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Brand New: Future Ozarks Foundry looks to build regional identity

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These days, a lot of people and organizations are having similar discussions, according to Marcus Aton.

Aton, owner of Aton Development LLC and a founding board member of Better Block SGF, said the conversation he’s picking up on is about regionalism, and that’s also the focus of Future Ozarks Foundry, a work group he has convened to look more closely at how the principle could work in southwest Missouri.

Often, a regionalism conversation centers on the successes found in northwest Arkansas, a corridor building an image around the natural beauty of the Ozarks, a vibrant arts culture and a labyrinthine network of mountain bike trails.

Aton said he looks at northwest Arkansas and sees a smaller population and an area that at one time didn’t offer much.

“They’ve really become this big economic, cultural driver for that whole corner of the state,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people who look at that and ask, couldn’t we do something like that in southwest Missouri?”

Aton said he believes southwest Missouri has better bones than its neighboring region to the south.

“There’s a lot more to build on here,” he said. “I feel like with a little bit less effort than northwest Arkansas had to put into their initiatives, we could be just as good, if not better.”

Branding focus
The Future Ozarks Foundry is interested in creating an image for the region, Aton said – branding, in other words.

Aton and his fellow group members – about 45 turned out for a presentation and discussion in early January – are dedicated to promoting southwest Missouri regionalism.

If that sounds like a story that’s been told before, it has. Springfield Business Journal reported in January on another effort to foster collaboration and a regional identity in the form of a new nonprofit to be led by business executives in the region.

Dean Thompson, executive director of regionalism and economic development for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, is pulling together area CEOs to head up the nonprofit, which plans to focus on workforce, quality of life and branding. The effort grew out of a Community Leadership Visit to northwest Arkansas, including the cities of Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale, where a similar organization has created a brand around progress and outdoor opportunities.

It’s a model he said many Springfieldians left feeling enthusiastic about.

“There are a lot of people working in the branding space,” Thompson said in a recent interview. “I would say instead of branding, the question is what’s our image? What’s our vibe? That means different things to different people.”

In addition to pinpointing an identity, a focus must be on fixing problems, according to Thompson.

“Where are our gaps, and how are we going to chip away at them and conquer them?” he said.

For the Foundry, the initial idea was to form a nonprofit, Aton said, but after receiving advice from experts at the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, they have chosen to organize as a limited liability company instead and find nonprofit partners to fundraise for.

“This year, at least, we’re going to stick with the grassroots movement and work on having an annual summit, plus bimonthly meetings around the region,” Aton said.

More than a logo
Dustin Myers, a founder of Springfield branding agency Longitude Design, is active in the Future Ozarks Foundry. Longitude has created a logo for the effort. It depicts gently curved mountains with a sun rising over them and a river flowing past. The logo is labeled simply with “The Ozarks,” though another version takes a stab at a tagline the group is pondering, “Heart of the USA.” The font and the colors are reminiscent of midcentury logos of the National Park Service.

While a logo and a slogan are branding considerations, Myers made it clear that branding is a much larger concept.

“When we describe branding, your brand is really your reputation – not a logo or a marketing message,” he said. “We want to show people the best of what it is to be in the Ozarks.”

Through developer group Flyover Developments LLC, Myers and his business partner, Jeremy Wells, are co-owners of The Ozarker Lodge, a 102-room restored Branson hotel that opened last summer and in October was named Best Independent Hotel by the hospitality industry organization Independent Lodging Congress.

“That’s kind of the vision with the Ozarker Lodge,” he said. “Let’s take a property and just try to celebrate the best that this area has to offer – do something at a higher-quality level than what we sometimes see.”

The property is on the site of the former Fall Creek Inn and Suites, but it has been revamped into a more elegant destination with upscale rooms, a wine bar and an outdoor gathering space where guests can enjoy food trucks and concerts from the pool.

The idea is to take a bit of classic Ozarkiana and infuse it with a contemporary spirit.

Myers said the region is full of talent, natural beauty and innovative businesses.

“As a region, really the Midwest in particular is known as flyover country,” he said. “I think that one of the ways we can help retain talent as well as just draw good people to the area is to create an awareness of who we are.”

It’s something Longitude does regularly with its customers, he said.

“When we do that with clients, it’s important to identify what makes us special, and then be able to communicate that in a unified voice,” he said.

Aton said that’s the key objective of the Foundry.

“We have to be able to declare an identity,” he said. “Some places can very obviously hang their identification on something – even just a sports team. In a midsized city, it’s not always super clear, the thing you can identify with or connect to. You have to choose it, the way Bentonville just chose that they were going to be the world capital of mountain biking. We can do that – we can choose a better future for ourselves.”

In addition to Aton and Myers, the Foundry’s leadership team includes Tyler Head of business coaching service Dryve Leadership, Layne Hunton of Throughline Architecture LLC, Wells of Longitude and Doug Austin of ad agency consultant Austin Amplifies.

Stepping up
While Aton said he has seen a groundswell of energy around embracing an identity, no one has stepped forward yet to take that step, and that’s where the Foundry comes in.

“If we’re starting at a place that’s fine or acceptable – maybe in some places good – it doesn’t take a lot of effort to improve upon that,” he said. “Where you live, whether you like it or not, is part of your identity. We want to try to lift that up and elevate that perception.

“We want to give ourselves permission to be proud to be from the Ozarks.”

Myers said he would love to see others in the region take hold of the energy that is coming together through the Future Ozarks Foundry, private enterprise and other initiatives.

“We’re excited that other people are seeing the need for this and getting involved,” he said. “We’re just so excited to see where it goes.”

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