CASA GRANDE -- They say image is everything, and local governments are spending lots of money on their carefully crafted public images.
In Casa Grande, for example, the city late last year commissioned a project that the city uses to promote itself in the economic development arena.
The 40-page glossy magazine dubbed “A Growing Horizon,” the city’s newest moniker to promote itself, is a mix of articles written by city staff and paid advertisements.
City Manager Larry Rains said the publication is vital to the city in terms of promoting itself to potential businesses and residents who want to relocate to Casa Grande.
Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland has long maintained that the idea behind the magazine was his and his alone. He repeatedly told PinalCentral that he personally sold advertisements, that the magazine was a brainchild of his and that the city didn’t initiate it.
“I wanted something I could take to meetings and have everything in one place to hand out to people,” McFarland said.
But city staff says otherwise.
According to Rains, the city had a plan in place to offer some type of marketing tool long before A Growing Horizon was produced.
“The organization has evaluated developing an economic development/marketing supplement for a couple of years,” Rains said. “Supplemental pieces have been proven to be a key tool when recruiting potential economic prospects who are evaluating an investment in the community. The city can also use the pieces in a variety of other ways when promoting a community.”
Rains said the publication didn’t cost the city, but records received from the city show staff, primarily Public Information Officer Kayla Fulmer, spent time working on the project, including helping to design the magazine and write its content. A paid intern was shown to be assisting McFarland with securing advertisers for the publication.
While the city expended resources through staff hours, the printing costs were covered by advertisers.
Rains said: “Several organizations within Arizona, and likely the nation, have moved to a funding methodology for these supplemental pieces that ultimately cost the organization nothing, which means that a formal procurement process is not required, offers community partners the opportunity to promote themselves individually, as well as to present the community in the collective front. Both are critical as companies and their teams are evaluating capital investments, relocating and bringing new jobs to the community, and the long-term sustainability of their business.”
Mayor and council
McFarland said the City Council was well aware that the publication was being produced, although it never was formally adopted by the council. He said Rains would send out updates on the project to the entire council.
“We traditionally feature the entire council in our publications. I would envision we would follow this practice when publishing future pieces,” Rains said.
A Growing Horizon features a welcome letter by McFarland but no other council members. On the back page of the magazine, prospects are asked to call Richard Wilkie, economic development director, for follow-up.
While the council was given updates on the project, it never was a topic at a council meeting to get other members’ input or approval.
Advertisements in the book are set up as “advertorials,” ads made to look like part of the regular content. Even though they have specific logos on them, such as for Banner Health, the pages aren’t marked as ads. They’re emblazoned with the city’s logo, making a seamless transition between advertisements and content.
“I didn’t want them to look like ads,” McFarland explained. “I wanted them to look like they’re partners with the city — which they are.”
Records obtained from the city of Casa Grande, including emails discussing the project, show that one entire category of business — banks — was not permitted to be included. In other cases where there are multiple private businesses operating in the city, only one has an ad; for example, Cox Communications has an ad but CenturyLink, Cox’s broadband competitor, does not and no records released showed CenturyLink being approached. The city of Casa Grande also has an agreement with Cox Communications for government access channels.
“I approached the businesses and industries and asked if they wanted to be included,” McFarland said. “And, frankly, I know the people at Cox.”
Additionally, in an interview, McFarland told PinalCentral that real estate companies also were excluded from participation.
ROX Group, managed by Rock L. Earle and owned by the Earle Family Trust, owns both ROX Realty Systems and ROX Media, the publisher of A Growing Horizon.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are strict rules in place dictating how advertisements and editorial content need to be properly identified.
“If it’s a publication and it looks like it’s editorial content, that could be confusing,” said Michael Ostheimer, senior staff attorney with the FTC’s division of advertising practices.
“The group of partners that were selected to participate in the publication were done so with a focus on areas that are traditionally asked about by potential prospects,” Rains said. “It obviously highlighted several components of the city but also included focal points such as proximity to other business-related locations, key community industries, education and utilities, all of which are frequently discussed when attracting new business.”
Rains said he was not “personally aware of any other businesses inquiring about promotions in the publication.”
However, records obtained by PinalCentral show one business that expressed interest in the project was not permitted to be included. In a spreadsheet of sponsors, a note next to Western State Bank says: “Hold this one. He would like to participate. Don’t know if we should go after the banks.”
Following the money
In November, Rock and Elaine Earle, owners of ROX Media, donated $1,000 each to McFarland’s re-election campaign, according to documents provided by the city clerk. In December, McFarland paid ROX Media $850 for “website design and email marketing” out of his campaign fund.
In McFarland’s first campaign for mayor, Rock Earle gave $1,000. McFarland paid out $877.50 for “website design and set-up” to Raxx Direct Marketing, an affiliate of ROX Media Group. And at the end of that election he paid $509 to publish a “Thank you Ad in the Living Magazine,” which is owned by ROX Media.
ROX Media directly collected the $24,000 in advertising dollars for the city publication, according to city records. Records showed McFarland secured commitments from businesses and organizations, then obtained order forms from ROX to get signed. The bills were paid directly to ROX.
While records show McFarland waived the $1,500 for the Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce, he said the chamber and Casa Grande Main Street each paid half for their ads.
Communications between McFarland and ROX media show the mayor, who is running for re-election, is looking to produce another, similar publication in August — before the city primary election on Aug. 28.
If another publication is created, Rains said the city will follow a procurement process.
“Through this initial partnership, the city was afforded the opportunity to evaluate how our organization might approach future efforts. I anticipate that a formal request for proposal will be developed and utilized in future processes,” he said.
Eloy and Pinal County
In January, the city of Eloy also commissioned ROX to produce a similar publication for that city. Harvey Krauss, city manager, said the city didn’t go out to bid for the publication and noted that, in fact, it wasn’t required to do so.
Eloy will pay for the publication using money collected from the city’s 2 percent food tax. Like Casa Grande, Eloy plans to have 20,000 of the magazines printed.
Likewise, Pinal County also commissioned an economic development magazine. Pinal County spokesman Joe Pyritz said the county paid $48,251.19 for 3,000 “brochures” and 12,000 “inserts for the brochure.”
“The design was done by Moses Inc. out of Phoenix. They did some of the writing, and we did some of it,” Pyritz said. “This document is for distribution to businesses who are looking to relocate or locate their operations here. It basically tells our story for them and what they can expect when, and if, they move here.”
O’Neil Printing in Phoenix did the printing for the county, which was included in the $48,000.
Moses Inc. served as a “marketing firm,” according to Pyritz.
“We opened up an RFP (request for proposals) in early 2017 for a marketing firm that could help with our efforts when it came to economic development and tourism. We interviewed 11 to 12 firms that applied,” Pyritz said.
Pinal County hired Moses Inc. following the RFP process.
“Items, like this brochure, are in their scope of work,” Pyritz said.
Worth a thousand words
In several places in the magazine, the city uses a stock image of the Sonoran Desert, taken near Lake Pleasant and purchased from a third-party website, that has become a sort of unofficial picture for the city. The licensing agreement for the picture prohibits its use “in a product that’s been given free of charge but has a money generation model such as third party advertising attached to it.”
The website, 123rf.com, sells an extended license to the picture that would permit this use for a mere $48.50, but the city did not buy it. The company considers use of its images without the proper license to be copyright infringement and has a legal team to pursue such matters.
The bottom line, according to McFarland, is that improving the city’s image and creating a marketing tool will help the city showcase all it has to offer to potential residents and businesses.
“I have a vision and that vision is to help the city,” he said.