My road to Fresno – and the Downtown Fresno Partnership.

Posted by Kate Borders

Downtown Fresno Signs 99 main installed Apr 2013 002

Note: a BID is a Business Improvement District.

I don’t think that anyone in this industry grows up believing that we will one day be attracted to the process of changing a downtown. It certainly isn’t a career option that you hear kindergartner’s mentioning as their ideal profession. I have had the pleasure of meeting my cohorts from around the country and we all seem to come to this from different paths; yet the varied experiences are all valuable.

I grew up in a very small city (Rock Hill, SC) that had abandoned its downtown and left it completely vacant. I never occurred to me that downtown was valuable because we had other shopping centers and I had never known it as a thriving city center. When I was 12 my parents put me on a plane to visit my aunt who lived in a condo in Chicago. Walking down Michigan Avenue, I had never seen so many different people, speaking different languages, intent on reaching important destinations. I loved the rhythm of their feet on the busy sidewalks, and shop doors opening, and cabs racing and the constant, distant sound of the El. At that age, I believed that everyone who lived in this pulsating place must have a sensational life filled with daily adventures.

When I moved to Chicago to get my MBA from Columbia College Chicago, I relished in the kind of living that one does in a big city. Columbia College filled my evenings while I worked full time at the Coleman Foundation. If that sounds familiar to any Fresnans, it is because Coleman funds the Entrepreneurship Chair position at Fresno State and several Entrepreneurship Fellows as well. Working for a grantmaking Foundation gave me immense admiration and respect for the people who are working for change. I learned about the very real financial constraints that non-profits face – how they do so much with so little. I had no idea, at the time, how valuable that experience was, but the lessons I learned stay with me today.

Although I hated to leave Chicago, I landed a job as Executive Director of the Peoria Arts Guild. Located in downtown Peoria, IL, the Peoria Arts Guild houses an exhibit space, a community art school, a 2D art rental program for local businesses, and a retail store that consigns the work of local artists. The Guild also organizes one of the top 10 Fine Art Fairs in the country. This small town attracted people from all over the country who stayed in Peoria hotels, ate at Peoria restaurants and shopped at Peoria stores. Planning and executing that event showed me the incredible impact events can have on the local economy.

Next, I followed my future husband to Milwaukee, WI and became the Executive Director of the East Town Association. Who knew that I was moving to a land of BIDs? I became quickly engrossed in BIDs, economic development, tourism, urban living, collaboration, government relationships, TIF districts and even major infrastructure projects. East Town Association is a membership- based organization representing the businesses located in the eastern portion of downtown. I spent 7 years in Milwaukee, where I learned a great deal about the function of a downtown and the incredible impact a BID can have on a city.

In February of 2011 my mother, my very best friend, passed away to pancreatic cancer. That experience changed me and I found that I wanted a new professional challenge and I wanted to be near my sisters (one lives in LA and the other in San Francisco). I was thrilled to have the opportunity to move to Fresno and start a BID from scratch. My husband and I pulled the trigger in July and moved our two young girls and two dogs across the country. On September 14, 2011, I started at the Downtown Fresno Partnership with eyes wide open (mostly) to both the assets of this community and the challenges that it faces.

It’s now nearly two years later and this role is exactly what I expected. It is also nothing like I expected. There are financial challenges, language barriers, political agendas, historical baggage, infrastructure maintenance needs, major projects in the works, long-time events, new events, business owners that have lost trust, property owners that want change, construction moving constantly outward, and a community that has all but put a “closed” sign on the downtown. There is never a moment of rest or whimsy – it is full throttle all the time – and all of that I expected.

What I didn’t expect is the combative nature of those who I expected would be our partners. But we continue to battle to help this city reach its potential.
I am blessed to enter this battle with an army of talented, hardworking people. I use the word blessed because there must have been some greater power that brought all of us to this spot at this time. Check them out:

Mitch was my first hire. He and his wife Michelle moved here from Madison, WI and he created our Ambassador program from scratch. He is my polar opposite and he is a pillar for the organization. He has hired and trained our team of dedicated ambassadors and is growing the program daily. He has taught me a lot about slowing down, pacing my *brilliant* ideas and grounding my creativity. In other words, he pulls me out of the clouds where I want to reside.

Rocio was an intern when I got here. She is quiet and reserved and you wonder what she is thinking. She is a work horse, as productive as anyone I have ever met without ever complaining. She works on all of our events and it makes no difference if she is working a three hour event or a three day event, she smiles and does whatever needs to get done. She is steady, reliable, calm, strong, and never sways. While I am fearful of the day when she has learned enough and decides to move on, I will support her in anything she wants to do.

Gretchen and Cole are SC2 Fellows. They arrived last September and are working with us for only 2 short years. Which means I have 15 months left with these two incredible women – yes I am counting! Gretchen is another workhorse. She looks around for ways to add work to her plate and she buries herself in each new project. But what is amazing is that she always resurfaces with a completed project, ready to tackle the next one. She is never overwhelmed and she is always crossing off to-dos. And she is funny. REALLY funny! She proves that laughter and productivity can co-exist! Cole is a complete 180 from Gretchen– she is studying to be a yoga instructor on the side and that demeanor is within her already. She is calm, thoughtful and thorough. She is the wise tortoise that knows how to pace accordingly and always arrives early to the finish line. She is careful and kind and generous. She brings balance to our office and I am always thankful for her sturdiness. Gretchen and Cole are paid for by the German Marshall Fund and I am hopeful to keep them after their Fellowship is over. Anyone want to sponsor a Fellow?

I think everyone knows Kim even if you have never met her. Kim is our cheerleader while being the complete antithesis of what that conjures. She is imaginative and inventive. She writes a lot – our blog, our newsletter, business listings, notes of encouragement. She smiles a lot too. She is our office manager by title but our glue in actuality. She is a mom to her children and to all of us. She fills our office with warmth and joy and laughter daily.

Each of our ambassadors brings a different chapter to our young story as they put on the green shirts and walk the streets of downtown looking for someone to assist. It takes a lot of dedication to be out there in the elements (and I am not just referring to the weather) performing the tasks that we ask of them.

Every single person who works with us is committed to this process of place-changing. None of us thinks of this as a job, because it wouldn’t work if that was our attitude. Nothing about this is easy, although the idea is simple.

So we work hard every day to make downtown Fresno a little bit better. Our story will not rewrite itself overnight. It will take years. Success is a slow and steady ride to a slightly unknown destination. But we know that – and we are in. Completely. Every day.

“It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes villagers to raise a village.” I love everything about this statement. My staff and I, we wake up in the morning and this is where we want to be. Each of us believes that Downtown Fresno can be better than what it is today. But what that looks like will take time to develop and will take all of us to create, together, the best village.

Since that first trip to Chicago where I fell in love with city life, I have learned, lost and evolved. It took me years to get to where I am now. And it’s the same with this city. It will get where it needs to go but it will take time. We must always remain determined, thoughtful, resilient. I have committed myself to doing what is best for downtown Fresno. I am in. Mitch is in. Rocio, Gretchen, Cole, Kim, the ambassadors – we are all in. Slow, steady and patient, but never waning.

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2 Comments

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  1. Love this blog and will follow! Never forget that change is hard and slow, but every step forward and every eye opened is worth the effort! Thank you for embracing my hometown!

  2. Well written, very insightful and all of your efforts are much appreciated.

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