Alan Homestead (left) from Vision Source Eye Care and Optical presents his argument against using the name Rat City, a White Center nickname, to promote the area and stoke up more business during a White Center Chamber of Commerce meeting on June 12. Chamber President Mark Ufkes, right, listens.
UPDATE: Should White Center embrace the rat? A branding debate ignites
Update for 6/15
The West Seattle Herald/White Center News posted an unscientific poll on June 12, asking our readers if White Center should use the term "Rat City" to promote the area. 47 people have voted; here are the results so far:
66 percent with 31 votes
34 percent with 16 votes
Original story on 6/12
Opinions on whether the White Center community should embrace the area’s sister term, “Rat City,” are as varied as the community itself, and several business owners converged upon the Salvadorian Bakery on June 12 to hash the idea out.
R.A.T., at one time, was an acronym for a Regional Army Training facility in the area, and the name has stuck.
VOTE ON THIS QUESTION IN OUR POLL AT THE LINK ABOVE
While part of the White Center business community has made the decision to turn into the name and run with its inherent quirkiness – a branding model much more common in the modern marketing scene – others, and primarily those who have been around for a long time, are opposed to aligning the community and business district with an animal that, for many, has negative connotations.
The debate sparked the week prior when Alan Homestead, 30-year business owner of Vision Source Eye Care and Optical in White Center, presented his argument against using the Rat City name at a North Highline Unincorporated Area Council meeting. He contacted Mark Ufkes, president of the White Center Chamber of Commerce, and asked to bring his concerns to the June 12 meeting.
The Rat City marketing concept came to Homestead’s attention when he was approached to have pictures taken of his business for a new website, www.visitwhitecenter.com, being developed by the Chamber and White Center Community Development Association. The website’s goal is to bring more business dollars here, and includes the safer tagline, “Growing a Global Village,” but also the line, “Kick it in Rat City.”
“Signing up for this website is very tempting, but it is difficult for me to allow my business to be associated with rats,” Homestead said. “What are associated with rats? Sickness, sewer, the plague, the dump, poverty, death, sinking ships.
“Given the choice of doing business in three communities: West Seattle, Burien and White Center, would you, as a newcomer to this area, choose to do business in a community that promotes itself as associated with rats? Is it old fashioned to market a business zone using concepts suggesting cleanliness, safety and family friendliness?”
Kathi “George” Wheeler of Noise w/o Sound, the local design firm putting the campaign together, said the website in its current form is a rough draft of sorts, and is not expected to fully launch until late this summer.
While Wheeler said including references to Rat City are not set in stone, she explained, “We are trying to reclaim the rat a little bit as far as letting people know it’s not about rats eating out of garbage cans, but it’s actually a historical thing about our regional army training facility we had here. But it’s also a fun spin and a fun connotation for the new businesses that attract hipster kind of people … We are not trying to push anyone out (but bring that new clientele in).”
Some voiced concern that while "rat" is grounded in positive history for White Center, nobody realizes it, and branding should not have to be explained.
Is it all about generation?
Justin Cline, owner of Full Tilt Ice Cream, recently started up the Rat City Business Association (independent from the Chamber) with Caffé Delia, Proletariat Pizza, Zippy’s Giant Burgers and Company Bar. They fall in the camp that champions the rat, and have a website called www.myratcity.com.
“I mean this is Rat City, this is White Center,” he said. “We are not going to change it into Wallingford, we just assumed that we would embrace that we live in kind of a quirky neighborhood. That, and the Rat City Rollergirls put about a quarter million dollars a year into advertising Rat City and we are going to ride the coattails of that.
“I think it’s kind of a generational thing and I talk to the business owners around me, a lot of them are Asian, and in Asian societies it is a good luck symbol,” he continued. “I don’t know why we have to be either or. I think there are multiple people that we market to. My age group and my target audience is 28 to 35, they are going to love Rat City, and I can understand my parents aren’t going to feel the same way about it.”
Russ Pritchard, a lifelong White Center resident and former Chamber and NHUAC president, shared his historical perspective on the battle against the moniker.
“We spent tons and tons and tons of time over the years trying to change the Rat City image,” Pritchard said. “In fact, we even went so far in Jubilee Days we banned a t-shirt that said Rat City on it.
“My only suggestion, again if you are going to go this route … get out the word … we tried to get the word out about what Rat City stood for and we did a very poor job, quite honestly, because nobody knows what R.A.T. stands for.”
Jesse Lovell, co-owner of Company, said Pritchard’s experience backs the idea of rolling with the rat.
“The Rat City didn’t go away, so I think there is an opportunity to embrace it and make it something positive.”
Frank Cantwell, principal at Holy Family School, shared his take.
“Everyone I talked to that was older said the rat is a bad idea; Everyone I talked to was younger thought it was a great idea,” he said. “Who do we want to attract? I mean all of us in here have to agree that we need more business here, right? What is going to bring people here? One of my friends said, ‘If it’s done right, if it attracts people, go with it,’ and he sold me on it.”
Ana Castro, owner and operator of Salvadorian Bakery, was a quiet observer for most of the debate, but chimed in before things wrapped up with a slightly different take.
“Forget about the rat,” she said, “… we should focus on the community and the businesses. I have been here 17 years, and I have heard so many negative things about White Center, and here we are … I have people coming here to by our cakes from far away because we offer good products.
“If you like the product, you are going to find it … even in Rat City.”