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Mission Improbable: Selling Flint in wake of crisis

LANSING — In Flint, residents and businesses are trying to counter the negative messages brought by lead poisoning with messages of resilience.

Jocelyn Hagerman, the founder of a grassroots social media campaign called #FlintFwd, said she and others felt the city needed something that could show the outside world that Flint is more than just a bad headline.

“There’s just this general consensus that, ‘Why go to Flint? There’s so little going on,’” said Hagerman, of Fenton, who with her husband, Phil, owns several businesses in the region, including a real estate firm and specialty pharmacy Diplomat Pharmacy.

“I don’t want to make light of anything going on,” she said of the lead crisis, which spawned from a decision to switch drinking water sources from Detroit’s Lake Huron water to the Flint River without properly treating the new water source. “(But) if we don’t move away from the negative, we’ll never move to anything positive.”

The campaign started out as Hagerman’s idea, with T-shirts and bumper stickers. She said Ann Arbor-based marketing firm Phire Group agreed to get involved pro bono and teamed with Flint-based Digital Alchemy Films to help produce videos featuring residents and business owners talking about the city.

“We see this as a long-term effort owned by the people of Flint — and we just helped create a platform for it to take place,” said Jim Hume, principal of Phire Group.

The budget, if there was one, was small — maybe $10,000, Hagerman said — and she hasn’t developed any metrics for success, but said she would love the campaign to go national.

Hagerman hopes residents will take ownership of the campaign now by sharing positive stories about the city on the #FlintFwd website and social media channels.

On its website, #FlintFwd describes itself as “a movement inspired by the resilience of the people of Flint.”

That message of resilience is influencing the messaging being done through the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, where business promotion likely will be harder.

Traffic is down at businesses and restaurants, which affects the city’s recent downtown development momentum, said George Wilkinson, a chamber group vice president.

Hotel rates haven’t slid, despite concerns from people about visiting the city, Wilkinson said, which he attributes to large numbers of volunteers who are coming to work in Flint.

The chamber said it is finalizing a contract with a public relations firm to help with its lead counter-messaging.

Wilkinson said the chamber is working to secure local, state and federal resources for business owners, including microloans.

“We’re taking actions to let everyone know that Flint is open for business.”

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