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Take Note: Brad Groznik on a State College marketing campaign to bring Penn State graduates back

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Brad Groznik is one of the creators of the Rediscover State College marketing campaign.

For this episode of Take Note, we talked with Brad Groznik. Groznik lives in State College and says he knows there are some negative perceptions of the town: There's nothing to do in State College if you aren't a Penn State student. Housing is too expensive. There aren't enough good paying jobs. Not enough diversity. Too many high rises. And the restaurants are bad.

Groznik is an assistant teaching professor in the engineering entrepreneurship program at Penn State and the owner of Groznik PR. He says he's hoping to help change those perceptions about State College with the Rediscover State College marketing campaign. And he's found there a lot of things people already like about the town, too.

Here's that conversation:

Brad Groznik 

Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Emily Reddy 

So, did I get you riled up with that introduction?

Brad Groznik 

Yeah, absolutely. I hear those, I hear those perceptions all the time.

Emily Reddy 

So these perceptions come from participants in a survey you did to help create the Rediscover State College marketing campaign for the State College Borough, and State College Redevelopment Authority. One of the goals of the marketing campaign is to get people to move to State College. And I should add that you ask people what they like about State College in the survey as well. And there's a lot, and we'll talk about that too. But first, how did you come up with that idea to do this survey?

Brad Groznik 

Well, I think the whole thing started about November of 2020. There were a lot of stories coming out in the media, NPR in particular, about a lot of these people fleeing these big cities for higher quality of life. Like people in New York City that were in their studio apartments and working from home and thinking to themselves, "I got to get out of here," like, "I can't work like this, you know, if this is how life is going to be like during this pandemic." And they would move to a place outside of the city and find a lot of luxury and find that they might actually like it better. So you saw towns like Burlington, Vermont, Tulsa, Oklahoma, a number of these towns kind of tried to draw these remote tech workers to their area by offering a higher quality of life. So there was all these stories kind of floating out, and there's this idea that everybody was kind of going to flee the cities. And I think a lot of people in State College, a lot of people in the borough, were saying, "Hey, you know what, State College is a pretty great place to live. Maybe maybe people would want to move here." So the Redevelopment Authority brought me in to kind of discuss that question. And say, "Brad, you know, we're seeing a lot of these stories out there, like, what is State College doing? What are we doing to attract these people?" And my thought to back to them was, you know, I'm not exactly sure. I think I would want to do three things: I would want to collect and see what kind of marketing we are putting out to people outside the area in terms of getting people to come move here. I would want to do a survey to see if people actually want to come back here. And then the third thing is I'd want to test all those assumptions with a small marketing campaign. So that's kind of how it started in November 2020.

Emily Reddy 

Who did you target with this survey? And why did you choose those groups?

Brad Groznik 

Yeah, so we had to make a few big assumptions in terms of who we were going to target for this survey. Number one, because we couldn't do just a national survey -- that would cost a lot of money and is well out of my capabilities. So what I think we decided to do is take a few assumptions. So the first assumption that we made was, we were going to target people who had a connection to State College already. So we targeted people who were Penn State alumni, or State High alumni, or people that formerly lived in Centre County. So if they're one of those three, and moved away, they're part of our survey. And the reason we made that assumption was we just we didn't think we were going to register on people's radar if they'd never heard of, State College. If it was somebody living in DC area that wanted to move away to a small cool town, you know, they were gonna focus probably on like, the Chattanoogas or the Ashevilles or the Burlingtons. You know, these towns that have really been putting a lot of marketing dollars behind their town for decades. And so we weren't on that level. We didn't think we were on that level. So we didn't want to kind of play that game and get a whole bunch of data that wasn't really useful. So we wanted to target people, the low hanging fruit, the people that we thought were most persuadable to move back to see College. The second big demographic that we chose were people between the ages of 25 and 45. And really, we chose that demographic because of the remote working kind of assumption. That these were the the people at a point in their careers that would have that flexibility to move and to work remotely. We also thought that that demographic, if they came here and loved it, they have a longer timespan to live here. So I think there's an argument to be made that you could do this same survey with empty nesters and with retirees.

Emily Reddy  

So what's the idea. Why do we want these people to move to State College?

Brad Groznik 

I think that's a fantastic question. I can give you my opinion. I think a lot of people would have different kinds of views of of that question. And it's something that I would really love to discuss and you know, hear from some of your listeners about what they believe too. I'll say that from the borough's perspective, what they've told me is, you know, they feel that a more diverse town in terms of people, ages, what they do for work, is going to make a stronger economy. And as we all know, I mean, we all love Penn State. I went to Penn State, I work at Penn State. But it dominates our local economy. And because of that, it's less diverse. And you know, if things go bad with the university, it's going to be tough for the whole town. So I think from a government perspective, they're really interested in diversifying the economy. From a personal level, you know, I would love to just see more young professionals here grow and thrive. I moved back here after... so I went to Penn State. Graduated, went to New York City, came back seven years later. Got married to a townie. And we rediscovered State College in our 30s. And that's kind of where the insight for the name of this came from. It was actually an insight that a local creative came up with. We worked with Regina Starace, who's wonderful. And she kind of zeroed in on this, you know, like, the way everybody talks about coming back to State College, it's like this rediscovering process. It's this amazing place to come to as a college student. And then you leave. And then those that come back, come back and say, "Wow, you know what, there's so much here that I didn't realize." You know, because we're only just focused on, you know, College Avenue and things like that when we're students and going into class. But as somebody that was ready to settle down and start a family, we have a daughter now, it is the most wonderful place in the country, as far as I'm concerned, to live. So I kind of have an ambition or like a desire to kind of showcase that for other people like me, who are kind of stuck in the cities, want to leave, but don't know where to go. Or are worried that if they come to a small town, it's not gonna be a fit for them. So that's my motivation.

Emily Reddy 

Talk about those survey responses. When you asked, what did people say made this area special?

Brad Groznik 

Right. So we put that question out there. And one of the... it was a multiple choice question. So we narrowed it down to probably like about eight different options. One of the options in there was, "It's the home of Penn State." And we kind of put that in there as a control because we assumed that would be the number one reason people love this town. You know, it's where they went to schools. It's where the number one college football team plays, stuff like that. And that actually didn't make number one. So that was fascinating to us. The number one reason why people loved this area and would consider moving back here was its walkability. And they saw the town as walkable and bikable. And that's something that they really loved about this town. And it's something that like, when I say that out loud, it's like, "Yeah, no, duh." But I think it's something we all take advantage of. I myself take it for granted all the time. And having seen that and realize, wow, yeah, when I wasn't living in a place that was kind of walkable, you miss it so much. You've got to drive everywhere, and everything is a parking lot. And everything is, you know, suburban, and 20 minutes, 30 minutes away. And then... but like my day to day in downtown State College, and you know, working, you know, teaching at the university and stuff like that is it's just so awesome. It's all on foot the entire time. So that was the number one reason why people really love the town. So number two is that it's home to Penn State University. Again, we use that kind of as a control. We knew that would be one of the top reasons but we were really curious what was three and four. Right. And so number three and number four, I actually like lumped together. Because it's, "it's a great place to raise a family" and it's "top quality K through 12 schools." So to me, both of those together, they kind of say the same thing. It's just an amazing place to raise a family. It's one of the best places to raise a family, as far as a lot of people are concerned and especially our survey respondents. And then the fifth one. So if we're talking about the top three reasons why people move back here, if you don't include Penn State, was "the access to nature." And also that it's so close. So I think what really resonates with people is that you know, in your lunch break, you can be in 10 minutes you can be out in the woods if you want to or like you can go for a walking meeting, you know, out in Shingletown and that's just 15 minute drive away.

Emily Reddy 

So how many of the respondents said that they were interested in moving back?

Brad Groznik 

Yeah, because honestly, that was the whole reason why we're doing this survey. I mean, people who live here we know the walkability is amazing. And we know it's a great place to raise a family. And we know we have great outdoor recreation. We want to know if people would actually consider moving here. And that was the question that I think the Redevelopment Authority was particularly interested in. So we did a survey of, um, 420 people ended up filling out our survey. To be statistically relevant, we needed 95 people. And I worked with a data scientist, a local, you know, data scientist on this. He worked at many tab and now has his own consultancy. Because we wanted to make sure we had the numbers down. So we needed 95 people to fill it out. We had 420. So we were happy with that data. And what we found was, one in five people said that they were "likely" to move back to State College in the next five years, or "would consider" moving back to State College in the next five years. And if you extrapolate that out, like however many Penn State graduates and State High graduates and former Centre County people between the ages of 25 and 45, that one in five represents 17,000 people, plus their families. So what we came back to the RDA and said was, there is a universe of about 40,000-50,000 people that are interested in moving back to State College. And currently, we're not doing any targeted marketing to them. We're not talking to them. We're not starting to relationship with them. We're not telling them how great it is to live here. We're not trying to persuade them or anything. And our argument was like, if we do a campaign, and we get one, or 2%, which sounds low, that represents like, you know, almost 800 people to move to this town, and that would change things. So we were really confident that if we went out and started talking to these people, we would see a lot of results.

Emily Reddy 

So we talked about what what people like about the area. You know, what did they say? Were the reasons that were keeping them from moving back?

Brad Groznik 

Yeah, so... we had a question in there about what was preventing people to move back. And it was a multiple choice question. And some of the things that we left out of that question were things like affordable housing and lack of jobs and diversity, things that we know are issues here. And we were kind of interested in what was kind of below that. That said there was an "other" column and a lot of people filled in affordable housing and diversity and lack of jobs. And so but overall, we were really interested in seeing what else people... what other perceptions people had about this town. What was preventing them from coming back. The top were restaurants targeting the 25 and older crowd. So the perception is all our restaurants are kind of pizza shops, and wing shops and stuff. But people haven't even heard the stories of the new high end restaurants or cool restaurants that are coming to town, like the Allen Street Grill, or Pine Grove Hall, or Axemann Brewery or the Gamble Mill. Like there's all these really cool restaurants. And there's actually like a really cool scene here. Again, that like the people, if you're outside this area, you don't you don't hear about that's happening. So that was kind of a big indication to us that like people are carrying around perceptions of this town that aren't necessarily true. They also asked for more outdoor programming and a startup business incubator. Again, a startup business incubator, we have one of the best in the state with with Happy Valley Launch Box, which is free to the community. Anyone can come in and talk to experts and lawyers about starting a business. So those are other these kinds of perceptions that we started to test and say, oh, you know what, like, some of these things are issues that we need to confront as a community. And then some of these are perceptions that I think we need to argue against.

Emily Reddy 

How many people have you heard from? You've put out some Instagram ads, [and they've] like clicked on it, filled out the form, said, you know, "Tell me about moving back?" And what do you do with them? How do you help them do that?

Brad Groznik 

Great question. So after collecting all this survey data, we put together a one page website -- just kind of like a landing page, started an Instagram account, and put out some Instagram ads. And the idea is, we wanted to test our messaging and test whether or not we could find these people online. If they would click our Instagram ads, go to our website. And then on our website, we said "Hey, you want to move to town? Fill out this form." I think is a big jump to see an ad on Instagram and to fill out a form saying, "Yeah, I want to move to town." But we ran the campaign for one month. We ended up getting nearly 500 hits to our website. And three people filled out that form. And two of them actually moved to town. Now we really can't take credit for those people because I think they were like ready to move to town. But they reached out and what we found was there is this need in our community for that, like, help us move to your town kind of service. And so what do we do with those people in town? We really just did our best to help them out like friends. And I think that's the kind of what we want to offer is, you know, anybody that wants to move to town, they can reach out to us. And we'll help them find movers. We'll help them find a place to rent. We want to explore what all those kinds of barriers are to have people move here and try to smooth that out. And over time, we hope to like make the process a little bit more systematized. But I think every move is a little bit different. So we're still trying to figure out where we can help the best and what resources already exist in the community and things like that.

Emily Reddy  

You mentioned that some of those conceptions that people have of State College are actually true. Lack of diversity, State College is 80% white. The area around State College is even whiter. What can be done about that? I mean, what, what do you do about those categories?

Brad Groznik 

I don't know. I felt really optimistic going into this. Like, "Oh, I'll just figure it out." There's probably just a puzzle piece missing. And I'll help click it into place or something like this. But over time, I've had a lot of conversations. And these are complex kind of economic development issues that require a whole lot of things to kind of fall in place and change in order to, to alleviate or to change. My big takeaway from from doing all that and hearing that, is that I think we just need to start having these conversations in a more public way. And invite the community into these kinds of conversations. And listen and try and experiment with things. I think there's this tendency to... exactly how I approached the problem, "Oh, I just need to find what that thing is, and then change it and fix it and stuff like that." And what I really think, it's more of this just messy evolution of getting better and better and better over time. And right now, I think having conversations about diversity and how to diversify, not just race, but also like the economic base, and also the housing mix, and all kinds of stuff, are conversations that are being had, you know, in, in places around town. But not but not in like a big, big way. So I think if we start having these conversations and coming together as a community behind it, we can start to make some progress.

Emily Reddy 

If you're just joining us, you're listening to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Emily Reddy. We're talking with Brad Groznik, the owner of Grozni PR, and one of the creators of the Rediscover State College marketing campaign. You've been doing some rabble rousing recently. You've been writing OpEds on StateCollege.com. And a recent one had the headline, "Why downtown State College needs more chain stores." I don't want to speak for everyone, but I'm not a huge fan of chain stores. But your OpEd isn't really about the chains. What is the idea here?

Brad Groznik 

Well, it really goes back to the insight that I got about how we need to start having these conversations. And so my thought as a communication strategist is like how do we get the community to have these kinds of conversations? And so fortunately, or unfortunately, provocative headlines, get those things kick started. Over the last year, I've had a lot of conversations about the vacancies downtown, in particular the vacancies that are underneath these big high rises. They've been there for a year or more for some of them. And the question is what like, "Why has anyone moved into there?" And what I learned was that it takes an extraordinary amount of money to convert one of those spaces into a store. And the way it exists now is just a big concrete box. And you have to put up drywall, you have to put in electrical, you have to put in bathrooms you have to put in... and on and on and on. And that really comes down on the tenants of the building, because the owners of the buildings want it to be whatever the tenants want it to be. So if they turn it into a restaurant, then they can only like attract restaurants and stuff. So I think their incentive is to say, it can be anything you want. I just gotta find the person that wants to convert it into anything you want. My wife and I watch HGTV and you get these like big dreams of like, "Oh, I'm gonna convert this thing into like this, like, cool, you know, custom deli." Or something like that. It takes an extraordinary amount of money to do that. And to just transform it from this concrete kind of box into this restaurant or store. And then you have to add in refrigerators and food and inventory and all that kind of stuff. And my argument is, businesses with with money to do that are national chains. And so I just wanted to kind of crack the veneer that having a national chain downtown can be a good thing, because they could come in and they could convert these places into usable retail stores. And then if they leave, it can be a benefit because they leave and now someone local can go in with a much lower investment in creating their dream into whatever that space is.

Emily Reddy 

And you said that that OpEd got some businesses to sit down and talk.

Brad Groznik 

Right, so one of the outcomes of that was it roused up some of the business owners downtown to say, "hey, like, I don't think our strategy should be to go out and get national chains and that should be only strategy...."

Emily Reddy 

They didn't like it.

Brad Groznik 

"...I have an opinion on this. And, you know, Brad doesn't know what he's talking about. And I have... there's other opinions out there." And so what the borough did was they actually had a meeting with 11 downtown businesses about, you know, what their thoughts were with these vacancies. And so from my perspective, like, the OpEd did a service in terms of getting people to talk about it. getting people to the table. And that was the ultimate goal.

Brad Groznik 

Now, another OpEd you wrote is titled, "How can we fix March and April?" Bad weather is another reason people gave for not wanting to move to State College. Of course, we can't actually change the weather. This is more of a plan to make those long winter months more bearable. How do you propose doing that? Yeah, so my first thing is, I would push back that the weather here is terrible. I think State College has the best weather in the country from May until February. Because right now, May, June are the most beautiful spring months. July, August and September are perfect summer months. Not too hot. Perfect for the pool. October, November, bring a fall that like everyone loves. It's the most beautiful fall ever. And then December, January and February are like perfect winter months. It's snowy. You can go snowboarding. It's perfect for the holidays. It's March and April that are just brutal. And every year it gets me. Every year I'm just like, "OK, here they come. March and April. I'm gonna get through it this year. I'm not gonna get irritated. But even this year, it hit me particularly bad. Because the week after spring break, there were three days and in the 60s. And it was just beautiful. And I was excited. And then it was just another month of winter. And there was actually a big snowstorm on April 18. It was just like so far into April, it just seemed unfair.

Emily Reddy 

Yeah.

Brad Groznik 

And so I kind of was just like, we got to change this. And obviously, you can't change the weather. So how do we reframe March and April into these months that we look forward to as a community. And so part of my argument was like, you know, instead of having all these holiday parties right before Christmas, when we're all so busy trying to buy presents and prepare for the holidays and get our work wrapped up for the year and things like that, you know, some of these parties can be March April parties. And maybe they're like pre-Spring parties or something like that. And we did this with a group that I'm part of, CPsquared. That's Central Pennsylvania Creative Professionals. And we had this holiday party and we kind of got like so-so kind of people showing up to it. And then we were just like, how about we have a post holiday party? And we moved the party to mid-January. And everyone came, and it was so much fun. And we all just like had so much off our shoulders at that point. And we're just like, "Oh, this is what we need to do." So my argument was like, we can have some of those parties in March and April. And then the other thing is, you know, there are things that are happening March and April that are still under the radar. I bring up in the OpEd, about Elk Creek's Day of Delicious Darkness. And every April they have this day where they tap a bunch of kegs of bourbon age dark beer. And it's this event that has a line around the corner. And it's just this really cool, like, unique event, that yeah, it's popular, but everybody doesn't know about it. There's things like that all over town that I think we could all promote. And then the big one that I thought was, you know, why don't we have just like a big music festival or a South by Southwest, you know, during that time of year. And you might say, well, when you think of that you might think of an outdoor kind of event. But it doesn't have to be. What makes State College great is we have this walkable downtown. And we could have events and all the things downtown and we could kind of just like Bar Hop and go from coffee shop to coffee shop, you know, for these kinds of events. And it's actually set up perfect for an indoor fest.

Emily Reddy 

You actually co-founded Pop Up Avenue with your wife starting back in 2016. It's described on your website as an "urban style flea market." More arty than your typical flea market: jewelry, clothes, gift goods, beer garden, music. Sometimes it's very cold. I've been to a cold one. I mean, is that an answer to something you saw as missing in State College?

Brad Groznik 

Yeah. When we first came back from New York City, we were just networking and talking to a bunch of people downtown. And one of the questions that a lot of people had for us was, you know, what is this town missing? Or what do we what do we not have that, you know, New York City has? Our answer at that time was, you know, I can't believe there's not a "flea." You know, because in the city on the weekends we'd go to Brooklyn Flea or Long Island City Flea. There's just these cool sceney outdoor markets with, you know, DJs, and bands and food trucks and beer gardens and vintage vendors and all kinds of stuff. That seems so cool. And there's 45,000 young people here. And there's a good young professional population here. I feel like it would work here. And you know, what's great about this town is sometimes it's a sandbox. And so people were just like, "OK, well, why don't you start it?" So we kind of said, "OK, fine, we will." And we didn't really understand how big of an undertaking it would be. But it was something that was a lot of fun. And we got so much support from the community that we were just like, "Well, why not?" So we started that, yeah, in 2016. And we do it twice a year. And it seems to be a great event.

Emily Reddy 

And now you have a 3-year-old. You know, how has that changed State College for you?

Brad Groznik 

You know, we have a 3-year-old. It's also been two years of a pandemic.

Emily Reddy 

Yeah.

Brad Groznik 

We see a lot of the beginnings of why people love say they love having kids here. For example, just today we were saying, "Oh, you know, we need to look into summer camps and what stuff to do this summer with her." And so we started Googling. And we found so many amazing things like gymnastics things, and nature things and, you know, music classes and all kinds of stuff happening here. And we're just like, "Oh, wow, this is pretty fantastic." The other thing I would say is we live in Park Forest. And Park Forest is just this magical neighborhood. And we watch kids walk to school, walk home from school. In the summer, we hear "flip flop flip flop," and it's all these kids just walk into the pool. And you just don't see neighborhoods like that exist anymore. It's just like a perfect little world for her to grow up in. So even now, having lived here, you know, seven years. We're still rediscovering like, what makes State College so wonderful.

Emily Reddy 

What is your favorite thing about the area? What would you have ranked top?

Brad Groznik 

So mine I guess it's a little bit nebulous. But it kind of goes back to the sandbox kind of thing. What's amazing here is how you can say you want to do something and people will rally around it and help you achieve it. I did not feel that way about New York City. I felt like you put something out there that you wanted and people would get in your way to stop you or trip you or step over you to get ahead of you and things like... that's just how it felt. Here it doesn't feel like that. People are like, "Oh, you want to start a flea market? Cool, you should talk to so and so." Or like, "I know someone that does sound." "You're looking to like put up a stage during your fest? I know someone that has a food truck." Everyone just kind of rallies around you. So to me it is the people. It's the community. And just how welcoming and supportive they are.

Emily Reddy 

Brad Groznik is the owner of Grosnik PR and one of the creators of the Rediscover State College marketing campaign. You can hear more Take Note interviews at wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Emily Reddy WPSU.

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