Hughes Pottery

Pushing Through Uncertainty

[image_caption]In production: coming soon from Hughes Pottery in Forest County.[/image_caption]

Pushing Through Uncertainty

The Pennsylvania Wilds effort is entering new territory.

For the first time, we’re tackling product and brand development in a big way.

We worked for a decade to get here. A long time, I know. But despite popular belief, that’s how entrepreneurial things often happen, brick by brick.

Here’s how we laid ours.

Several years back, we teamed up with the state to create, trademark, and promote a regional brand and logo. This was before my time with the Wilds, but if you talk with folks who were there it sounds like a healthy, frank and vigorous discussion took place. It’s no small thing to get consensus among stakeholders across 12 ½ counties, or between state and local, especially this day in age. But they stuck with it, and the brand principals created still guide us today. If you haven’t read them, you should. They’re inspiring.

It didn’t take long before ‘the Pennsylvania Wilds’ appeared in a Washington Post story and other media. National Geographic put us on one of their maps. More visitors came to the region and this started to build demand for Wilds-branded products.

Wilds Cooperative BrandNext, we built a network of skilled local producers and artists, which we now call the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania. A product supply chain, albeit one with a lot of heart and soul. There’s been plenty of what Radiolab host Jad Abumrad calls “gut churn” along the way, but you’ll have that when trying to bring new ideas into the world without a blueprint. We’re getting through it. Today, the Wilds Co-op is 170 members strong, and growing. Yes, our logo is a little bright and funky, but you’ll have that too when you get a bunch of creatives together. The important thing is we’re passionate about it.

Next, we launched a regional nonprofit and entered into a long-term partnership with the PA Department of Community & Economic Development to develop the Wilds trademark in a way that creates opportunities for local businesses and keeps royalties in the region, reinvesting them back into the Wilds work. While launching the nonprofit, we took a six-month licensing class through LIMA, the industry association, so we’d be good stewards of this thing we’re all building. (Okay, I took the class, but the rest of the stuff really was a ‘we’ effort – there are a lot of partners involved in the Wilds work. It’s one of our greatest strengths.).

A year ago almost to the day, we finally got the PA Wilds Licensing Program off the ground. We started slowly to work out the kinks. A few local entrepreneurs – a jewelry maker, an outfitter, and a winery – were already using the Wilds logo on saleable products, so we walked through the new applications and processes together.

The first royalty check arrived in February. It was for $86.99. That may not sound like a lot, but to a very small business in the dead of winter in rural PA, it matters. My bookkeeper sent me an email when the check arrived. I could not stop smiling. I called my sister. “It worked!” I said.

Another check arrived shortly thereafter, for $452.82, and then another for $62. We had a long way to go before we could start to fill the void left by state cuts to regional marketing dollars, but it was a start — a functioning system that local businesses found value in that we could grow over time.

Iconic brands in the region took notice. Straub brewery began to align its “Fiercely Independent” brand with the regional brand. They put the Wilds logo on their marketing materials, and when they won a national award last fall, made sure to note in the press release that they were located in the Pennsylvania Wilds.

As all this was happening, the PA Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources, our other main state partner in the Wilds effort, was laying bricks of its own. Actual ones, in the form of destination conservation facilities in the Pennsylvania Wilds.

Last winter, a group of us – me, park leadership, a few of DCNR’s lease and IT folks from Harrisburg – were around a table at the new visitor center at Sinnemahoning State Park in Cameron County, trying to figure out how to get internet into the center’s business incubation space. A popular place for bears, deer, turkey and other wildlife, the park is surrounded by mountains. It is a spectacular landscape that draws more than 200,000 visitors a year. But it also makes cell and internet access nearly impossible on any reasonable kind of budget, creating a real barrier to doing business. Not insurmountable, but something we had to figure out.

The conversation turned to the center’s gift shop. Park staff had done the hard work of getting a little gift shop off the ground, but retail wasn’t the wheelhouse of public lands managers. What they wanted was a partner with shared goals to operate the gift shop. And it wasn’t just at Sinnemahoning. The new visitor center at Kinzua Bridge State Park, in McKean County, was opening soon, too.

“Maybe you guys would be interested in partnering with us,” the head of State Parks for Region 1 said.

I looked at him with what I’m pretty sure was a blank stare, set down my pen and slowly sat back in my chair. It was one of those rare aha moments where a lot of things you’ve been working on for a long time suddenly converge and make sense.

State parks were a major draw in the region. If we could marry our producer and licensing network with them in a systematic way, over time it would create a lot of new opportunities for local businesses. It would grow our regional brand. It would better serve visitors. And it would create another sustainable revenue stream to support the Wilds effort.

I spent a lot of time in spreadsheets over the next few months. My board, bless them, asked a lot of tough questions. Then we took the leap. This spring, the PA Wilds Center entered into a public-private partnership with DCNR to operate the gift shop at the new Kinzua Bridge State Park visitor center. Already, local producers are applying to be suppliers. If you are a local producer, you can, too.

This month, we expect to sign a License Agreement with a great little company in DuBois, in the southern part of the Wilds, to help bring one of our first major soft goods wholesale categories – PA Wilds-branded t-shirts and fleece jackets – to market. We can’t wait to roll out the designs this summer and make them available to retailers. Hand-thrown, Wilds-branded coffee mugs are coming soon, too, thanks to Hughes Pottery in Forest County.

This is what happens when you get entrepreneurs and artists and government and foundations and economic developers and visitor bureaus and conservation people working together in a genuine way and deciding to Just Keep At It.

You lay another brick. And before you know it, you’ve really built something. Something that could be here 20 years from now, creating opportunities for your kids.


  1. Abbi Peters on April 11, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Thanks for sharing Ta! This is such a great reminder, anytime you take on a project in uncharted territories there are those moments of “Can we do this?” “How can we do this?” At the end of the day you just have to be confident enough to flip the dialog and say “We can do this, and we will get it done”. Once you can change your mind set the path seems to open, and you begin to realize the opportunities that will show you the way.

    • Tataboline on April 12, 2016 at 8:36 am

      Thanks Abbi! And Amen! Reminds me of a quote I just read by Chrissie Wellington: “Just seize every opportunity you have, embrace every experience. Make a mark, for all the right reasons.” I’m pretty sure that includes the embracing the gut churn part of the process, too. But I’ll take it!

  2. Steve Getz on April 11, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Quite the impressive story when you actually have time to reflect on the origin of the program and where it is currently headed. We all have this unrelenting passion for the region which is reflected in our work and hobbies. That makes it essential to all be vested in the program and make it flourish in the 12 1/2 county region.
    The brand is fortunate to have strong leadership with vision to persevere when others doubted the merit of the program. 2016 will be a ground breaking year for PA Wilds. Congrats to pulling this off!! It is an exciting time to be part of this undertaking.

    • Tataboline on April 12, 2016 at 10:28 am

      Thanks Steve. I’m not sure anyone knew when the Wilds work started that it would take root the way it has. That our regional brand has survived and grown amid all the cuts to regional marketing dollars speaks volumes about the value and potential of a regional brand generally, and about the mettle and vision of the many people involved in this one in particular. The journey hasn’t been all hearts and rainbows, but we’re making a positive difference. It’s exciting to have so many creatives and entrepreneurs getting involved in the work. It keeps things inspired. And that includes you! Congrats, by the way, for being named 2016’s PA Wilds Artisan of the Year!

      • Steve Getz on April 12, 2016 at 4:23 pm

        Thanks Ta. I am very honored and humbled by the award. I have always appreciated your support of my artwork and our efforts to promote all the arts in the region.

  3. Sean Hawk on April 11, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    Ta and Abbi, you are both an inspiration. With you at the helm the future is a thrilling proposition for the PA Wilds brand and for the creatives of our region. Your ceaseless and dedicated work is blowing the doors of opportunity wide open and creating a tide swell that lifts all ships. BRAVA!

    • Abbi Peters on April 12, 2016 at 10:16 am

      Thanks Sean! It means the world to hear supportive words from the creatives that are doing the thoughtful and amazing work that inspires the other work- what a great loop to be in! And I’d also like to thank the trout that caught you, leading you to build a business in the PA Wilds. So looking forward to all of the great things that are yet to come.

    • Tataboline on April 12, 2016 at 10:34 am

      Thanks for the kind words Sean! I will keep them handy to reread the next time I royally screw something up and need a boost! Ah, the life of an entrepreneur 🙂

  4. Stephanie Distler on April 12, 2016 at 10:53 am

    Beautifully said Ta! It is wonderful to see it all laid out and is much appreciated <3

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