Sixteen years ago Connie Lorenz was picked to be the Olympia Downtown Association’s first executive director for the previously all-volunteer-run organization.
Now, a successor is about to be named, and then Lorenz, who will work with the new hire through a transition period, will retire at the end of the year.
The ODA received 25 applications for the position, and it was cut to two finalists Thursday, she said. The new hire is expected to start in September.
Lorenz leaves the ODA, which is known for its marketing of downtown as a destination, at a time when the downtown experience appears to be on the upswing.
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New additions to downtown include the toy store Captain Little and Washington Business Bank. The Washington Center for the Performing Arts recently underwent a major facelift, and crews continue to work to transform the former state Department of Personnel building into the Thurston First Bank Building, including market-rate apartments and a brew pub. More market-rate apartments are planned at Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street, too.
Before Lorenz makes her retirement official, we asked her five questions about her time at the ODA.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: My husband is retired and has been retired for several years. It’s time. It’s time for me to join him. And I’m coming to an age when I can collect Social Security. We’re contemplating selling our house, downsizing, doing things like that. It gives you an opportunity to think about what you want to do and where you want to be.
Q: What was the state of downtown when you started and where is it today?
A: When I started in 1998, things were pretty good. There was steady growth and we had pretty good (ODA) membership numbers and the economy was pretty good in the early 2000s. And then it kind of hit, and the recession started. But it has been interesting to watch how resilient small-business people are. Yes, there has been business turnover, but there is a core group of businesses down here that make it. They are so resilient and you have to admire that. So we still have Popinjay, Archibald Sisters, Olympia Supply, Batdorf & Bronson, and they’ve all made these major investments in downtown. Now, people are feeling pretty good right now because they’ve had some tough years, but they’re getting really close to those good years again. I don’t think the economy is going to spike like it did, but it will be this slow curve up.
Q: What will you remember the most about your time with the ODA?
A: The Nisqually earthquake in 2001. I remember thinking, was everybody OK? And what was going to happen? And the way people rallied was amazing to me because downtown was hit pretty hard at that time. And that was a fascinating time to work with local government and the federal government and all those entities that had to come together pretty fast to make repairs to the Fourth Avenue Bridge, because you could have fired a cannon down Fourth Avenue at the time and not hit anyone. But people stuck through it, and it was fun to watch the bridge reopen. Bad things happen, but good things can come as a result. That sticks in my mind a lot.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: No, you can’t have regrets, you can only look to the future. You can’t be all things to all people. That’s been my biggest lesson learned here. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. You just choose your battles, and you don’t listen to the naysayers. You listen to the people who support you and support the cause. Those who don’t like anything you do ... well, I can’t help you.
Q: What needs to happen to keep downtown going in the right direction?
A: More housing. More people on the street, and the more people you have living downtown, means there are more eyes on the street. During Arts Walk you never hear anyone complain about parking or people, and the more people you have is the key. Most people don’t even get to all the businesses downtown during Arts Walk because they see someone they know. It just has a nice feel to it. People anticipate a good time; they don’t anticipate that downtown is not a safe place, because statistically it’s a very safe place to be.