In San Luis Obispo, there is a handful of people that have dedicated much of their lives to creating the warm and inviting place that we affectionately call Downtown. Last month I had an opportunity to meet with one individual that undoubtedly played a big role in shaping the present state of our community. Deborah Cash spent nearly 20 years at the helm of the Downtown Association and as my predecessor she navigated some difficult times and exciting times but always stayed on course to building a better Downtown. Needless to say, I had some questions for Deborah that I hoped would shed some insight into what her career looked like, through her eyes.
If memory serves me well, you owned a wine shop prior to acting as our Executive Director for 18 years. How did you make that transition? In looking for a career change, I wanted to use my combined education, work experience and love of Downtown to find a career path that provided both fulfillment and, being a single mom, a little more security. Having lived through the ups and downs of owning a business, and also wanting to expand into other areas like event production and business administration, when the position came available, I felt very ready to bring the organization – and the Downtown – to the next level. So I would say the stars were aligned!
That must have been a very exciting and nerve racking time, what motivated you to persevere? I love Downtown and having been a business owner previously, I understood the feelings of people who have invested time and money into their dreams. I also knew that dreams can become nightmares if things do not go well and I was determined help those people. When I did help someone it was amazingly gratifying. I have always been an energetic and creative person and those attributes typically provide the will to succeed but there were times that I did cry. Fortunately I had a great support network at the office and among the Board and business owners. When I retired, I was so grateful for so many wonderful people who helped me on the journey. I once heard the ‘burnout’ of a Main Street manager is about three years. Since I made it through six of those, I guess I had a penchant for that kind of work.
As Downtown matured and evolved you surely saw a lot of highs and lows. Would you mind sharing a moment in time that reflects those times? What saved Downtown from the hard times? The week that I started in July 1995, three things happened: The Marsh Street Makeover where most of Marsh Street from Santa Rosa to the freeway would be limited access or closed for the majority of Summer, the Prado Day Center was turning dirt for its new facility and we had been notified by Main Street [program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation] that our Main Street status was in jeopardy due to delinquent reports. For the construction project, I worked with the City to develop a public relations plan that included signage, having project representatives visiting businesses and providing regular updates. It made a huge difference and even when the project stalled, people were grateful for the association’s intervention and support on their behalf. The Prado Day Center was, in the end a huge success. Initially, it started out as a pledge from the then – Business Improvement Association (Downtown Association) and the Chamber of Commerce to donate materials and labor to help build a serving site for People’s Kitchen outside of the Downtown core. It took several years but it all worked out. As for Main Street, I called the state program director and explained that there had been a several month period without an Executive Director and pledged to comply with all of the necessary reports and attend the next annual conference. Fortunately, I had done previous work for the BIA and was familiar with the program. At the conference I felt at home with the people from other communities who had very similar experiences, many of which I knew that I would eventually encounter. We went on to win the Great American Main Street Award in 1999 and I became a Certified Main Street Manager in 2001. Through the years, there were disappointments and wonderful accomplishments but in balance, that is life and Downtown has always bounced back from the low times and enjoyed the benefits of the high times. Ken Schwartz refers to SLO’s “happy accident” of being a naturally beautiful, historically relevant, college town with lots of energy and much more that contributes to the charm and feel of this place.
Now that you have retired, how are you adjusting? Are you enjoying a more laid back slower paced life or are you keeping pace with your career and filling your schedule with new activities? Everyone said, “You will wonder how you ever had time to work.” That is so true. I do some volunteer work and a little bit of writing, including for the SLO Journal. Mostly I’m trying to tackle all those things I said I would get to some day like reading novels again, tending to my garden and orchard, spending time with family and friends, chickens, dogs and cats. Oh and cleaning the garage. I also get to spend more time with my husband and I’m now “Mama” to our two grandchildren.
Looking back, would you do it again? If so, what piece of wisdom would you take back to the beginning? I would definitely always seek doing what I love for a career. I don’t think it is possible to know what you would differently until it is over so I wouldn’t offer any advice along those lines. Just be true to yourself and be grateful. Those are the top two things you can do for yourself in all areas of your life. After talking with Deborah it was apparent just how much love and care she put into her career at the Downtown Association. As a new director on my third year at this office, I can see how statistics like a three-year burnout cycle and an ever-changing business environment would have been daunting but absolutely worth it in the end. I just hope that at the end of my career in Downtown I will be able to handoff a legacy as graciously as Deborah Cash did to me and that my legacy will be as equally well-regarded as hers.