For three classes at Oak Ridge High School, the future of the old Oak Ridge Mall property is something the students are taking personally. Nearly 60 students in the Digital Arts and Design and Virtual Enterprise classes have been working on a branding strategy for the once-thriving retail site, and their top ideas will be presented to Crosland Southeast, the Charlotte-based firm that has been working with the City of Oak Ridge to develop a plan to establish a multi-use work-live-play-shop destination.
“It has been an exciting project to work on, because there have been several attempts to revitalize this property, and all have failed due to, among other things, the lack of focus on the specific interest of Oak Ridge residents,” said Buddy McWilliams, an ORHS senior who is working on the project. “Crosland Southeast has shown that they want to be successful by looking at the interest of students and others who will be using the property.”
Crosland Southeast approached Oak Ridge School Board Chairman Keys Fillauer with the idea to work with the students, and an enthusiastic Fillauer discussed it with ORHS Principal David Bryant and teachers Linda Ousley and Clint Lafollette, and the project was off and running.
Ousley is the facilitator of the school’s Virtual Enterprise program. Ousley said that Crosland Southeast will get a good cross-section of Oak Ridge opinion by talking with the students, and the students are getting excellent experience they can use on their future resumes.
“We have conducted research on similar developments, and we will also do focus groups with other students to see which branding ideas work making sure we have included input from all age ranges at the school,” said Chris Giese, an ORHS senior who is working on the project.
Giese and McWilliams also serve as the CEOs of the ORHS virtual company, Cynosure Telecom. The class operates as a real-world virtual company and gives students the opportunity to work in a business environment and learn how to be successful in this type of setting.
“Our company includes all of the areas you would have in a typical business, such as web designers and a marketing department,” Giese said.
The Digital Arts and Design II and III classes of LaFollette approached the process as an advertising agency would, and the students are spending four to six weeks working on branding and graphic design ideas for the property. Lafollette, the instructor in the arts and communications department who is overseeing the students, said, “the students start by looking at industry trends, then they brainstorm names, and finally they will then take the top names and mock up a look and supporting information, such as taglines, to go with the names.”
Wesley Robinson, an ORHS junior, said that this project has been different than their typical “clients” because they usually go straight into the logo design. “This has been much more in-depth and has been a great learning experience because we’ve gotten to take a comprehensive approach, including researching ideas and really thinking about what kind of name fits into a historic place like Oak Ridge, but will give the development a fresh feel.”
The students have come up with hundreds of names as a starting point, and the teachers will help them narrow down their list and focus on a few key names that capture the essence of the project.
“With each milestone, this development gets a little closer to reality, and branding is a huge piece of the puzzle,” said Tim Sittema, partner at Crosland Southeast. “It’s not as simple as you might think—as these students have found out first-hand. It’s challenging to describe a development that reflects the interests of Oak Ridgers and the historic significance of the community, but that also shows just how transformative this project is for the City of Oak Ridge. It’s unlike anything the city has ever had, and the branding approach has to capture all of that.”
Sittema said that Crosland Southeast’s vision for the property is to help restore a sense of community in Oak Ridge, and “having the students involved in the branding of the development is a great starting point.”
According to estimates, the proposed new development will create almost 1,000 new jobs and increase annual city and county sales tax revenues by more than $2 million. At final build out, the private investment in the project could total approximately $80 million. Crosland Southeast plans to announce a more definitive project schedule over the next several months.
“We are looking forward to having something like this development in Oak Ridge,” said Alex Tavangaran, an ORHS senior who is the head of the Marketing Department of Cynosure Telecom. “We’ve spent a lot of time researching and brainstorming, and we are excited because the ideas we have come up with are voices of high schoolers—which is a key target market for the development.”
Overall, the students, like most Oak Ridgers, hope that it works—“we want it all to work…the ideas we come up with, and more importantly the success of the new development. It will be cool to be a part of the branding and design, regardless of what it ends up being,” said Payne Adkins, an ORHS senior.
The findings and recommendations of the students will be presented to Sittema and James Downs from Crosland Southeast before the end of the current school year for the developer to incorporate into their final branding plans and strategies.