Don’t tell Fredericksburg’s business community that the city is in Northern Virginia.

That’s one of many things that Portland, Ore., design firm Hub Ltd. learned Wednesday in the first of eight focus group sessions that it’s holding this week to help it develop a unified brand strategy for the city.

“That’s controversial as a statement when identifying Fredericksburg,” said Susan Spears, president and CEO of the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of us working in the chamber think that is who we are, but there’s a lot of push back on that in actually identifying us in that way.”

Some people even talk about this area as being the fourth emerging region in the eastern part of the commonwealth, along with Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond, she added.

“What are you if not Northern Virginia?” Jennifer Guibord, Hub Ltd.’s director of creative development asked the 24 business owners, city staff members and others seated around tables in the Executive Plaza training room.

She said that when she and the other two Hub staffers there looked at the map, Fredericksburg is located in the northern part of the state.

Matt Small, a web designer for Thriveworks, asked if they meant Northern Virginia or northern Virginia. Northern Virginia is in part of the Washington metropolitan area, he said. It’s the beltway. Fredericksburg doesn’t extend that far, but it’s not really part of Central Virginia, either.

Several participants added that Fredericksburg residents want the city to be distinct from Northern Virginia, and that people chose to live here because it’s not in what someone in the group labeled “that mess.”

Among HUB Ltd.’s goals for the city’s new brand strategy, which should be ready by summer, is for it to stress that the city is a great place to live, work, play and raise a family, said Bryan Brooks, HUB’s strategic project manager. Others include establishing it as an employment epicenter and home to a thriving cultural scene.

Brooks, Guibord and Krista Kinder, HUB’s chief of creative strategy, have been working on the project since the city hired the firm in December. City officials decided to take this step because it hasn’t had a unified brand, and a variety of images have been created over time.

These images 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.

“The number of logos you have now is working against you,” Guibord said.

She said that HUB began its work on the city’s brand project with a “top level” look at what people are saying about the city. It included such findings as the median age of residents, which at 29.5 is younger than in most Virginia localities.

This week’s two-day destination branding kickoff event, Guibord said, is the start of the staff’s “deep dive” into finding out more about Fredericksburg. It will use the information to help create a brand complete with visual identity, messaging strategy and tagline; a brand usage guideline; and such things as business cards, brochures and letterhead.

City Manager Tim Baroody, who took part in the Wednesday morning session, said that the hope is to create synergy with the museums and other attractions in the city so they’re all sending the same message.

Discussions during the morning session covered a range of topics, including how much the city has grown the last few years, its reputation as a place where entrepreneurs start businesses, and the need to provide high-paying jobs so residents don’t have to commute. Several also mentioned the city’s rich history, which is one of its major draws, and its description as a college town because of the presence of the University of Mary Washington.

Participants were also asked to take part in a “fine-tuning” exercise, which asked them to come up with words for what Fredericksburg is and what it is not. They were handed a sheet with some of the words already filled in, including affordable, diverse and metropolitan; and then broke into groups to complete the remaining blanks.

One group grappled how to describe Fredericksburg since it isn’t metropolitan. Charming came up, as did small town. Members settled on “city.”

They also agreed that Fredericksburg is diverse but not racist, although the controversial slave auction block downtown and the large Confederate flag that’s clearly visible in Stafford County along Interstate 95 were both mentioned.

Mike Adams, owner of JON Properties, took issue with the word “affordable.” He said that the prices for residences that he’s building are comparable to those in Northern Virginia, partly because land in the city is so expensive.

Wednesday morning’s session was the first in city’s destination branding kickoff event. There were two more that day. One was for the general public and the other was for churches, community organizations and non-profits.

There were five more sessions on Thursday, Jan. 17. One was for environmental, river, trails and green organizations and others were for community organizations, artists and arts organizations, the City Council and for boards and commissions.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

cjett@freelancestar.com