Opelika Ponders, Plumbs, Presents Itself

Residents of Opelika eagerly dove into a citywide charrette called DesignPlace. One result morphed from sticky notes, through local history, into a logo with locomotion.

A thriving downtown clusters around Opelika’s railroad tracks. Photo by Julie Bennett

When Leigh Krehling became community relations officer for the City of Opelika two years ago, one of her first priorities was to update the logo and branding for the east Alabama city that over the past few years has reinvented itself.

“It was time for us to maybe get a more progressive look and get into this century, as far as all of our information,” she says.

That coincided with Opelika working with DesignPlace — a program of the nonprofit DesignAlabama — which sends in a team of designers to help a small town with design, planning and community identity assistance.

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“They were great to work with and spent quite a bit of time with our people,” Krehling says.

The people — through a series of community meetings — spoke loudly. They wanted Opelika’s new branding to incorporate its history as a railroad town.

“One of the distinct things I heard someone say was, ‘When I hear that railroad whistle, it means I’m home,’” says Angela Stiff, principal and creative director of Montgomery’s Copperwing, who designed the new logo. “That’s pretty powerful.”

A Railroad History

The momentum of that message is Opelika’s reliance on and fascination with trains, which goes back more than 150 years.

Opelika first became an important Alabama railway hub in the 1850s, when the Montgomery and West Point Railroad opened a line that went through the town. Not only was it important to cotton farmers in the state, but it also was an important transport tool during the Civil War.

Eventually, when the Central of Georgia opened up a line through Opelika, the city was served by two major railroads. “Trains were a part of everyday life for anyone who lived, worked and played in Opelika,” according to the documentary “A Rocket in a Railroad Town.”

That 2018 film tells the story of the Rocky Brook Rocket, a miniature train running through Opelika’s Municipal Park. It was front-page news when civic leaders put the money together to buy it in 1955. Recently restored, it’s still giving children a taste of riding the rails.

Big trains still run through town daily, too, and much of Opelika’s recent revival features breweries, restaurants, galleries, festivals and other things that have sprouted around the city’s downtown depot and railroad tracks.

DesignPlace Comes to Town

All of that train history came into play as DesignAlabama brought its DesignPlace team to Opelika two years ago. A couple of years before that, Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller had attended one of DesignAlabama’s design summits. By the way, its 13th summit will be in February, and a mayor must attend for his or her town to qualify for DesignPlace.

“We bring in five mayors from a region in the state to talk about planning or design issues they have, and at that time Mayor Fuller was focused” on revitalizing two of Opelika’s neighborhoods, says Gina Clifford, executive director of DesignAlabama. Her group focuses on all aspects of design, including architecture, engineering, graphic design, industrial design, interior design, landscape architecture and urban design.

DesignPlace, a 2-year-old initiative of DesignAlabama, sprang out of the need for a “next step” for those who attended the mayors’ summit, and Opelika was chosen to be the first community for DesignPlace.

“We brought in a team of designers that we thought would best suit the community,” Clifford says. “A piece of each of our DesignPlaces is the community identity and branding.”

That’s when Stiff and Copperwing came into town to work with Krehling, who was new to her job as community relations officer and was pleased to know the City of Opelika was already in the early stages of the rebranding process.

“We determined that when DesignPlace came in for their weeklong look at the city, we wanted to spend some time on the branding aspect,” Krehling says. “They came in July 2017 for a week, with community come-and-go events at the library. There were big posters put up around the room, and people could put sticky notes up about what they wanted to see happen in various parts of the city. There were other working teams while they were here. Marketing was just one of them.”

History is Important

Eventually, taking things DesignPlace had heard from across the city and ideas from other brainstorming sessions, two major themes bubbled to the surface — Opelika’s lifestyle and its people. “Out of that came out that a lot of history is still important, and we wanted to keep that and maintain that as part of the brand,” Krehling says.

Stiff and Copperwing went to work, trying to incorporate what they learned from the community into typography that Krehling had already designed.

“For the community, the railroad has been integral to the town, to its growth, to its livelihood, its character,” Stiff says. “Through that and building the brand story, we came up with that as a symbol. The typography was already in place. We recommended putting a symbol and a mark with it that was distinctive and that they could use on many different things that would immediately say ‘Opelika’ without spelling it out.”

The result is a distinctive, modern “O” mark that also incorporates railroad tracks, a nod to both Opelika’s present and future, as well as to the railroad history that is so important to its residents.

“You never know how much the history is going to influence the final design, but we always look at the history of a town or organization or company or product or service when we’re working with them,” Stiff says. “You’re looking at their story from all sides — where it is in the moment, where they’ve been and where they want to go. All those things tie together.”

The new logo was approved in January, debuted in March and is already appearing on websites, press releases, signage and other places.

“The community seemed to fall in love with it, and they adopted it fairly quickly,” Clifford says. “As an organization, we were excited to see the work that we’re doing as a nonprofit, and the success of this new program was really tangible immediately.”

It has been a great success from Krehling’s perspective.

“It really lets people know the city’s personality,” she says. “It represents how people think and feel about the city and what it has to offer.”

And because it was a project of DesignAlabama and DesignPlace, the design work itself was free for the city, Krehling adds.

“It would have cost thousands and thousands of dollars to create a new brand story and logo, and we didn’t have to pay anything,” she says.

Alec Harvey and Julie Bennett are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey and Bennett are both based in Auburn.

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