MARIETTA — Members of a nonprofit marketing and advertising organization for businesses on Marietta Square questioned what the organization’s future should look like at a meeting on Thursday.
The Historic Marietta Square Branding Project, Inc., or Branding Project as it’s known, was formed as a membership nonprofit organization and aimed to bring businesses on the Square together to brand and market themselves under one banner, according to Stephanie Coston, the organization’s director of operations.
The corporation, which organizes the monthly Marietta Square Art Walk, annual Winter Wonderland Marietta Christmas event and Marietta Square Artisan Market, was formed in 2010, according to records from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.
When it came time to pay member dues this year, Marietta Square business owners first wanted to know what they would be getting, said Donna Krueger, former Branding Project board member and owner of dk Gallery at 25 West Park Street. Krueger said Thursday’s meeting addressed some of the Marietta merchants’ concerns, but set nothing in stone for what comes next.
She said the purpose of Thursday’s meeting was for dues-paying members of the organization to address one main question on their mind: “Where is my money going?”
Krueger added that, in 2010, the Marietta Visitors Bureau was not as focused on bringing consumers to the Square as it is today. She said it’s possible the need for the Branding Project should be re-evaluated, but the question that should be asked is “What do the members want?” rather than leaving all decisions up to the director.
“This is a huge ship to steer. Stephanie, I will say, has done an amazing job at making sure everybody’s connected and friendly and gets along. That’s a huge thing,” she said. “It’s just a different time than when we formed. That’s why I think it needs to go back to, “’Why do we exist?’”
Marion Savic, a member who owns The Local Exchange and North Park Gallery, said she had been a dues-paying member at the beginning of the organization’s existence but hadn’t known they were still being collected until recently. Savic said meetings have been few and far between in recent years and so have expectations of payment.
“I think they’ve done a great job at marketing. I just haven’t really been solicited to join the Branding Project,” she said. “I think it’s a great source for people like me for marketing. I just got the feeling that ... it’s hard to get in touch with people, it’s hard to get them to come to meetings and it’s hard to get people to invest and recognize the value.”
What it comes down to, Savic said, is there needs to be more communication between Coston and members, from dues collection to the organization’s financial status.
“I know a couple people who may be more interested (in the Branding Project) if they knew where the money was being spent,” she said. “I think it would be easy for the accountant to publish a single-page document.”
Other Marietta Square business owners agreed, voicing their frustration at the meeting with the lack of clarity and transparency they said the organization has provided in recent years. Though they said they believe the nonprofit provides a valuable service to the businesses on the Square, they also said more control should be given to members. The merchants said they also wanted to be sure they could see the organization’s cash flow.
As a 501©(6), Coston said, the Branding Project is not obligated to share its financials with the public or media, but dues-paying members need only ask the nonprofit’s pro bono accountant to provide them with the books to view them.
Coston, who is the sole paid member of the Branding Project, took over as director three years ago. Since then, she said she has focused much of her energy on uniting businesses on the Square and putting on events that will bring people to the Square. But, she added, those events and the operating costs of running the organization — including the purchase of liability insurance — soak up most of the available annual funds.
Coston, whose contract with the organization pays her $3,200 per month, conceded that she had not been steadfast in collecting dues in recent years, but added there isn’t much money to be had even if all current members paid consistently. The Winter Wonderland event, Coston said, eats up the largest portion of the organization’s annual funds, even with an $11,000 annual contribution from the city of Marietta and a $20,000 contribution from the Downtown Marietta Development Authority. Any other available money is used on advertising that the organization can afford, Coston said.
The Branding Project averages about 35 paying members each year, and members pay between $100 and $200 a year, she said. Service providers and galleries pay $100 and retail and restaurants pay $200. The dues include the members’ participation in the monthly Marietta Square Art Walk.
Membership brings with it access to advertisements on one monthly digital billboard in different locations around the county for $1,000 per month, split between four merchants; inclusion on miscellaneous marketing materials, like the “few thousand” Art Walk booklets distributed every year and a map of businesses on the Square; and the right to have a business featured on the Branding Project Facebook and Instagram.
“This year, I feel like ... I have put a lot of information out there about what they do get and the value, and I feel like the value is there,” Coston said. “We need to get back to the core.”
Coston said her job as director of operations is to bring people to the Square by advertising the member businesses and their offerings. She said each year around the time dues are to be collected, members tend to talk about what could be tweaked and improved, and it seems that is happening again. As far as what needs to change right now, Coston said there simply needs to be more participation.
“I do feel like what I do ... is working really well, but I do agree there is all kinds of room for doing all kinds of great other things,” she said. “What we need is some people who are going to head committees and move besides me.”