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Vancouver is talking tough to itself


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POSTED: Sunday, December 06, 2009

VANCOUVER, Wash.— This striving city in the Pacific Northwest is not—repeat, not—the one that will host the Winter Olympics in February. But if you reserve a hotel during the games, as some geographically confused sports fans have attempted to do, no one here will complain.

“;The joke among the hotels,”; said Elson Strahan, who helps oversee a historic site in town, “;was that with tourism down, everyone should book as many of those rooms as they can.”;

Humor only masks the hurt.

With world attention about to focus on that other Vancouver, the one with the international cachet, the creative cuisine and the cosmopolitan diversity, this Vancouver is having a tough talk with itself.

How, it is asking, can a former mill town that has become an increasingly assertive city, a place that courts high-technology companies and takes pride in its expanding university campus, make a name for itself when another city with the same name in the same misty vicinity of North America has already done so and then some?

“;My mother always thought I lived in Canada,”; said Gene Wigglesworth, who moved here in 1977 to open a muffler repair shop. “;For years, I've put up with that.”;

After decades of patient clarification and abundant parentheses (this Vancouver is in the United States), the matter is now being met head on by business and tourism leaders here. This fall, they began hosting a series of panels, guest speaker presentations and brainstorming sessions with the goal of uniting behind a clear message.

“;What do we really have here?”; asked Kim J. Capeloto, chief executive of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. “;And how can we package it?”;

The trouble is that, so far, the search for answers has inadvertently resurrected an old and controversial question, one far more prickly than a new branding campaign: Should this Vancouver stop calling itself Vancouver?

Why not, instead, Fort Vancouver?

There is already a high school here named Fort Vancouver. A library, too. Even a Little League. They are all named for the 360-acre, riverfront chunk of land that is the reason the city is here in the first place, the Fort Vancouver National Site. It is where in the 1820s the Hudson's Bay Company established a fur-trading post and where the U.S. military later built barracks that were active for 150 years, until 2000. The site has long been the location of community events, including fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“;It's not changing to something we weren't, it's changing back to something we were,”; said Strahan, who is president and chief executive of the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which helps manage the site. “;And I think it will prompt a much easier dialogue for the city and region.”;

Some people have simply had enough of explaining.

This Vancouver, 250 miles south of the other one, rests on the mighty Columbia River, traveled so famously by Lewis and Clark. It was incorporated nearly 30 years before the other Vancouver. And while some might think this Vancouver is in Canada, plenty of others view it as simply another suburb of Portland (the one in Oregon), which is just across the river (and the Washington state line). Residents here leave daily to do the most basic things over there, like work and, because there is no state sales tax in Oregon, shop. (Then again, there is no state income tax over here.)

“;In the past 10 years, what we've learned is that people have no idea where 'Southwest Washington' is,”; said Kim Bennett, the president and chief executive of the Southwest Washington Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is based here in Vancouver and includes surrounding Clark County.

Wigglesworth, who opened the muffler shop, gets at much of this in a T-shirt that he sells in town. It reads:

 

 

VANCOUVER

not B.C.

WASHINGTON

not D.C

CLARK COUNTY

not Nevada

NEAR PORTLAND, OR.

not Maine

 

He has an idea for another shirt: “;If you are in the Federal Witness Protection Program, do we have a city for you.”;

Vancouver (this Vancouver) has considered renaming itself before. In a recent editorial, The Columbian newspaper noted that at least three different times city voters had rejected changing to Fort Vancouver. But while the vote against was 86 percent in 1967, opposition was down to 61 percent in the last vote. That was way back in 1975, when the population was a fraction of the 160,000 people who live here now.

“;Anyone see a trend there?”; the newspaper said. “;We wonder how much the Vancouver population has churned since 1975. So, let's talk.”;

There is no plan for a new vote at this point. The departing mayor, who called himself “;mayor of America's Vancouver,”; is being succeeded by one who has said there are more important issues to address, including the potential tax revenue lost from so many people shopping across the river.

Nor are there plans for a mock Olympics here, like the one held in Albertville, Ala., in 1992, when the Winter Olympics were held in Albertville, France.

Remember, business leaders say, this is about more than the Olympics or even the name Vancouver. And get over the Canada thing.

“;This is about how to capitalize on where we are, what we have and who we are,”; said Capeloto of the Chamber of Commerce. “;It doesn't have to do with our name. You can call this anything you want. Call it whatever.”;