern society has progressively lost its neighborliness because of technology. So we need to develop a series of short-courses for whomever goes to homes, to help them become the neighborhood agents that we’ve lost. Let’s organize an academic panel discussion with the best of the region’s sociologists, planners, and trainers. They’ll come up with the curriculum and delivery method; what we develop and test can be duplicated around the country. Then, if we ask the County Extension how to tie our results to the Federal Agricultural Extension Service, we ought to get beaucoups federal bucks to create our first program.

Research tells us that many jobs can improve production by being enlarged. Social workers should be intimately tied to our city inspectors, and visa versa. Plumbers, cable installers, and exterminators can be extension agents for our colleges and United Way. If my electrician didn’t chit-chat about his wife’s kitchen, but discussed neighborhood activities that affected me—he would be the electrician I’d remember and recommend. All our municipal services should improve the feeling of neighborliness. City trash-trucks can bring jazz, salsa, and folk music onto the streets (improving ice-cream truck standards). The more opportunities for lifelong learning we put on our city streets, the more our city becomes a recreational experience. We’ll lower crime and increase real estate values. We want young people to prefer raising families in our city, investing in its homes and storefronts over the suburbs.

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