There was a time when it was enough to be the perfect ZIP code for retirees looking for an affordable mobile home park with a clubhouse and other friendly northerners to claim that dreamt-about retirement in the sun.
After all, for decades Florida thrived financially on its status as a retirement haven and sleepy little Zephyrhills in east Pasco County seemed happy to be known as just that.
But those days aren’t these days. Zephyrhills has seen its character changed by the growing Hillsborough communities to the south creating interest among those seeking more affordable housing and less congestion. The city is looking to reshape its identity.
While the water-bottling operation that bears its name still operates and skydivers still come from all over the world to enjoy Sky Dive City, new things are happening.
In the latest census, Zephyrhills nudged out New Port Richey as Pasco’s largest city. Around the same time, it opened the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center. City leaders snagged significant state funding for a new National Guard Armory and municipal airport investments. Barely a City Council meeting goes by without a new expansion of city borders and approval of new residential development.
Suddenly, Zephyrhills isn’t grandma’s Zephyrhills anymore. So the city is looking to rebrand in a way that says as much.
In the spring, City Council members voted to hire a branding company to provide a logo and a plan for prosperity. They chose North Star Place Branding, which has done work in numerous communities, including branding Lodi, California, as “Behind the Wine,” Gallatin, Tennessee, as “True Grit. Amazing Grace,” and Osceola County as “Be first to what’s next.”
The branding company has spent the last several months getting to know the people of Zephyrhills and what makes the community distinct. On-site visits, a community survey and now a wider survey to gather information about how people outside the city perceive it have been part of the consultant’s research.
Their bottom-line job, said Zephyrhills public information officer Kevin Weiss, has been “to discover the city’s DNA.”
Keep up with all things Pasco County
Subscribe to our free Pasco Times newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“We’ve always been known as a retirement community, for our sky diving and as Zephyrhills, the ‘City of Pure Water,” said City Manager Billy Poe. “But I think that we’re more than that now.”
Opinions differ among city staff, he said. But after hearing about branding efforts elsewhere, Poe brought the idea to the City Council for consideration and the board agreed. “It’s important for us to understand where we are, what we are and to have one message to send out to our community,” he said.
Poe said that the branding has to include an understanding of the city’s history but then take it to the next level. “Right now we’re the ‘City of Pure Water,’” he said. “But what does that tell you?”
Weiss asks, what if the city loses sky diving or water bottling at some point? There has to be a brand that takes Zephyrhills into the future, regardless of most notable industries now. “There are so many assets now,” he said, including the city’s vibrant downtown, its skate park, the tennis center and its friendly atmosphere.
The branding exercise was designed to last between 34 and 38 weeks. It is now reaching the midpoint of that process, according to Sam Preston, director of project management for North Star.
Preston said the first step was to immerse himself in the community, meeting 120-130 people, using focus groups and one-on-one interviews “to discover what is authentic and distinct” about the community. The company also conducted a community survey that attracted about 1,000 responses, which is two to three times the usual.
Then, an awareness and perception survey. That means reaching out to people outside the city in the county or in Hillsborough, including officials in chambers of commerce, economic development organizations and other cities to find out what they think Zephyrhills is doing well and what it needs to improve, Preston said.
In the next few weeks, when all of those survey results and conversations are compiled, he said, he would meet with Poe and other city leaders to talk about the general results. From there, the branding process becomes a creative one, as the logo, tagline, city colors and brand are developed.
But handing over a slogan isn’t the end of the process. Preston said there will be a detailed game plan developed and presented to the city so that officials can choose what portions of the process fit with what Zephyrhills wants to do.
He said he is more focused on that strategic rollout than a big unveiling ceremony where everyone gets to look at a logo. The final product could be ready by May.
The whole idea of the exercise, he said, is for the city to take control of its own future based on the research that North Star has completed. Preston said he was impressed with city leaders and their understanding of that.
“They’re not just reacting. They’re trying to be strategic,” he said. “Do we wait until change happens or do we control the change?”