Please bear with me as I want to couch my comments on branding and marketing Los Alamos by telling a “tale of two mountain towns”.
I agree with those who say we need a “branding” that makes sense to outsiders that makes this town attractive for businesses and new residents to move here and tourists to come.
External forces on the lab will eventually transform the town into something very different than what started through the efforts of the eclectic collection of bright and motivated people who founded it.
We really need to bring in enthusiastic new blood to start new medium and small businesses of all types, from consulting and startup firms to tourist or local community related retail. To do that, our past history may not be as important as what we can provide in the future.
You can draw your own conclusions from the comparison I will detail below. I will describe the similarities and contrasts between Los Alamos and another mountain community that I am very familiar with, Lake Placid, NY (www.lakeplacid.com), both of which have either been or considered being re-branded.
Let me first contrast the two communities:
Both are relatively isolated and located in the mountains surrounded by many outdoor activity opportunities. Skiing, biking, rock climbing, hiking are hallmarks of both.
Both are approximately two hours drive from a medium sized airport (Los Alamos: Albuquerque, Lake Placid: Albany, NY and Burlington, VT).
Both have State or Federal Parks or reserves surrounding the community. (Lake Placid is inside the Adirondack State Park, Los Alamos is adjacent to Bandelier and Via Grande)
Both communities are cul-de-sacs in terms of further development because of federal or state land restrictions. Los Alamos is surrounded by DOE land, a National Monument and State Forest. Lake Placid is within the Adirondack Park, which is by law “Forever Wild” under the New York State Constitution and any development is severely controlled by the New York State Adirondack Park Agency.
Both communities were boosted, founded, or advanced by a forceful individual with vision. For Los Alamos, it was Robert Oppenheimer who pushed for its selection for the Laboratory site. For Lake Placid, it was Melville Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal System) who founded the Lake Placid Club and championed the area for winter sports.
Both towns’ major defining institutions underwent significant change or death in the last couple of decades. Los Alamos National Lab is still undergoing transitions as a result of the end of the cold war and new historical and political trends. The Lake Placid Club died in the late 80’s as a result of changing economics, demographics and its reputation as a prejudiced organization.
Both communities have the state or federal governments providing jobs as part of an enterprise that defines the town’s identity. For Los Alamos, that is LANL. For Lake Placid, it is the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) that operates all the Olympic site venues (ice rinks, bobsled tracks, ski jumps, cross country runs, etc.)
Both towns had a significant national historical thread to be proud of. Los Alamos for developing the atomic bomb ending WWII, and its key role in nuclear deterrence during the cold war. Lake Placid hosted the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. The 1980 Olympics included the “Miracle on Ice” in which the US Hockey team beat the Soviet Union against all odds and boosted American
morale at a low point in the Cold War. Lake Placid also hosted the 1972 FISU games that opened a sports dialog with the Soviet Union.
Both communities pride themselves on having residents who participate in the community’s identity. Los Alamos has its scientists, and Lake Placid has its native Olympic athletes and supporting cast (sports doctors, sports experts, skating coaches, etc.) Lake Placid enhances its sports identity by hosting events like the Ironman and many college and regional winter sports
Both communities are economic bright spots in the middle of some surrounding economically challenged areas.
So what was the branding problem for Lake Placid? Lake Placid’s self-identity was always the “Olympic Village”. However advertising as the “Olympic Village” was no longer sufficient to bring in the desired level of tourism. The local chamber of commerce (Lake Placid Visitors Bureau) hired an outside consulting firm to “re-brand” Lake Placid.
What they came up with is now visible on the Lake Placid website (www.lakeplacid.com). Rather than solely identifying with the Olympics, the new branding makes Lake Placid “The Gateway to the Adirondacks” for a broader appeal, despite native “Placidian’s” objections to not placing the love and history of the Olympic tradition front and center.
While the parallel here is not perfect, I hope this comparison can stimulate some broader thinking and get some of the dialog out of the “self-licking ice cream cone” discussion on what branding for Los Alamos really means.