November 12, 2013

Marijuana vote raises marketing questions for Portland

While the effect on the city's 'brand' is not yet known, some businesses see opportunity.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Portland is a quaint, seaside city with cobblestone streets and a working waterfront. It’s known for its vibrant restaurant, music and art scenes.

Today's poll: Marijuana vote

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Alysia Zoidis owns East End Cupcakes in Portland.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Now Portland is known nationally as the first city on the East Coast to vote in favor of legalizing marijuana.

The vote was largely symbolic because state and federal prohibition laws supersede local ordinances. Proponents of the ordinance said the vote sends a strong signal to state lawmakers that marijuana should be legal.

But that message is extending far beyond Maine’s borders. Portland’s overwhelming support for legal marijuana has made national headlines, making marijuana part of the city’s national brand.

Some individual businesses – including a cupcake bakery in the Old Port – are optimistic that the vote will be good for their bottom lines. Whether the image is good or bad for the city overall remains to be seen.

“Voters added a new thread to the fabric of Portland’s brand,” said David Goldberg, a partner at Kemp Goldberg Partners, a local advertising, public relations and marketing firm.

“It’s going to take time to know whether this ordinance plays out as a branding issue for the city.”

Unlike a business, a city does not fully control its image or its brand, so a vote like last Tuesday’s could go a long way toward branding the city, given the national attention it drew, he said.

The attention comes as Creative Portland Corp. has been working on branding the city in an effort to attract young professionals to Portland. “Whether we like it or not the vote is real,” Executive Director Jennifer Hutchins said. “We have to wait and see what that means and what type of people are attracted by that.”

Hutchins said one of the biggest challenges of selling the city is getting national attention. The marijuana vote certainly accomplished that goal, she said.

Earlier this year, Creative Portland unveiled a city motto that would be used to market the city: “Portland, Maine. Yes. Life’s Good Here.” It was designed to be versatile so local businesses could tailor it to their industries, whether coffee, sports or restaurants.

That concept has stuck with at least some local people.

On Election Day, 51-year-old Gillian Greenwoods gave her version of the motto on her way to the polls to vote in favor of marijuana legalization.

“Yes. Smoking cannabis is good here,” she said.

Hutchins said it will be up to the Creative Portland board of directors and community partners to decide whether to highlight the city’s trailblazing vote on its website.

“I think we’ll have a hearty conversation about that,” she said.

When Denver voted to legalize marijuana in 2005, there was no noticeable effect on people’s willingness to move to, or visit, the Mile High City, according to business and tourism officials there.

“It doesn’t mean we’re not the brunt of a lot of jokes,” said Kelly Brough, president and chief executive officer of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Brough said the chamber has not been promoting Denver’s pro-marijuana stance when recruiting businesses and workers to the region. Instead, the chamber markets the city’s quality of life and workforce.

Denver’s vote in support of legal marijuana didn’t seem to affect tourism, according to Rich Grant, the communications director for Visit Denver, which promotes tourism.

Even with Colorado’s statewide vote to legalize marijuana and the ongoing effort to regulate the industry, Visit Denver is not investing any money into marijuana tourism for at least a year, Grant said, noting there is little research on whether marijuana marketing will pay off.

“Everyone is open-minded, because things change. We have a responsibility to get the best return on our marketing dollars and not to experiment, so we’re continuing to promote Denver as a young active city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains,” Grant said.

In Portland, Mayor Michael Brennan said the city’s vote in support of legal marijuana further solidifies it as a progressive city.

“Portland has a history of progressive politics, of being on the cutting edge of several economic, social and political issues and I think this issue is in keeping with that tradition,” Brennan said.

Portland was the first city in the state to pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and was the first in the state to marry a gay couple. Portland voters have also voted in support of single-payer, universal health care.

And two Green Independents currently serve on the City Council.

The Portland Regional Chamber and the Greater Portland Visitors Convention Bureau don’t think the vote will change Portland’s standing among businesses or tourists.

“Portland has a strong brand of what it has to offer that’s more than this vote,” said Lynn Tillotson, president and chief executive officer of the visitors bureau.

Individual businesses, however, could benefit from legal marijuana.

There are more than a half dozen so-called head shops, which sell glass pipes, hookahs and water pipes, that are expected to benefit from the city’s pro-pot stance.

Several shop owners declined to be interviewed, however. By law, the shops can only promote their products to tobacco users.

Alysia Zoidis, the owner of East End Cupcakes on Fore Street, thinks businesses like hers could benefit, as well.

The cupcake bakery even hosted a news conference by several state representatives who endorsed what has been dubbed as Portland’s “reeferendum.”

Zoidis said she supports regulating and taxing marijuana, because it would create a new revenue stream for the government and help eliminate the black market for marijuana.

But her cupcake business – as well as other bakeries – could benefit from legalized marijuana.

“It’s pretty obvious,” Zoidis said of the hungry stoner stereotype. The drug is known as an appetite enhancer, one of the reasons Maine allows doctors to recommend its use by people with terminal illnesses.

Zoidis said she is even considering launching a new cupcake business if, as advocates hope, marijuana is ultimately legalized at the state level. The business would serve marijuana-infused cupcakes.

“It’s definitely a market I’d be interested in getting into,” Zoidis said.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: randybillings

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Today's poll: Marijuana vote

Will the vote to legalize marijuana help or hurt Portland's image?

Help

Hurt

View Results