In 1999, HotJobs.com, a job search website founded by Richard Johnson, aired a 30-second Superbowl commercial that cost the company $2 million at a time when it was making $4 million a year.
Five minutes after the commercial ran, the website experienced five times the volume it usually had, officials said at the time.
While the ad itself was successful at reaching an audience, the national news coverage the company received for spending half its revenue on an ad changed HotJobs’ identity from an internet business to a brand, Johnson said.
“We went from the 270th most recognized brand in the internet to the sixth most recognized brand in the internet in two weeks,” Johnson said. “It was just a lightning strike marketing event.”
Yahoo purchased HotJobs for more than $400 million in 2002 and Johnson retired.
Now that Johnson is living in Wilmington, he hopes to use the same marketing skills that helped grow HotJobs to create a successful Burgaw Now campaign, which seeks to revitalize the small coastal town and bring businesses back to the area.
Burgaw Now has been operating for a few months, has six employees and launched its website in June in time for the N.C. Blueberry Festival, which has been taking place in Burgaw for 16 years.
The website hosts a blog featuring some Burgaw businesses such as interviews with Burgaw residents, including Mayor Pete Cowan.
To actively bring businesses to downtown Burgaw, Johnson purchased four buildings that will be renovated and leased to business owners. There are plans to purchase four more buildings, Johnson said.
Creating a Destination
Burgaw Now began with Johnson’s Penderlea Farms, a 500-acre tree farm in Burgaw.
“As a result of having bought that, I sort of discovered Burgaw and I was amazed at what a cool town it was, and it really has such great bones,” Johnson said. “I was amazed that it wasn’t more popular, and that the downtown was kind of dying.”
After meeting with Cowan, Johnson started looking at buildings that were one-tenth of the cost of a building in Wilmington, he said.
“When you can buy a building for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, that is a hundred years old, made of brick and is a beautiful building, you get pretty excited,” Johnson said. “But then the hard work starts when the reality hits that it’s not what you can buy a building for, it’s what you do in a building that makes it valuable. You still have to put money into rebuilding or improving it.”
Burgaw Now has been working with three business owners who plan on opening a brewery and a restaurant in January after renovations are completed in the units.
Robin and Artie Hill, owners of kombucha-making Panacea Brewing Company, will open Burgaw Brewing Co. at 103 S. Wright St. in the old Tim’s Heating and Air building.
Jay Kranchalk will open Fat Daddy’s Pizza at 103 W. Fremont St.
“The pizzeria model will work with the current population in Burgaw. If you charge $1.50 per slice, that’s something anyone can afford and there’s a market demand for that. There’s really only fast food restaurants in Burgaw on the U.S. 117 corridor,” Johnson said. “Our model for the brew pub is that if you’re relying on the citizens of Burgaw for it to be successful, it won’t be.
So somehow by the time we open it and really get it running, we need to do something to promote Burgaw.”
One of the goals of the campaign is to get people from Wilmington and other surrounding areas to go to the town to visit or for a meal.
To promote the town, Burgaw Now plans on using social media, including Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, to post stories about businesses, people and events.
“We are applying that younger mentality towards not really high-polished pieces but just lots of flash pieces that get people’s attention,” Johnson said. “Burgawnow.org will promote downtown, retail and also be a landing spot for anyone that wants to go to Burgaw and visit.”
Plans are underway for Burgaw Now to host a pop-up food event in September at the Burgaw Depot with the help of Wilmington chef Dean Neff and Burgaw chefs featuring a breakfast, lunch and dinner inspired by traditional Southern-Burgaw recipes.
Rebuilding After Flo
Johnson’s efforts to bring more small businesses to Burgaw, and the visitors to support them, come at a time when the town and Pender County are still recovering from the effects of September’s Hurricane Florence.
As of May 3, about $17.5 million in state and federal grants had gone to 2,681 homeowners and renters in Pender County, according to FEMA.
More than $47.2 million in U.S. Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loans had been approved for 824 homeowners and businesses.
“Pender County is working on restoring the courthouse – a process that will most likely continue to the first of 2020,” said Tammy Proctor, Pender County Tourism director and public information officer.
Court is being held at several locations, depending on the type of court, she said.
As of April, 188 households had been licensed into temporary housing units.
“Our planning department is working with hundreds of families in the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program,” she said. “If households qualify, their homes can be either purchased by the government or elevated. We continue to work with regional partners, state and local officials to address infrastructure and we are pleased that federal officials acknowledge there is significant impact when I-40 floods.”
‘A Boutique Town’
As storm recovery and resiliency efforts continue, Johnson considers Burgaw Now his first “social entrepreneurialism project,” and he has been part of nonprofit efforts since retirement.
In 2009, a few years after Johnson and his family moved to Wilmington, he started Masonboro.org, an organization that helps maintain public access and promotes responsible use of Masonboro Island through cleanups and educational programs.
While Burgaw Now is a private campaign not associated with the county or town, Johnson said he has met with town officials and plans on partnering with the Burgaw Chamber of Commerce and Pender County Tourism.
The main goal of the Burgaw Now campaign is to grow Burgaw; however, another goal is to not impede the small-town feel that makes up its character.
“We want to do a boutique town. We don’t want to have high rises. We don’t want to have hundred-house developments like it’s going on in Wilmington,” Johnson said. “We want to maintain that intimacy of community.”
If proven successful, Johnson plans on handing the campaign over to government officials, he said.
“I’m making a huge investment in Burgaw, many millions of dollars, and I want to have some control over the success of that,” Johnson said. “For me, Burgaw Now gives me a focal point to do a marketing campaign for Burgaw, which once that’s successful, I’ll want to turn this over. We’re going to hopefully help revitalize the town, but it’s really a community effort. If you can’t get the community to buy in, you’re not going to be successful.”
The effort to boost Burgaw as a town with unique stores and restaurants that can attract visitors is welcomed by city officials.
“We are thrilled with Richard’s vision – it’s the same as ours – good growth that emphasizes the charm of the town,” Proctor said. “Burgaw is Americana. It is the town Hollywood loves and at Christmas you won’t find anything more Currier and Ives than downtown Burgaw. I’m proud of our county seat.”
Region in Focus - Pender County