F.C. Not Welcoming as Locals Think, Nearby Neighbors Say

Many citizens of the City of Falls Church may think of their community as a warm, welcoming place, but that perception is not held by those who live just outside its borders.

Such are the findings based on surveys, interviews and focus group discussions led by the Falls Church Smith-Gifford marketing firm, which has been retained by the City’s Economic Development office to engage in a major “branding” effort for the City.

While the “branding” process is not yet complete, involving voluntary input in a series of meetings with a number of Falls Church citizen activists, so far the data collection has produced what Smith-Gifford’s Amanda Hurt called at least one “big ‘aha!’ moment.” So she told the News-Press in an interview last week.

The big insight is the finding that there are “huge differences,” she said, between how City residents view Falls Church, and how non-residents who live nearby see it. City residents, she said, think of their burg as “warm, welcoming, all-inclusive.” But non-residents have a “pretty negative” view of the City, based on its “exclusiveness” and seeming indifference to outsiders.

“It’s seen as not inviting,” she said in comments to the News-Press this week. “There is not any welcoming signage, as one example, telling people where they can park.” She noted, as another example, that small signs promoting the Tinner Hill Blues Festival indicated its location as Cherry Hill Park, “but for anyone who doesn’t live in Falls Church, they don’t have any idea where Cherry Hill Park is located.”

She also pointed to comments by non-residents about the City’s signs marking its borders. “They all just say, ‘City of Falls Church,’ not, ‘Welcome to the City of Falls Church,'” she said.

“Non-residents look at the City as a non-welcoming pass-through, and presume that’s how the City wants it,” she said.

This “reality check” will go into the recommendations that Smith-Gifford and the Falls Church citizens working with the firm will craft to more effectively “brand” the City to attract more interest and business.

The Falls Church effort has also drawn from similar work done in Arlington and Alexandria, where economic development offices have issued working papers ranking their communities using the criteria of Richard Florida’s famous work on the “Rise of the Creative Class.”

The “creative class,” as Florida defines it, is composed of younger, educated scientists, engineers, technology, computer-savvy, creative and artistic types who are becoming the most powerful demographic force in America.

From the notion, Florida developed a “creativity index” as a guide to measure how well any community is opening itself up to the future. The index, as evaluated in an article published by the Arlington Economic Development Authority, is based on four factors:

1. The magnitude of the “creative class” as a share of the overall work force,

2. The level of innovation, as measured by patent activity,

3. The magnitude of high technology as a share of the economic base,

4. The level of diversity, based on indexes related to sexual orientation, bohemianism (counter culture or cutting-edge arts and culture), and foreign-born population.

Arlington, in its study, modified this to include the proportion of the population aged 25-34, the percentage with bachelor’s degrees or higher, the percentage moving within five years, measuring mobility, and the percentage of renters spending less than 35 percent of their income for housing costs, measuring relative housing affordability.

Falls Church tends to fall short, compared to its neighbors, on these factors primarily in two areas, Hart said: the population tends to be older, and there is less racial and ethnic diversity.

In addition to Hart, Smith-Gifford’s Matt Smith and Barbara Paris are also engaged in the Falls Church “branding” study.