Ferguson was made famous in 2014 for reasons no city wants to be famous for
. Five years later, city officials have hired a marketing firm to give the north county municipality a new "brand identity" — and this time, the contract is not a front for a pay-for-play bribery scheme benefiting disgraced former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
Last week, of course, Stenger pleaded guilty to federal charges for a bribery scheme
that involved, according to the indictment, "a consulting contract to purportedly provide marketing to address the negative publicity leftover from the Ferguson unrest following the shooting death of Michael Brown."
The six-month contract cost the St. Louis County Port Authority $130,000 for "no actual work," the indictment notes.
Matt Unrein, Ferguson's assistant city manager, tells Riverfront Times
that the indictment was the first he'd even heard of the plot.
"I was never contacted by anyone in St. Louis County or the [St. Louis Economic Development Partnership]," Unrein says. "I don't have any knowledge of any program similar or even close to a marketing or rebranding project for Ferguson."
Rather than rely on St. Louis County, the north county suburb hopes to do a bit of image burnishing on its own. In a press release, locally based Avant Marketing Group announced earlier this week that Ferguson had selected it to begin conducting market research in order to "provide needed input for the development of our community’s marketable identity."
The new identity will also include "a new tag line or slogan the city can use in their communication," says Mark Vogel of Avant.
Unlike the fake marketing contract awarded by the county's port authority, Vogel says hiring followed a competitive bidding process. Ferguson issued a request for proposals late last year, and then chose Avant's for about $46,000.
That's a lot less than the $130,000 the port authority paid to Stenger's buddies for their supposed marketing expertise.
Ferguson's Unrein notes that the city operates with "humble resources and a limited budget," and while he declined to speculate on what $130,000 in Port Authority funds could have accomplished, he allowed that Ferguson "could benefit from any additional income or revenue from whatever source it might be to accomplish the tasks to try to make a better life for our community."
Of course, helping the area recover from the unrest of 2014 wasn't what the $130,000 paid to "Cardinal Consulting" was actually intended for. According to the indictment, Stenger devised the contract to benefit John Rallo, a major donor, even though Rallo "had no experience in marketing or consulting." And the swindle contained more grift: Although Rallo's contract was initially set at $100,000, Sheila Sweeney, then-CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, added $30,000 at the behest of Stenger to pay off yet another campaign supporter.
The tangled web eventually caught up to Stenger. And now Sweeney, who resigned her position, is expected to plead guilty later today
to an as-yet undisclosed federal charge, even as Rallo makes his own appearance at an arraignment this morning.
Ferguson, meanwhile, will keep trying to move on from 2014. And now, in the coming months, it will roll out an actual marketing campaign to help it do so.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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