Episode 21: Carol Hunter from the Downtown Mobile Alliance

Transcript:

Welcome to Podcast episode number 21 of the Mobile Alabama business podcast. My name is Marcus Neto. I own Blue Fish. We are a digital marketing and web design company based in Mobile, Alabama. I am the host of Mobile, Alabama Business Podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their businesses and how they got started. I would like to thank you for spending time with us today.

In today's show we have a special treat, Carol Hunter. Carol is the Director of Communications for the Downtown Mobile Alliance and they've been very influential in the changes that we have seen happening downtown. Carol is a wonderful person and she agreed to sit down with us and talked about some of those changes and the thought process behind them. Downtown Mobile Alliance is responsible for some seventy square blocks of area downtown. They have an economic development program that's in place. They also help with the beautification of the city. She covers things like the flowers and graffiti that may be found but anyway its just a really great interview and I really appreciate Carol sitting down with me to talk about these things. So without further ado here is Carol Hunter. 

Today I am sitting down with Carol Hunter. Carol is the Communications Director for the Downtown Mobile Alliance. So welcome to the Podcast Carol.  

Carol:  Thanks Marcus. I am really glad to be here with you. 

Marcus: We have been Downtown now for probably about five months if I remember correctly and its been really interesting to see the community that has been built down here. I think you guys are very much at the core of what that is. So tell us a little bit about the Downtown Mobile Alliance. I mean give us some, maybe some history of how it came to be and what problem its trying to solve and where you are at right now.

Carol: First of all I am so glad you use the word community because Downtown is this incredible community of people who live and work and visit on a regular basis. I've found, I worked Downtown for almost twenty five years now and that's always been the case but now that we have more and more people living here and looking out for each other and being connected to each other. It's even strengthen that sense of community. So I love that you use that word. But we do have to go a little bit into the way back machine to get to the origins of the Downtown Mobile Alliance. Coincidentally this year is the 25th anniversary of Main Street Mobile which is the precursor of the Alliance. The Mayor at the time, Mike Dow started the Main Street Mobile as a department of the city and for probably 15 years the mayor had that department really focus on developing, redeveloping Downtown Mobile. Mike Dow was a big believer in the idea that if you, that your Downtown is the heart of your city and if you don't have a strong heart the body dies and withers. So he spent much of his 16 years in office trying to rebuild Downtown. Invested a lot of money and after about 12 years or so of the city spending millions and millions of dollars on the streetscape, improving the side walks and the lighting especially on our main pedestrian thoroughfares, Royal Street and Dauphin street Contine and St. Francis. 

After those projects were finished, I think realize that the public had gone. The city had invested a great deal of money. Now it was time for their private sector to step up. And so they began looking at opportunities for an organization beyond what the city was able to do and what Main Street was able to do. The State of Alabama had authorize the development of Business Improvement Districts in the State. Birmingham was the first. They have one in Downtown Birmingham. And so, after some years of working with property owners, the legislation was a passed. We have to be enabled by an active legislator. The property owners had to vote to impose upon themselves an assessment. We opened our doors 10 years ago in 2005, a week after Katrina. Since then, we've been working on intensive cleaning, beautification. That is always the first thing right is to make a place beautiful. We plant and maintain about 200 beds throughout the business improvement district which is essentially the eastern third of Downtown, the real central business district. We go as far west to Cedar Street, not too much further than where we are right now and its about 77 square blocks that every day are swept with a pan and broom.

Marcus: Just to interject, I've noticed, some golf cars that have water tanks on the back. There are flowers planted around the trees. I mean it really is not just a lip service kind of thing. I mean there is an intense effort that's going on down here to make it look more attractive.

Carol: That's exactly right because what, the message that we try to send is that this is a well-cared for place. Somebody cares about this place. Because if that's the message that some subliminally is sent then it's a place that people want to be and having the flowers planted is a way to encourage people maybe to walk a little further to explore that next block and see, maybe there is a shop down there or a restaurant I haven't tried, and as long as the walk is pleasant, people will take that walk. So that's all part of a strategy, to get people to explore as much of this 77 blocks as we can get to.

Marcus: Now I'm reminded of New York City, and I'm missing the Mayor's, name back in the 90's and he had much the same kind of mentality that I think we are seeing now with our current Mayor Stimpson and that you don't necessarily go after the big things but you focus on the smaller things that really make a difference. So there, if it was cleaning up liter or cutting down on jaywalking or whatever the case may be that it was focusing on those little things made a larger impact of moving, in that case, it was moving the crime and stuff like that, the drugs and prostitution outside of the downtown.

Carol: What you are establishing is a sense of order. 

Marcus: Yeah, exactly.

Carol: And that is so critical in an urban environment. It's critical everywhere really but in an urban environment, there has to be a sense of order and safety. Having a clean place, a beautiful place. It's one of the reasons that we address graffiti so quickly. If you can cover up, paint over, remove graffiti in 24 hours, 48 hours, there is a good chance it won't come back. If you leave it up then it proliferates and it's not by accident that all the post apocalyptic movies have graffiti strewn walls. Because its just a sense of disorder and we try to attack that before it gets to that point.

Marcus: Have you ever spend any time in the D.C. area?

Carol: Not in many years. I've to been New York much more often.

Marcus: Yeah and I didn't prepare you for this, so now I may be catching you off guard, but I grew up there. One of the things that I was struck by when I moved to this area was that Downtown Fairhope and Downtown Mobile very much remind me of the King Street corridor for Old Town Alexandria. And so but there is this real, there's this really neat kind of ambiance that happens in that area and I am starting to get that impression here. I can see the life starting to come back in Downtown Mobile.  I can see people starting to want to come and have dinner here or do some shopping or like what your talking about just kind of "what's over here" kind of thing. Exploring and stuff like that. I know that there have been a lot of changes but I also know that just the rhetoric around Downtown has also drastically change in the recent years. Where it is viewed as kind of a "Hey you know this is a place that we care about. This is a place that we are going to put a lot of focus on. This is a place where we want people to feel safe and come down and explore and spend their time."

Carol: You're right and you know we loss really a generation of people who moved to the suburbs, for lots of different reasons, but they're not coming back. They decided when they moved to the suburbs that Downtown was not a place for them. But fortunately we are getting their children back. Some of those folks, even though I say we are not getting them back, it's interesting, the empty nesters are finding that "You know that Downtown maybe is a place I wanna be". So the first wave of new condominiums and apartments that were built. This building that were sitting in are among them. Nobody anticipated that they would be filled with so many empty-nesters. We thought that a lot of young people, young professionals. I think the majority of that wave of residents are people who either have a second place Downtown. They're Downtown a lot anyway and they want to be able to spend the night here if their down here and it's late. Or they've decided to give up the yard and stop driving so much. You know here, if you are going out of town for a couple of weeks, you lock the door you don't worry about it. It fits into that new empty nest lifestyle. It gives you a lot of freedom. 

Marcus: Yeah. Well I know, we're having some discussions with Casi Callaway from the Mobile Baykeeper and I know that she has also been mentioning some of the green way work that's taking place around the city. There's also a quite a bit that's going on down here maintaining and expanding some of the green spaces because the "young folks", the young folks like to  have those kinds of areas where you kind of congregate, ride a bike, throw a freesbie or take the dog for a walk and that kind of thing.

Carol: And you really need that space if you live downtown because the amount of square footage in a Downtown living unit is much less than in a suburbs. You find that people will turn to the parks, the green spaces, the sidewalk, the street, as their living room. The sidewalk cafes become their living rooms, so you don't really need that much square footage in a living unit in the center city, because everything out there is where you live. The other great thing about walkable communities, is walkable neighborhoods, is people are so connected to each other because they see each other all the time. Especially creative folks like you and the people in this office, the accidental collaboration that happens when your walking to the bank and sort of driving to the bank or walking at lunch instead of getting in your car and driving somewhere is invaluable.

I can't tell you how many times I've been walking to a meeting and I run into somebody, "Oh, I've been meaning to call you for a week to tell you about this" or someone will come up and they say, "Oh, I have this great idea. I want to tell you about." That exchange wouldn't have happened because we get busy when we're in our offices or at home and it's because we see each other face to face.

Marcus: Well, I'll take that one step further and just saying that as creative group, often times it's really nice just to kind to get out of our own head space. I'll find myself often just going for a walk just to clear my head. Those of you that don't know, we're Downtown on Dauphin Street, she's made mention of our building a couple of times. We don't own our building, we are in a mixed used building which has been called the old mattress warehouse. We've done some research and found out that it didn't originally start as a mattress warehouse but at some point in time, it lived it's life as a mattress warehouse. It was originally started as a department store and if Kara was here, she would give you more information on that. But we're going to, we're hopefully going to do a podcast on that in the not too distant future. We're one block away from Cathedral Square so you can go over there and sit down. There's all kinds of little back streets here that we can go down. There's just beautiful trees and all kinds of stuff. So it is really kind of a, if it wasn't so blazin' hot outside, you could go out and really kind of enjoy yourself. Just get a coffee down at Serda's or something like that and have a good time. But we've love being down here.

Carol: Yeah and I think people underestimate the value of getting around, getting up and walking around outside, because we spend so much time these days on the phone, on the computer and it's just mind numbing after a while.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Carol: Especially in the creative industries.

Marcus: Yeah.

Carol: You have to get up and clear your head, change your focus and walk around a little bit. And even as hot as it is, you're not going to spend a lot of time outside, but even five minutes out there...

Marcus: Yeah.

Carol: ...and in our office, you'll hear several times a day somebody is saying, "I'm just going to walk around outside for five minutes. I'll be right back". And you come back. You're ready to focus again.

Marcus: Lot more energy.

Carol: Mm-hmm.

Marcus: Like you're saying there's some value in getting out. We'll go to lunch. I would say that there's probably more interesting restaurants down here than are congregrated in many areas around the city. We've got the Noble South. We've got Bob's Downtown Diner. We've even got a Jimmy John's if you're into just having a sandwich. So you go to lunch, and because there's just a few spots and there's such a large group of people, oftentimes you'll find yourself running into folks and having a little bit of extra company at lunch. 

Tell us what are some of the efforts besides just the beautification aspect, things that you all...

Carol: Economic development is our other major focus. Our goals from the very beginning were to increase both the number of businesses and to revitalize the buildings that have been too long vacant. We have had, every year in the ten years, a net gain in new businesses. There always some that fall out but a net gain of probably twenty new businesses a year. It is remarkable really because it felt pretty full when we started ten years ago. But, what's most gratifying is the businesses that are coming from out of town, deciding to locate in Mobile. But also businesses that were once here and moved out to the suburbs or moved across the bay have come back downtown.

And that tells us that this is the environment that they're looking for, for their employees. We know that Downtown is a wonderful location if you have employees in both county's. Sort of equal distant from...

Marcus: It would only takes me 15 minutes to get here from TimberCreek. It would have taken me longer to get to Fairhope, which was the other location I was looking at, than it does to get down here. So yeah I would agree. I'd say it has been phenomenal as far as commute goes.

Carol: And we've recently been focusing on developing the St Louis Street corridor. That's an exciting community there. The Buick building, we think is going to be one of those tipping point projects.

Marcus: Yes so what's your tie-in because we had Bill Sisson on just a few weeks ago. How is the Downtown Mobile Alliance involved in that project?

Carol: We are involved in terms of creating promotion and generating interested for the space that is yet to be leased.

Marcus: Sure.

Carol: But also because we worked so hard three years ago on legislature that passed for the State Historic tax credits, that project becomes a  reality. 

Marcus:  Nice.

Carol: We have ten projects in Mobile that are using the State Historic tax credits to revitalize, reabilitate buildings, historic buildings.

Marcus: Mm-hmm.

Carol: And there are all projects that would not happen but for those tax credits. We have a legislative focus as well but it's usually tied into the economic development opportunities. We'll be back up in Montgomery in February.

The other thing that we do, the economic development side, whether you're a big developer or someone who's taking on a project rehabing a building for the first time, we offer a lot of logistical, emotional support as you try to navigate the maze that is City Hall on the permiting process. We helped simplify that process a couple of years ago when we worked with the city to create a form base code. Which is a development and zoning code that's just for the area inside the Henry Aaron loop. It is based on the idea that the form of the building is as important as its function and that in any given area of Downtown many uses are appropriate as long as the form is right, as long as you creates a walkable, lovely environment, the uses are expanded. So we don't separate uses the way you'll see in the suburbs where this area can only be residential. This area can only be...

Marcus: Yeah, that wouldn't fly down here anyway.

Carol: Yeah, I think that's one of the reasons that we didn't have a lot of opposition because it's how Downtown functions. But there was a time when you could only live Downtown above a store front with permission from the city. I mean we zoned, even a lot of residential out of Downtown. You know the Euclidean zoning in the 1950's which created these drivable suburban areas and still what's happening in a lot of areas. We are still trying to undo some of the damage that happened here back then. 

Marcus: As an entrepreneurial-minded person or as an executive-level business person, what would you say is one of the most important things that you've learned about business? How agreements are made, or negotiations, or how to run a business, or how to reach people, or network. Take some liberty with that question.

Carol: Yeah, I think this transcends all sorts of of businesses and organizations. Transparency I think is so critical, not doing things in secret, not painting a different picture than you're actually trying to accomplish. I think just being upfront and honest with people. You may take a lot of shots and it can be hard. It's easier in the long run. We've seen, more than once, people sort of using the wrong strategy and hoping no one will notice. Well, in this kind of environment this sort of dense environment we're all pretty close, people are going to notice.

Marcus: Yeah.

Carol: And it's always worse.

Marcus: No doubt. 

I find that business owners and entrepreneurs are really focused on their businesses and while I recognize that you're not necessarily a business owner, you're here on my podcast so I'm going to ask you this question because I'm kind of curious, that even though they're focused on their businesses that they also have other hobbies that allow them to stay balanced. When we move down here, I was told that you are the person to get to know, that you know everybody that's doing business in Downtown. So, I think people would be very curious to know what are your hobbies? what do you like to do in your free time besides helping with all of the stuff that is going on down here with all the beautification projects and economic development?

Carol: You know what, what energizes me is if I'm busy with some sort of mission and I therefore, serve on some other boards, some volunteer boards involved in projects that I think are important to the city. But what I really, my passion is travelling.

Marcus: Very cool.

Carol: I love to travel and the great thing about my job is, we do have conferences in fabulous cities. We go to International Downtown Association conferences are in these living laboratories of these great cities. And so we do have an opportunity to see best practices all over North America even Europe but I do love to travel.

Marcus: So we just did a podcast with Dr. Puto from Spring Hill College. He's the new president over there. He has traveled probably more than anybody that I've ever met. 

Carol: And I can imagine.

Marcus: He said that he does about a hundred thousand miles a year meeting with alumni and stuff like that. So I asked him this question. I asked him if there was one or two cities that would bubble up to the top of favorite places to visit, what would they be? He said Vienna, Austria. That he loves the culture, history and things of that nature there. So, I ask you the same question. 

Carol: Yeah I love Paris and Venice. I think Paris is just endlessly fascinating and it, it's one of those cities as well that's so well planned. At least the central part of Paris, it makes it so walkable. You'll know that none of the buildings are taller than 6 stories, do you know why?

Marcus: I do not, is it because it affects the view? Is what I'm guessing?

Carol: 6 stories is the height from which someone on the top can shout down and be heard by someone on the street.

Marcus: [laughs] You're kidding me?

Carol: So it creates this tight knit community, these great neighborhoods because you can communicate from in your building to someone on the street.

Marcus: That's really interesting.

Carol: And so it's just a beautifully plan city and of course it's got incredible art and and history and architecture.

Marcus: Sure.

Carol: And then, Venice I think is so beautiful in its decrepitude and to me it's the real Disney World. There is magic every time you turn a corner in Venice.

Marcus: That's interesting. I've not been to either one of those cities. My parents have been to Paris and shown me pictures and told me about experiences but I would imagined that's just absolutely stunning. I do a lot of photography and so both of those places are extremely visual, visually stimulating.

Carol: Oh right, you would, you would have a field day.

Marcus: Yeah, that's awesome. So, give us a look at an average day for you. What are some things that, what are some tenants that you hold on to? I mean do you get up at a certain time everyday, do you spend some time reading or do you spend some time in prayer? Do you go to the gym? Then you get into the office, what are some of your typical things that you do?

Carol: Well I do not get to the gym as often as I should but I'm there on Monday and Friday morning. I do set that time aside because if you don't scheduled that time...

Marcus: It's not going to happen.

Carol: Life gets in the way right?

Marcus: Yup.

Carol: I do always have in every morning before I leave the house just a few minutes of quiet time. I don't can't really say that's it's true meditation but it is just a moment to gather myself for the day. I've tried mediating and I just have that monkey mind that jumps around  a little too much and...

Marcus:  I can't do it.

Carol: Just not disciplined enough to sit through that, enough times to get the on map. Maybe one day, that is the goal to really do some thoughtful efforts at meditation. But I get to the office usually around 9 and there is no typical day. Even when you think your day is planned, something will pop up that will derail everything that you though you were going to accomplish that day. There it's always something that is important and needs to be addressed. You might as well deal with it now because it's not going to go away, it's not going to get better on this own. But we'll often have those days. We are very small staff of 5 full-time people, a couple of part time people, not including our teams of regions and stewards who are on the streets doing the beautification and the cleaning and the hospitality. But anyway, there are days where our entire staff will have to just drop what is doing and take care of any problem that has bubbled up. But...

Marcus: I imagine things move quite quickly in your office as well.

Carol: They can.

Marcus: Yeah.

Carol: Fortunately they don't always but they certainly can and there are things, for instance, the big controversy that's happened lately with the new Hilton Garden Inn Hotel and the trees being cut down. Well, whatever else we had planned to do for three days...

Marcus: All things stop.

Carol: Yeah, didn't happened, none of that happened...

Marcus: Right.

Carol: ...and the way you sort have to go back and get that days. But that's okay too.

Marcus: Yeah.

Carol: We all really, well if you work in the non profit world, you are connected to the mission.

Marcus: You're invested.

Carol: You wouldn't do it. Nobody's getting rich but it is a labor of love for us most of the time.

Marcus:  Well tell us where more information about the Dowtown Mobile Alliance. Where would they look to learn more?

Carol: Well we have our website which is a great clearing house for things that are happening Downtown. It's downtownmobile.org and not only just to have all the upcoming events but it has a great listing of residential and commercial real estate that's available. Some news articles that might have involved Downtown. I would encourage anybody that is interested can sign up on that website for the newsletter. We send out a monthly overview of Downtown. And then weekly, what's coming up over the next week, things to do or activities new businesses that have happened so there's an often a lot that happens Downtown and it's so hard as you know these days to get the message out. Advertising is so expensive.

You don't know how people find out. I wish somebody would tell me because, after we maybe had an event or something happen there's, "Oh, I didn't know it was happening". How would I have gotten word out to you and they look at me, "Oh I don't know."

Marcus: Yeah.

Carol: So that is not very helpful for somebody in the marketing.

Marcus: Yeah.

Carol: But we just rely a lot on email and social media to get the word out.

Marcus: Where else on social media? Facebook?

Carol: Yes, that's another a great way to find out and not just about what we're involved in but if for instance the what we're talking about the Noble South and the recognition Chris Rainoseck just got for being in Local Palette, we'll put that on our social media. So it's really not just about our work and our projects but we promote our members that deserve recognition or have something special happened.

Marcus: Yeah, no it's really neat. Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share about what's going on down here?

Carol: Well, I think eluded to little a while ago about how much the conversation has changed about Downtown and we, we think that's true. I think case in point is the, the fewer and the fervor that was stimulated by the hotel and the removal of the trees. There was a time, 10 years ago, I don't know if anybody would have cared. So in a way it's gratifying that people care enough to get upset. We wish they had cared when that hotel was torn down. 

Marcus: Yeah.

Carol: But we'll take the passion now. 

Marcus: Yeah. It's interesting. Well I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share a little bit about what's going on down here and also what the Downtown Mobile Alliance and it was great talking to you.

Carol: We're glad you're Downtown now. Thank you so much.