Manassas grapples with identity crisis

A marketing study conducted with help from George Mason University is causing Manassas officials to rethink the way the city sells itself.

The study, based on discussions with nine focus groups assembled during March and April, found that prospective tourists associate Manassas with features outside its city limits.

“We asked them over and over again to describe in less than three words what they thought of Manassas. And over and over again they said the battlefield, the outlets and restaurants on (Va.) 234,” said Debi Sandlin, the city’s economic development manager.

Adlene Ezzekmi, a student in George Mason University’s tourism and event management program, conducted focus groups in nine locations under the guidance of Manassas officials and Russ Brayley, co-director of the university program.

Senior citizens in Centreville, randomly selected residents in New Market and chambers of commerce in communities such as Leesburg and Winchester were among the focus groups assembled.

In all groups, participants again and again used the word “battlefield” when describing Manassas.

“Battlefields are not in the city. But when I tell friends and family out west about Manassas, they say, ‘Oh, that’s where the battlefield is,'” Brayley said.

The study found residents in the region looking favorably on Manassas’ antique shops, restaurants and museums. The city also was not associated as much with the traffic congestion, confusing atmosphere and depressed economy ascribed to surrounding communities.

And yet Manassas was considered to have more identity problems than other area jurisdictions.

Sandlin believes Manassas might want to learn from Fredericksburg, which has a new slogan: “Eighteen blocks of shopping. The rest is history.”

“They found out that in order to get people into their downtown, they had to partner with their outside district,” she said.

By building a bridge to attractions outside the city limits, Manassas might raise awareness about Old Town, the Manassas Museum, Mayfield Fort and other locations, Sandling said.

In contrast to its neighbors, Manassas does have an advantage, according to Councilman J. Steven Randolph.

“There is no city in Dale City. And there is no mayor of Woodbridge. It’s a bunch of shopping malls. There is no sense of place,” he said.

Vice Mayor Harry “Hal” Parrish Jr. said the marketing study has proved to be an eye opener.

“We definitely have our challenge in front of us. So how do we move forward and market these things?” he said.

City officials will have more food for thought early next year when the city releases a marketing study involving Old Town Manassas. Silver Spring, Md.-based Hammer, Siler, George & Associates has been contracted to conduct the study.

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