Sammy T's mural (copy)

A mural painted by Sophia Constantine and Bill Harris graces the side of Sammy T’s in downtown Fredericksburg.

Fredericksburg has a complicated identity.

It lies below the Mason–Dixon line, but above the so-called Sweet Tea line. It’s officially part of the Washington metropolitan area, but doesn’t particularly like to think of itself as part of Northern Virginia.

And it’s where Wegmans, a Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain, meets Publix, which calls Lakeland, Fla., home.

“There really is this epicenter feel,” Jennifer Guibord, HUB Ltd.’s director of creative development, said Thursday at the first of two sessions focusing on the design firm’s progress toward creating a unified brand identity for the city. “You are in the center of a lot of different things.”

HUB Collective, which is based in a Portland, Ore., has been working since December on the branding project. It first looked at what people were saying about Fredericksburg, and then Guibord and Bryan Brooks, HUB’s strategic project manager, visited the city in January to hold 90-minute focus group sessions to get perspectives from various people in the community.

City officials decided that Fredericksburg needed an official brand because it uses a variety of images that have been created over the years. They range from the city’s official seal, which features two feathers from the badge of the Prince of Wales to memorialize Prince Frederick, for whom the City of Fredericksburg was named; to a stylized silhouette of the downtown skyline that’s the Department of Economic Development and Tourism’s logo.

Guibord and Brooks said that they found wide agreement during the group sessions that Fredericksburg is charming; full of welcoming, engaged people; diverse yet segmented; and has lots of potential. But opinions were divided on several important topics, including the role the city’s rich history should play in the brand narrative, the role the Rappahannock River should play and whether Fredericksburg is part of Northern Virginia.

“Is Fredericksburg part of Northern Virginia? Some said we absolutely are not. That’s manufactured suburbia,” Brooks said. “Others said that we’re becoming that.”

He said that he and Guibord also found that what people think of Fredericksburg shifts according to the topic. If they’re discussing the city’s history and vibrancy, they’re talking about downtown. If the conversation is about diversity and amenities, then they mean the rest of the city. And, if the subject is economic opportunity, then they mean the whole Fredericksburg region.

“People are using Fredericksburg interchangeably for all that,” Brooks said.

Still, one idea that kept cropping up was the notion that Fredericksburg is real and authentic, especially in contrast to cookie-cutter communities to the north. And while it has 300 years of history, it is looking toward the future, he said.

“Are we missing anything?” Brooks asked the 21 people attending the session at the Mayfield Civic Association Community Building.

The Rev. Hashmel Turner said that the recent controversy over the slave auction block downtown has raised awareness of the city’s black history, and he wants to make sure it is included in the branding effort. Asked for an example, he pointed out that 10,000 slaves crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg to find freedom in Stafford County during the Civil War.

Sue Henderson, who is a member of the Fredericksburg Arts Commission, said that the art community is another group that feels that it isn’t getting enough attention.

“There’s a great diversity of things happening,” she said. “We want to make sure it’s included.”

Fredericksburg chef and restaurant owner Joy Crump wanted to know if HUB Collective is focusing on what makes Fredericksburg unique or the same as everyone else. Guibord said that there are two approaches that a branding process can take. One is to highlight how a locality is competitive with other localities, and the other is how it’s different from the rest. She said that they’re focusing on what differentiates Fredericksburg.

“You have a downtown. The surrounding counties don’t have a walkable downtown,” Guibord said. “Your history is a differentiator.”

Brooks said that they’ve looked at other cities to see if they’re leaning into their history or pushing it away. Charleston, he said, is emphasizing its Old South charm, while Providence, R.I., which went through a period where it had a reputation for mobsters, is taking a fresh, forward-looking approach.

“We’re trying to take a balanced approach,” he said. “We haven’t narrowed it down. We want to find the right balance so it’s not Williamsburg, or that Fredericksburg was established yesterday.”

Jan Eckert said that one reason the city wants to brand itself is to help with economic development, and wanted to know if HUB Collective was thinking of how it would position the city to compete regionally, statewide or nationally. She said that there will be a lot of renewed interest in Virginia because of Amazon’s plans to build a headquarters in Northern Virginia.

Guibord said that they have been focused mainly on the region, since most data suggests that people relocate within a 50-mile radius. Brooks added that people decide where to live based on quality of life, not where jobs are located. That, in turn, is causing businesses to locate where their workforce is.

One question that popped up at both the session in Mayfield and the one at the Dorothy Hart Community Center was whether Brooks and Guibord had talked with the city’s youth, since they are its future. They said that only a few had attended the earlier sessions. There were several offers from people willing to arrange meetings with students at James Monroe High School and the University of Mary Washington.

Brooks said that he and Guibord are halfway through the branding process, and expect to finish by the end of July. It will include a logo, font, illustrations and photography to create a cohesive presence for the city.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407 cjett@freelancestar.com