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First Impressions

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First Impressions

A Cultivate NC Program Assessing and Improving Our State’s Communities

Capturing the unique and unbiased perspectives of first-time visitors, Cultivate NC’s First Impressions Program delivers important information to participating communities on what they’re doing well, as well as constructive advice on where and how they can improve. Residents from a community of similar size and location follow specific procedures to document their visit as “secret shoppers” of the subject community’s amenities.

A fee ranging from $500 to $1,500 (dependent upon population size) is normally charged to each community participating in the First Impressions program. This fee covers travel costs of Extension personnel to train visitation teams and to deliver a final report summarizing the results of the First Impressions Community Assessment. In 2022 this fee will be waived for two pilot communities.

BuildingWhat is the purpose of the First Impressions Program?

The First Impressions Program gathers insight to assist community planning and goal setting efforts. It helps communities:

  • Assess their current development initiatives and target new ones
  • Prioritize community projects and services
  • Enhance their community image to the outside world

Over-familiarity, lack of different perspectives, and the tendency to overlook our blemishes, inhibit the ability of most communities to view their surroundings as others see them. The First Impressions Program gives honest feedback to each community, enabling them to identify priorities and proceed to making desired changes.

For example, a community member may know that the best steakhouse in town is on Main Street, but there is nothing that points a visitor there. Or, many of the downtown coffee houses offer meeting rooms and public wifi for free to anyone who asks for them. And while we just breeze past several blocks of abandoned or decaying building on our way home or to our favorite after work hangout, a visitor will notice the faded or peeling paint, empty storefronts, and unkempt or non-existent streetscapes.

If the community takes action to resolve items brought to light during the First Impressions assessment process, possible outcomes could include community engaged beautification efforts, amenities targeting youth, energized volunteer initiatives, and public/private downtown renovation projects.

How does the First Impressions Program work?

Extension community development professionals help match your community with one of similar character. We also train visitation teams in each community, who anonymously record their first impressions of their sister community.

Results of these impressions are cataloged and condensed into a report by Extension and the visitation team, then shared with community leaders. Community leaders analyze the feedback gathered by their sister community’s secret shopper and use the information to rate how attractive their community is to shoppers, tourists, business travelers, and potential employers.Women shopping on sidewalk



Getting Started

Talk about the First Impressions program with other community leaders to determine interest, then reach out to us to answer questions and deliver an overview of the program to your community. The First Impressions contact at NC State Extension is Becky Bowen, Cultivate NC Program Manager,, 919-628-4317.

Program Materials


The model for this program was developed by Andy Lewis, University of Wisconsin Extension Services, and James Schneider, Grant County (Wisconsin) Economic Development. It is currently being implemented by Extension services in over 15 states.