| 2013 Winter | story by DEREK HELMS | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
What is your organization’s most important commodity or service?
Our mission is to preserve, protect, and promote Downtown Lawrence as the retail, service and professional, governmental, entertainment and social center of our community.
What is your organization’s most important priority?
To promote the interests of the Downtown business district and to enhance Lawrence’s overall appeal and importance in the state and the region as a shopping, dining, entertainment and community destination.
What has been some of the most important aspects of your success?
We have maintained and enhanced our Downtown over the past 40 plus years since the founding of DLI. Many Downtown districts in the region have disappeared or are no longer the vibrant hub of commercial and community activity and that they once were. Downtown Lawrence is thriving, vibrant, dynamic and relevant.
How many people does your business employ? Or in your case, how many people do you interact with on a daily basis and are responsible to?
This is a one-person organization and I serve a board of 7 Downtown business owners from a variety of business sectors. Of course, I interact with member and non-member business owners, City staff, media reps, Downtown customers, people in the hospitality and tourism industries and community members on a daily basis.
How do you and your organization make a positive impact on the Lawrence community?
We work hard to make sure that Downtown is thriving and vibrant. I bring events of all sorts Downtown – both as planner/coordinator and as a liaison for other event planners and companies. I work with current Downtown business owners to market and promote their businesses and to increase their revenue and I offer opportunities and venues for businesses owners to meet and work with each other. I work with prospective business owners who are interested in locating Downtown and am always on the lookout for businesses that would add to our overall appeal and the goods and services that we can offer to the public.
DLI also contributes to Downtown beautification and coordinates that with the City in terms of seasonal plantings, holiday decorations, and of course our beautiful holiday lights that just went up. We also pay for additional maintenance and cleaning via our employment of a JobLink client who cleans Downtown sidewalks twice a week. Our job is to ensure that Downtown Lawrence remains an appealing and attractive place to live, work, shop, dine, and be entertained.
What is do you see as your personal responsibility and your organization’s responsibility to the community?
Both DLI and I have the same responsibility – to make sure that our Downtown district is the best it can be. Downtown serves as our public square; it is an important community gathering place that has stood the test of time, the vagaries of many economic cycles, and has even withstood multiple incursions from enemy forces! We want to make sure that the businesses and the business district are here for another 150 plus years and that we remain an important destination and aspect of the quality of life in Lawrence.
What would you change about doing business in Lawrence?
I don’t know that there is much I personally would change. I think that Lawrence is a good place to do business and there is always the potential for more collaborative efforts to increase traffic and revenue Downtown as well as across the city.
As an organization in the ever changing business/downtown/retail/entertainment area how do you remain relevant? And how has your business changed over the years to remain relevant?
I think that DLI has always provided a great service to its member businesses as well as the City as a whole. One of the best reasons for an independent business owner to join DLI is that we provide a unified voice for lobbying with the city and county on myriad issues, from economic development to infrastructure, construction and zoning. Because we are a unified group we are included in the conversations that occur about these issues and are kept informed so that we can be proactive rather than reactive.
A large part of my job is communicating to members, helping them with marketing and advertising opportunities for their individual businesses, and promoting Downtown Lawrence as a whole as a destination for living, working, and entertainment, whether that is shopping, dining, live music, theater, the arts, etc. Social media, email, and the internet in general has changed our ability to promote and market on an individual and group level and to reach out to potential visitors from beyond Lawrence. Bringing events of different sorts – retail and dining events, parades, sporting events, musical events, fundraisers, Final Fridays – is a key aspect of that promotion. I work consistently to create opportunities that the public can participate in and enjoy that will also benefit my members’ businesses. I am finding that is how to stay relevant – I have to provide a steady stream of ideas and information and then package that in a way that appeals to both the potential customer and the merchant. It’s quite a challenge, but it keeps my creative juices flowing and keeps my skills current in terms of marketing on many levels. It’s a far cry from my first job in an advertising agency in New York City almost 25 years ago. Then the options were print, radio, and television. We have so many more outlets and opportunities now and I do feel that I am helping DLI members take advantage of those.
How do you manage your day-to-day stress of business?
I sigh a lot! Seriously, I do. I also drink a lot of coffee. I don’t take things personally (or at least try my best not to). I remind myself on a daily basis that there are at least 150 different opinions Downtown and they are all right, I am not an owner who is taking the risk of opening and operating a business 365 days a year, paying employees, a mortgage, etc. They are taking the risk so they are entitled to their opinions. All I can do is try to support and enhance what they are doing to the best of my ability.
But I am a very high energy and upbeat person and I thrive in this atmosphere. I absolutely love the variety and the challenges that I face every day. I just produced the Holiday Lighting Ceremony and Santa Rescue for the first time and that was a thrill. It is not the largest event I have produced, although it is fairly large, but it is challenging because there are so many different aspects to coordinate with the City, police, fire and medical, entertainers, sound and lights, you name it. And then you have to expect the unexpected – the fire truck takes longer than you thought and you end up singing “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” in front of 2000 people to get a sing along going. Is it stressful? Yes! But I feel fortunate that this is the type of stress I face – mostly it’s the kind of stress that I can handle pretty well because I am suited to it. I am supremely lucky to have a job that fits my skills, personality and likes so well.
What is the biggest challenge you feel your organization faces?
I would say one major challenge is trying to ensure and maintain a good ratio of different business sectors. It’s important to have variety – a few chains alongside a healthy number of local, independent stores offering a variety of goods, a mix of different types of restaurants, entertainment venues, the Arts Center, the Library, hotels and residential properties, professional and personal services – all of these are essential to maintaining a vibrant and dynamic Downtown district. It’s also important to increase our 24 hour cycle. Downtown is a major asset to the City in its ability to recruit major employers as well as to KU’s ability to recruit top faculty and staff candidates and we know that. But we can’t rest on our laurels, we are always striving to make Downtown the best place it can be.
Over the course of working in various Lawrence businesses, what has been the single largest change in the Lawrence business environment?
Our Downtown and doing business here has not necessarily changed all that much since I moved here in 2003; if anything it has continued to improve and remains a dynamic reflection of our community. Storefronts are full, new businesses are locating here, and there is a demand for more residential opportunities as well. There have been some changes in the overall business landscape in Lawrence with some of the large manufacturing companies either downsizing or closing some facilities. However, we have also seen the growth of many new medium-sized and small businesses in a variety of industries. Times change, but we feel that we keep the vibrant, entrepreneurial spirit alive here; we actively welcome it. Downtown is the heart of the city and we are home to many entrepreneurs, whether they have been in business for four months or 40 plus years.
What do you foresee as being the biggest challenge to downtown? And how are you addressing or preparing for it?
Our long term focus is to keep Downtown Lawrence the heart of the city. To address that we are continually promoting Downtown as a destination for a one of a kind experience. That includes everything from regional events like the Sidewalk Sale or Old Fashioned Christmas parade to community-wide events like the Holiday Lighting Ceremony, St. Patrick’s Day Parade, KU Homecoming Parade and Zombie Walk. We try to provide a variety of activities – shopping events, fundraising events, arts events, Final Fridays, etc. – as well as simply providing a great place for the community to gather, meet up with friends and neighbors and enjoy themselves. ■