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Themed Towns Might Be Corny, but They Also Work

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In the early years of the 1960s a small town called Leavenworth on the Eastern slope of the Cascades in Washington was struggling. Due to its location at the end of a pass over a particularly rugged part of the mountain range the town was historically a center of commerce, both for the indigenous people in the area and then later the settlers who built a railroad depot there. But the relocation of the railroad line and the subsequent closing of the lumber mills that used it left the town without much industry to support its dwindling population. The local shops were getting boarded up, the highschool building was condemned, and the only person that wanted to be mayor of the beleaguered hamlet was the custodian of a local hotel.

In a last ditch effort residents partnered with the University of Washington to create a committee called Project LIFE (Leavenworth Improvement For Everyone) to investigate strategies to revitalize the town before there was nothing left to revitalize. Two local restaurant owners had an idea. They had recently remodeled their restaurant with a Bavarian motif, something that seemed fitting with the area’s alpine surrounding. The patrons loved it, many even came from out of the county to see a little piece of Germany in rural Washington. The two men proposed that the town do the same. 

Eventually the town council went with the prospect of “Bavarianizing” the buildings in the small downtown. Between 1965 and 1967, The Chikamin Hotel became the Hotel Edelweiss, The Cascade Drug Store became Der Sportsman, and the Watson Electric Building was transformed into the Alpen Haus. At first the Bavarian facades, with the steepled roofs, fake shudders, and exposed wood was voluntary, but eventually those same two placemaking pioneers were chairs of the town’s Design and Review Board and every building in the downtown area was expected to comply.

In the end it is impossible to argue that this civic cultural appropriation didn’t work. The town of just over 2,000 residents has over 50 restaurants, hundreds of shops and is host to over 2 million tourists every year. It also served as an example for other towns that would undertake a similar thematic transformation like Kimberly, British Columbia (another Bavarian village) and Winthrop, Washington (a cowboy themed outpost). There were certainly factors beyond just the Bavarian theme that helped the town grow into the destination that it is today: it is only a few hours drive from the populated and affluent Seattle metro area; it has access to some of the state’s best outdoor activities like skiing, climbing, and mountain biking; it is home to a number of festivals and events throughout the year such as its Christmas light festival that last from December to May. But you could argue that the town would not have been able to benefit from all of these other factors had it not been for its thematic metamorphosis.

Not all towns can or should go all-in on a theme like Leavenworth has, but there are some important lessons to learn from the success of it and others that have. The first is that, just like any product, cities and towns have brands. Urban policy consultant, researcher, and writer Aaron Renn once gave a presentation at a Propmodo event on how towns should be better at marketing themselves. “The imagery that cities create about themselves is always so similar,” Aaron said. “They show pictures of the hip creative class, some startups, something about the local fashion and food scene, some people on bicycles going through the center of the city. I love all of these things and I would argue that you have to have them in order to make a city competitive in today’s marketplace. But they are not things that set a city apart.”

This conformity comes in sharp contrast to what has worked in the larger marketing world. “I have always been struck by how, while every company tries to convince you of how different it is than every other brand, every city tries to convince you that it is exactly the same as every other city that is conventionally cool,” Renn explained. Themed cities are not and have never been conventionally cool. But they do carve out a special place in our minds as “that German town” and that has a value in-and-of itself. 

The pushback against themed towns by locals is often due to its overbearing ordinances. By one builder’s estimate, every new building in Leavenworth costs about twenty percent more thanks to the adornments necessary for it to pass the design review. Those extra costs can certainly be a drag on development but at least the town and the town council is working with a unified vision, unlike most other places in the country that have competing factions all with their own dream for what a town should be. 

It might seem like it was the theme itself that saved the town but really the secret ingredient was activism. By convincing the locals to spend time, energy, and effort making a town that catered to tourism with its look, amenities, and programming, two men were able to save Leavenworth from the fate of so many other forgettable former mill towns. So, next time you drive by a town like Leavenworth, Washington or Solvang, California (Dutch) or Vulcan, Alberta (Star Trek), rather than think about how ridiculous it is to have an entire town designed to look like something that it is not, remember the value that the town has created by the fact that you are thinking about it at all.

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