Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reflections of a Downtown Director...

I should probably warn you that this is not a typical Geek blog.  You might not have the usual takeaways, but it will still be engaging and amusing, I promise.  I recently celebrated 15 years working for my community.  Seems like only yesterday that I was a wide-eyed, enthusiastic Promotions & Marketing Coordinator who was asked to create a downtown magazine and a winter event.  Oh, how far we've come.  Naturally, I've been feeling kind of nostalgic, so I was reflecting on the favorite things that I've done, and more interestingly, why I stay.  There were so many to choose from, so I had to limit myself to three.

The Big, Bright Light Show

Yes, you knew that it would be on the list.  How could I not include it?  Think about it - I convinced my Board, elected officials, city officials, merchants, property owners and even the Michigan Department of Transportation to allow me to cover our historic facades in Christmas lights every four inches.  Quite an accomplishment, but that's not why it's on the list.  The show is not just lights, and it's not just sales either.  But it absolutely is economic development and it does provide a priceless amount of PR for our little city.  But most important to me is that it is, for lack of a more sophisticated term, a memory maker.  When the lights are aglow, people are everywhere - taking photos, getting engaged, and making holiday memories that will last a lifetime.  Heck, I even well up at least once per season when I realize what we've accomplished with a crazy idea and over 1.5 million twinkling lights.

Main Street Makeover

In downtown circles, the chance to work on a major construction project is the stuff of nightmares.  But we saw the Makeover as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and weren't about to mess it up.  Working with the City, we agreed from the start that we weren't going to let the project manage us.  Two years in the making, the day we closed the road and put the first shovel in the ground, reality hit us...hard.  The next 8 months was like a trip to Oz so chaotic and profound that I never knew what would happen from one day to the next.  I learned so much, and more importantly, our advanced planning paid off.  Any challenge that was thrown our way, we met and resolved instantly. From hitting unmapped water lines to unearthing an Indian burial ground, we truly saw it all.  And even though everyone told us to expect at least 25% of our businesses to close, they didn't.  In fact, we gained more businesses and hit an all time high occupancy rate of 97%.  At the end of the day, we finished on time and on budget.  Can't really ask for more than that.

A Revelation

But after hundreds of event days downtown, multi-million dollar projects and that little light show of ours, what could really top all of that to be my favorite thing ever...and the reason why I stay?  I discovered the answer to this conundrum last week when two of my favorite downtown pals came to visit Rochester - Ron Drake & Ben Muldrow.  In case you don't know them, Ron is a downtown consultant, author and has more authentic enthusiasm for community development that anyone I've ever met.  Ben is an unbelievably talented, branding guru and absolutely the smartest guy in every room.  We talked for hours about what we've done, where we've been and more importantly, where we see the future of downtowns and what we might be able to do collectively to contribute to that future (but that is a blog for another day - stay tuned).

And then it hit me.  The best of part of having this job is all the people that I've had to the pleasure to meet, work with, learn from and be inspired by.  I never intended to be here.  Let's face it, kids don't grow up dreaming they will be a downtown director.  Quite honestly, most of my downtown peeps, myself included, are here by accident.  In my case, I've come to believe than there are no accidents and some things are just meant to be.

Make no mistake, I wouldn't still be here without that love, support and faith that so many have shown me.  I take it to heart and I always strive to make sure that the trust  placed in me to care for and protect my downtown and others has not been misplaced. I don't know where the next 15 years will take me, but I am confident that I have still have more to give.  And I look forward to being on this non-stop thrill ride of community revitalization with all of you for many years to come.

The Downtown Geek