Downtown Washington Inc. begins the new year with a new executive director, but its focus remains the same — preserving and promoting the historic downtown core.
In September, Tyler King was tapped as the new executive director, replacing Bridgette Kelch, who had been in the role since 2001.
King, a 2006 graduate of Washington High School, is not a stranger to the organization. Four years ago, he started out as a volunteer at the events and then joined two committees. Next, he was elected to the board of directors and most recently joined the executive board before assuming his new full-time position.
He has more than seven years of experience in event planning, community relations, management, media relations and marketing.
Downtown Washington Inc., formerly a merchants committee since the late 1950s, was formed in 1989 when the city of Washington was selected as one of the first five pilot communities for the Missouri Main Street Program. The organization has maintained its status as a Missouri Main Street Program and as a National Main Street Community.
King said while Downtown Washington Inc. is probably better known for its numerous events and festivals, like the annual Art Fair & Winefest, which attracts thousands to downtown, he said the organization is just as focused on historic preservation, economic development and promoting downtown as a place to shop, live and work.
“We are involved in a wide range of projects with the city and other groups which benefit the downtown area and community,” King told The Missourian. “Overall, I would say we had a very successful 2019 and we’re excited about the new year.”
On a personal level, King said he’s really enjoying the job.
“It’s everything I could ask for —it’s challenging and different every day,” he said. “The board and community have really welcomed me and I really appreciate that.”
King doesn’t expect to make any major changes in 2020, and will instead immerse himself in the job.
The organization added a new position this past year with the hiring of Nicole Oermann as events/administrative assistant in June. She works under King and Cassidy Lowery, events/promotions specialist. Managing the Contract Postal Unit (CPU) operation is Micheline Canter, who joined the staff in March.
The Downtown Washington Inc. offices are located in the historic post office building at Second and Lafayette streets, which the organization bought and renovated.
The office also has one part-time staffer, Danielle Grotewiel, who assists with a variety of projects.
King said the organization tracks stats for downtown and it’s something his board and city officials look at closely. From October 2018 through September 2019, there was a gain of 30 new employees downtown, which was the result of new businesses or expansion of existing ones.
“We also saw an investment of $8,318,599 in private investment in the downtown area during that time period,” he noted. “This includes both residential and commercial.”
Another $515,000 was made in public improvements, he said. “This could be sidewalks, streets, anything like that,” he explained.
King said volunteers are the backbone of the organization, and about 9,953 volunteer hours were logged from October 2018 through September 2019, valued at $253,103.
“We are definitely volunteer-driven and couldn’t do it without our volunteers, which includes our board, committees and people working at all of the events,” he said. “More volunteers are always welcomed.”
The number of volunteer hours is up from about 6,928 the previous year, he noted.
Downtown Washington Inc. has a 13-member board and four staff members, all of whom attend trainings offered through the Missouri Main Street and National Main Street programs. Its sister organization, the Historic Washington Foundation, has eight members.
In all, King said the downtown organization hosted about 84 days of community events and educational sessions over the past year with an estimated 85,000 attendees.
Not including money spent by festival attendees, King estimates about $364,502 was infused into the Washington economy this past year through the downtown group’s efforts.
“This includes money spent on supplies, materials and other costs,” he said. “It’s all about keeping it local.”
Downtown Washington Inc. also offers grants, counsels businesses and individuals on historic tax credits available and assists prospective business owners interested in downtown.
Currently, a revolving loan interest loan program is available for facade improvements, as well as hands-on classes for historic building maintenance.
“We counseled about 42 property and business owners this past year,” he said, adding some of these are potential new businesses, which are looking for a location or in the early planning phase for starting one or someone interested in purchasing property.
The downtown group also works with existing businesses and property owners on improvements, attracting tenants and boosting its revenues.
Downtown Washington Inc. hosts many events and festivals, large and small, each year which attract not just local residents, but many out-of-town visitors.
The 2020 events calendar will kick off with the Post Office Stomp March 6, a dance featuring live music that raises money for the downtown post office, which the organization bought and renovated. The post office is operated as a contract postal unit (CPU) and serves as headquarters for Downtown Washington Inc.
From April through September, the group hosts its annual Sunset on the Riverfront concert series. The free outdoor events are held the fourth Thursday of the month at Rennick Riverfront Park with live music, food and drink vendors.
Every May, one of its signature events, the Art Fair & Winefest, takes place featuring one of the state’s largest wine tastings, a juried selection of artwork, live music, food vendors and other special activities. This year’s festival will take place May 15-17.
In June, the group will host its annual Cleanup Day, weather permitting. Downtown board members, volunteers and community members work in small teams to pick up trash, pull weeds, plant and paint — whatever work is needed to spruce up the downtown and riverfront area.
A newer and extremely popular event, Farm to Table, takes place in early September where guests enjoy a four-course meal prepared by local chefs and featuring some locally sourced food on one long table set up on Main Street in front of the Farmers’ Market. The event, which sells out quickly, is a fundraiser for the circa 1856 Farmers’ Market building and other downtown projects.
Also in September is the Fall Festival of the Arts & Crafts featuring vendors selling their handmade wares, live music, a food court, children’s activities and more. This year’s event is scheduled for Sept. 25-27.
The lines form in October for the annual Chili Cook-Off where guests can sample chili from a large number of teams sponsored by local businesses and groups. Live music also is featured. The 2020 Chili Cook-Off will take place Friday, Oct. 23.
November is always a busy month with the Murder Mystery Night, Downtown Holiday Shopping Open House, Black/Plaid Friday event, Holiday Parade of Lights and Small Business Saturday.
The holiday fun continues in December with a Kids Shopping Night, Santa Claus arriving on Amtrak and visiting with families on several Saturdays and the Holiday House Tour featuring downtown homes and businesses decorated for Christmas.
The downtown organization also partners with the Merchants Committee for special shopping promotions throughout the year. History wagon rides and walking tours also are held.
Goals for New Year
King said the downtown board will hold a retreat later this month and 2020 goals will be established at that time.
He has set some personal goals for himself which include keeping vacancies, both residential and storefronts, to a minimum, staying focused on the economic vitality of downtown, along with the overall design and look, and pushing promotions.
Another goal will be to increase the number of “investors” or members, which are businesses that support the organization, and boosting the “Friends” of downtown, who are individual supporters.
King said there are a lots of perks to being an investor or friend, including voting on board members, business promotion, sponsorship opportunities, postage delivery, free gift certificate program, discounted ad rates, fast passes to events and more.