In the fall of 2019, shortly after assuming the role of CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership, I took on a challenge. I understood it was an ambitious and even risky challenge, but I also believed it to essential.
Like many downtown business districts, our organization suffered from a limited diversity in our representation and influence. As I have heard others in the district management world refer to their boards, our board was primarily male, pale, and stale. Getting to know the individual members of the board, I quickly was impressed by the wisdom, the commitment, the investment, and frankly the diversity that existed within this group of mostly white, mostly older (60+) mostly men. There did exist a diversity of experience, a diversity of philosophy, a diversity of perspectives, but within a relatively narrow scope.
In looking to expand the diversity of our organization, beginning with the Board of Directors, we looked to the community of stakeholders. As a Business Improvement District (BID), we are funded by, serve, and therefore are governed by our property owners and business owners. The business owners in our district are overwhelmingly white and the property owners are even more so. Board leadership did understand the importance of diversifying our boards, though there was, and is, a range of what informs that understanding. Our nominations committee put forth an effort to identify and recruit people that represented different viewpoints and identified differently than the majority of our existing board. Anyone who has done even a small amount of work in diversity knows how challenging and potentially harmful this process can be. I believe our board approached this charge thoughtfully and authentically, if not fruitfully. We have been successful in greatly diversifying our board in terms of gender and age. We do not ask board members to identify their racial identity or ethnic background, yet it is clear that little progress has been made in racial diversity on our board.
It is trite to say that representation matters. What I will say is that my initial assessment of Downtown Boulder exposed a vulnerability. Downtown Boulder is an extraordinary district. The Pearl Street Mall, at its center, is still the gold standard for pedestrian-oriented downtown districts in America. It has also enjoyed consistent economic and commercial success since its dedication 45 years ago. However looking at data from intercept surveys, watching the mix of stores and goods available, as well as talking to many Boulderites, I discovered a prevailing narrative that Downtown was for tourists; that locals did not come downtown. I should say that I found that narrative to be a great exaggeration of reality and in fact, I have commented about how many times I had conversations with ‘locals’ who told me they don’t come downtown, even as those conversations were happening in downtown establishments. never the less, the narrative was there and it was not based on nothing.
That is a sentiment that is not uncommon to many city centers, especially those that are popular destinations. There are lifelong residents in New York City, for example, who have never been to Times Square. But Boulder is not New York City, and the Pearl Street Mall is not Times Square. Our downtown has been – and should be – the community’s living room. When you have people living in your house who don’t believe the living room is for them, you have a problem. Despite our downtown’s success, Many of our local residents, some of who have been here for decades, others who were new to arrive, did not see themselves as belonging in the downtown. Simply put, downtown was not serving everybody. The diversity that exists within our city and county was not involved with the ongoing creation and governance of our downtown. Downtown was very much serving those who were involved in the discussion. But we were leaving much of our community out.
In other words, representation matters.
As I write these words, I can not help but imagine those who have been involved for years reading this and taking issue. They may not, they may agree, but I can easily project their resistance. “They” are a faceless, nameless amalgamation of the “old guard” who have historically held the power and influence. As I began this exploration of representation, I was keenly aware of “Them”. Would They feel threatened, defensive, open? As a relative newcomer to the city, charged with leading a district of high regard and accomplishment, how could I support the introduction of new and alternative voices in a way that could bring more people into the conversation effectively, without pushing others out? Were They ready for this conversation? Was I? Could we be successful?
This is not a challenge specific to Boulder. As place management professionals, we have been having conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for years. That said, in many ways, the work we do is in conflict with equity. The more successful our downtowns are from an economic standpoint, (our collective charge), the less inclusive and equitable they may become. There is also the complicated paradox that our industry, which is best poised to lead efforts of equity in our city centers are funded and governed, by and large, by the greatest beneficiaries of inequity; property owners. Boulder, in many ways, exemplifies this dynamic. By economic measures, downtown is an overwhelming success. High pedestrian impressions, strong sales tax in multiple sectors, low vacancy, high rents, high sales per square-footage, the list goes on. The growing success of the commercial district has arguably overshadowed and allowed us to lose sight of downtown as the community’s living room.
In subsequent posts, I will attempt to chronicle my own experience of our organization’s specific, tactical effort to address this dynamic. The work began over a year ago. I regret not capturing more of my thoughts along the way, as I have learned so much from this process that I believe is worthy of sharing. I will do my best in these posts to remember the thought process along the way, to recreate the steps and missteps, and to write from a place of exploration more than from hindsight.
This is the story of the Downtown Boulder Partnership’s Community Advisory Board, an initiative that we began a year ago. This is the story of inviting the community into a living room with the hopes that they can see it as theirs. This is the story of a remarkable group of people investing their time, their energy, and most importantly their trust in an idea.
When we began this work in an effort to explain the goal, I borrowed one of my favorite Jane Jacobs quotes:
Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.
This is the story of asking the question, Can our downtowns be created by everybody?