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New DID interim president Bill Brown explains the DID’s role, and why he’s the right man for the job
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
It wasn’t a cordial occasion when Rich Davis, President of the Downtown Improvement District, and Ben Hall, manager of Hall’s Gas House, a member of the DID, appeared before Fort Wayne City Council late last March.
President Tom Smith, along with other members of council, made it clear that he didn’t believe the DID was doing enough to fulfill its mission, claiming that many downtown business owners didn’t know who Davis was, criticizing the DID’s website, and lamenting a “lack of communication” between the DID and city council (though council member Mitch Harper serves on the DID’s board).
One could probably debate whether Smith’s claims had merit, or how much merit, and then segue into a lengthy discussion of what council sees as the mission of the Downtown Improvement District, versus what the DID and its stakeholders see as its mission, and how that mission might be fulfilled in practical terms, with a consideration of the resources the DID has at its disposal…
But in the end, that’s all academic — Fort Wayne City Council wanted to see a change in the way the DID operates, and council controls the money the DID gets from the City.
So, when DID president Rich Davis handed in his resignation a few weeks ago and Bill Brown — member of the DID board, former Allen County Commissioner and current candidate for Allen County Council — was immediately named interim president, the only real surprise among people who follow such things was how quickly it happened.
A few DID board members or public officials connected with community development expressed reservations about the process by which Brown was chosen. The harshest criticism came from Allen County Council candidate Gina Burgess, who issued a statement requesting that Brown voluntarily resign from his DID appointment, charging that the appointment is “tainted by the perception of ‘pay to play’.” Burgess’ statement reads: “He has used campaign donations to fund DID programs, the position of Interim DID Director is funded by tax payer dollars, and the hiring process was not open to the tax-paying public, potentially excluding other qualified applicants, denying them access simply because they did not ‘pay to play’.”
But as we said, Burgess seems to be the lone voice in the political arena expressing anything more than mild concern.
Still, Brown seems eager to lay out his resume, explain why he was unanimously approved as interim director by the executive committee of the DID board, and make the case for why he hopes the “interim” part of his job title will go away after the DID board conducts an official search later this year.
He’s also eager to let people know that his appointment is not something that just sort of “happened.” Brown sought the position back in 2005, when Paula Hughes stepped down as president of the Downtown Improvement District. Back then, as the mission of the DID started to move beyond beautification, the board thought it would be better to bring in an outside perspective. Dan Carmody from Rock Island, Illinois took the position, and then, in 2008, Rich Davis took the job after a stint doing similar work in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Now, Brown feels, the board wants to move in a different direction, and believes having someone with strong local ties as DID president will help to do that. “I look at it as a continuum of leadership,” says Brown. “With Paula, then Dan and then Rich, a lot of capacity has been built, there’s a lot going on. And now, if you have an ‘enabler’ that’s a very knowledgeable local person in the position, it’s a great resource for anyone who wants to participate and help grow our vision and mission of downtown in a quality way.”
Describing Brown as “a very knowledgeable local person” is an understatement. The number of boards, committees, and economic and business development organizations Brown has served on, been a part of, or simply worked with at one time or another during his professional career is staggering. Before he became involved in public life, Brown founded Summit City Electric, a business he grew from “a set of hand tools and a used van” in 1978 and remained sole owner of until selling it about 20 years ago.
As a sort of sideline to that business, Brown bought and redeveloped old properties like disused buildings and homes. “I’ve pulled several buildings off the brink, buildings that people thought maybe weren’t worth saving, or have gone in to parts of the community that people thought ‘why would you ever invest your money in those area’,” Brown says. “It breaks all three rules of real estate — location, location, location. But not everything is driven by the almighty dollar.”
Indeed, Brown says he never made a lot of money from this “sideline,” but it did add value to an area or neighborhood, and encouraged other property owners to do something similar. Sure, it was a business proposition, but on another level, Brown sees it as a way of contributing to the community — he had a particular skill set and knowledge base, and he saw where he could make a difficult project work.
“Frankly, I like tough jobs, I like working on the projects that maybe other people don’t want to do,” Brown says, adding. “Now granted, that’s not this one…”
One of the central issues that plagues any discussion of downtown development is often called the “chicken-or-the-egg” question — do you encourage amenities like a grocery store or drug store in the hopes more people will look to downtown as a place to live; or do you focus on residential options so that the area reaches a certain critical mass, making it a more interesting prospect for a business owner to set up shop?
Brown definitely falls into the latter category. “As people discover and develop opportunities to live, work, and play downtown, the main focus will be the facilitation by the DID towards those efforts,” he says. “A lot of this is about facilitation — community development through facilitation and investment, and helping understand where the barriers are so that folks will come in and participate.”
As Brown explains it, the role of facilitator means, in many cases, “filling the gap” when it comes to financing projects that might contribute to redevelopment. He stresses that the DID won’t “carry” these projects, and it won’t — it can’t — just “hand out” grant money to any business idea…
But, to break it down, Brown is someone with a deep understanding of all the different economic and community development entities in Fort Wayne and Allen County. He knows what resources are available, where to find them, and how to get them. He knows how to identify a good business proposal, and knows who might be interested in investing in that business proposal. All the myriad ways in which a business project can find the financing to “fill the gap”… Brown is familiar with all of them.
“I’m kind of ‘soup-to-nuts’,” Brown says. “I can go up to 50 thousand feet, or get down on the ground and pull a weed. People might hear that and think ‘he’s got no focus,’ but that’s not the case. I’ve got the faculties to work in this very broad sphere because of my background and knowledge.”
The focus on “facilitating opportunities” doesn’t mean that the community events the DID organizes and sponsors with varying frequency are shortchanged. Far from it. They’re an essential part of marketing and branding downtown. Brown is thrilled that Buskerfest is back this year on June 30 after being subsumed into the Taste of the Arts festival last year. “The first year, when we decided to do the Buskerfest on the square, there was this vibe akin to the TRF when it was downtown — more organic, more eclectic,” says Brown, who contributed to funding Buskerfest the first two years. “That’s a brand builder and an advocacy piece, and it was a great event.”
Returning to the DID’s role in downtown development, and his own role as the leader of the organization, Brown stresses that it’s not about him. Brown compares it to… well, fishing. “I’m not necessarily a good fisherman,” he says. “I like to catch. But I’ve had the opportunity to fish with a lot of folks who are good fishermen, and these guys know what they’re doing. So it’s not about me making it all happen for others. But folks who have the talent, desire, and an interest to work hard and make things happen… I think it’s the job at the Downtown Improvement District to facilitate those efforts.”