Champion or Chump: GREDA buys itself an award

by Mike Kroll

With economic prospects gloomy and after betting Galesburg's economic development future on a Logistics Park that to-date has amounted to little more than a money pit, the Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association (GREDA) bought themselves some good public relations. In a press release dated January 26, 2004 GREDA announced that they had won a coveted national award by being named one of 300 "Champions of Industry" for 2004 by Pat Summerall Productions. A fact conveniently left out of that press release was that "winning" this "award" was contingent on paying Summerall's firm $24,000 "to defray production and marketing expenses."

For the last eight years, Pat Summerall Productions <> has been promoting a variety of video marketing products under the "Champions of Industry" moniker including "Spotlight on Education," "Summerall Success Stories," "America's Business Leaders," "Best Managed Small Cities in America," and "Champion City."

Representatives of Summerall's production company contact potential "winners" and invite them to apply for the coveted "award," however if the organization isn't willing to pay the $24,000 fee they are not eligible. In 2003 there were more than 200 winners across a wide array of business and non-profit categories and this year they promise 300.

What you are purchasing, besides the "honor" itself, is a two-minute infomercial to be broadcast on CNN Headline News plus an expanded six to eight minute version that you can use for self-promotion (Summerall's company will produce as many cd-rom/dvds as you need for a price). Participants are also promised that they will be featured on the website as well as Summerall's own where streaming video versions of the extended video are available across the Internet. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful when we tried to find any of the Champions of Industry award winners on the Forbes site, even using the site's own search function. On the Summerall website, "winners" also gain access to the "Champions of Industry" on-line store where they can purchase all types of items emblazoned with the Champions logo. For example, a men's watch is available for $108 each in quantities of 25; a Koozie Kooler can be purchased in a quality of 24 for $25.50; or a stainless Swiss Army knife for $56.25 (quantity 25).

The videos themselves follow a boilerplate template customized to a script fitting the recipient and are narrated by either Summerall himself or one of his celebrity associates including actors Cheryl Ladd and Robert Wagner, former tennis star Chris Evert, and even pitchman Zig Ziglar. While the production quality of the videos is hard to fault, they are almost indistinguishable from one another as they heap praise upon the organization that commissioned them.

To consider them as true awards one must take Summerall's production company at its word that applicants are carefully screened. From what we discovered there is little evidence to suggest that screening process is any more than assuring that your check will clear the bank. In fact, one California city "winner" where city officials subsequently rescinded approval of the $24,000 price tag following complaints within the community had the "distinction" taken away by Summerall's company.

On Wednesday morning, Eric Voyles, president and CEO of GREDA, said that Pat Summerall Productions initially contacted his group sometime in October. GREDA promptly made the decision to go ahead with the project and a freelance videographer from Chicago came to Galesburg "sometime in early November" to film the local material. When asked what distinguished GREDA to Summerall’s company, Voyles answered, "It was really just the way we do economic development. While most ED shops do little beyond marketing they were impressed that we do so much more." Voyles nonchalantly confirmed that GREDA paid the customary $24,000 for the "honor" saying the cost came out of the organization’s regular budget. It will be interesting to see if either the business or municipal members of GREDA question the expense and how it is received by the citizens whose tax dollars help support the organization.

Previously, Summerall's company focused on private commercial or non-profit groups. A surprising number of previous year "award winners" hail from Illinois and nearby including: Des Moines Art Center, Illinois State Water Survey, Iowa Veteran's Home, Kishwaukee Community Hospital (Dekalb), Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center, Planned Parenthood of St. Louis and Voices for Illinois Children. They have also targeted Chambers of Commerce and economic development organizations like GREDA: Battle Creek Unlimited, Economic Opportunity Program, the Olathe Chamber of Commerce and the Wichita Chamber of Commerce. Most of these fall below the radar of media scrutiny but a new set of target clients, municipalities, has stripped away that anonymity.

Since last year Pat Summerall Productions staff have been contacting cities to invite their participation in the "Champions of Industry" program. It probably never occurred to them that expenditures of this magnitude couldn’t just slip under the radar when city councils are involved. For example, in the minutes of the December 15th Normal City Council meeting, "Mayor [Chris] Koos announced he had received a letter from Pat Summerall Productions announcing Normal had been selected as one of the cities they were interested in for a "Small City Management" recognition program." The council sensibly passed on the opportunity to pay the $24,000 fee for the "award."

Not every City Council approached declined. The Charlotte Observer reported that the city council of Monroe, N.C. "voted unanimously to allocate $24,000 to help pay for producing the two-minute video about Monroe that will air on CNN and be netcast on" The Contra Costa Times reported last November that the city council of Clayton, Calf. voted 4-1 to pay the same $24,000 fee to be named a "Champion of Small City Management." Dissenting council member Bill Walcutt commented, "This is like a telemarketer who says you won a trip to Hawaii, but you have to spend $5,000 for processing fees. In the midst of economic hard times, when the city does not have enough money for a new police officer, it sends the wrong message by spending $24,000 promoting itself."

The St. Petersburg Times reported that the Tarpon Springs, Fla. City commissioners approved participation in the Summerall program by a vote of 4-1 in late November of 2003. City attorney John Hubbard was reportedly very skeptical, "It's not really an award; it's a marketing tool." Commissioner Peter Nehr who cast the lone dissenting vote commented, "To promote something that we don't know will actually work and spend almost $25,000 of taxpayer money — I don't think so. In my opinion that money could be better spent on keeping businesses that are already in Tarpon Springs happy." The news story summed up the city's attitude thusly: "Though some at a City Commission meeting Nov. 18 meeting questioned the wisdom of paying for an honorary award, several city officials said the video could spur much-needed publicity for the city."

In June 2003, the Dodge City Daily Globe reported that the local community college had been selected as a "Champion of Education" but opted not to participate. "I feel we should be proud to be selected for this," said the board president, "but I can't see spending $24,000 for a five to ten minute production that would air from 7 to 7:30 am." Earlier this month the Sacramento Bee reported that while the Galt, Calif. city council initially voted 3-2 to pay the fee city officials later "ditched the contract" unanimously after "residents and editorial writers mocked the city " for even considering it.

Meanwhile the Register-Mail shamelessly touted GREDA's attainment of this "honor" on Tuesday's front page as if it were a merit-based award when in fact it is more akin to buying a degree from a diploma mill.