Looking for a leader

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 4, 2014

SALISBURY — Downtown Salisbury Inc. has scrapped two finalists for the executive director’s position and will start the search over from scratch.
In the meantime, former board president Paula Bohland will lead the organization on a month-to-month basis. Bohland, who lives in Salisbury and owns and operates Community Integration Training, will work about 20 hours a week and earn $3,500 a month, said Mark Lewis, board president.
Bohland served on the board for several years, including two as president.
“She will hit the ground running,” said Lewis, who sent a six-page memo to downtown merchants Friday that was part newsletter, part apology, part treasurer’s report.
“The board realizes that we have some fences to mend and work to do getting our promotional activities once again centered on our downtown merchants,” Lewis wrote.
Lewis told the Post the DSI board could not come to a consensus to hire either finalist for the top job. He would not name the candidates.
In another turnaround, Downtown Salisbury will resume planning and decision-making about marketing and promotions for downtown events like Friday Night Out. The Convention and Visitors Bureau took over marketing and promotions in late 2012, but the arrangement has not worked well for either organization, Lewis said.
The visitors bureau, which is funded through hotel room taxes, will continue to help pay for downtown marketing and promotions, Lewis said.
He said DSI “blew it” by failing to host the annual New Year’s Eve celebration at the Bell Tower and apologized to the community. Lewis said he and the board did not realize the historical significance of the 40-year-old event and thanked the city for stepping in at the last minute to host the festivities.
Downtown Salisbury, which has been operating with one part-time employee, has stumbled since former executive director Randy Hemann left in April to become the city manager in Oxford.
“We are in the middle of a time where there is going to be change,” said Lewis, who is a volunteer for DSI and works full-time as a banker. “Change is painful.”
He used the memo to reassure downtown property owners, who help fund DSI by paying an extra tax, that the organization is not in financial trouble.
“I have heard some rumblings about concern over DSI’s financial status,” Lewis wrote. “Let me assure you that, despite carrying the Empire Hotel note and the above-referenced unbudgeted hits to our balance sheet, we are in good financial shape.”
Downtown Salisbury’s annual expenses total about $316,000, including $77,312 in debt service for the Empire Hotel, a vacant property the organization owns and had hoped to sell long ago.
The board aims to maintain a three-month cash reserve of $75,000, Lewis said, and currently has $120,000 on hand, in part because DSI has not been paying an executive director since May.
About $15,000 in unexpected expenses this year included paying someone to install and remove the Christmas decorations.
Downtown Salisbury is in “active, serious discussions with a developer” for the Empire Hotel, Lewis said. The developer would not use the property as a hotel.
“Every hotel developer that we came across submitted proposals for our consideration that had a four-to-six-million-dollar funding gap that they asked us to fill through city funds or philanthropic means,” Lewis wrote. “The non-hotel developer we are working with at the moment has not requested any funds to come from the city or DSI, which benefits us all as taxpayers and citizens.”
Lewis told merchants to look for an announcement within three months.
He told the Post the DSI board has not decided yet whether to hire a search firm this time to recruit executive director candidates and weed through resumes. Board members, who are all volunteers, conducted the first search, which drew more than 100 applicants.
Lewis said a professional search firm would cost $30,000 to $60,000.
This time, Lewis said, he will look for different qualities in a prospective leader, namely good organizational and people skills.
“Getting the highly qualified Main Street candidates that we would want to come here has been more problematic than we expected,” Lewis said.
Several people DSI asked to apply for the job declined, he said. Some cited the rocky political climate in Salisbury, where Rowan County commissioners removed the airport from the city limits, blocked the school central office construction on South Main Street and plan to pull many county employees out of downtown and move them to the mall.
“There are a lot of discouraging things going on,” Lewis said.
Moving marketing and promotions from DSI to the Convention and Visitors Bureau did not work, he said.
While DSI serves downtown merchants and property owners, the visitors bureau aims to put “heads in beds” by luring out-of-town visitors to Rowan County.
“It seemed like great idea at the time,” Lewis said. “But we needed to have more input and more direction.”
The visitors bureau has been unfairly criticized by merchants and members of the public, said Lewis, who is a board member for the tourism organization as well. But he acknowledged that many business owners felt as though downtown events had lost touch with the original purpose — to increase sales — and there was no formal feedback process.
“So, we are now embarking on a new process that we hope will be more responsive to you – our stakeholders,” he said.
The new promotions committee will have a budget of about $40,000 to $50,000 — split between DSI and the visitors bureau — and will come up with a schedule and marketing plan for all downtown events in 2014, Lewis said.
The tourism marketing staff will attend the committee meetings and help implement the events, “but they will not make decisions about what those will be,” Lewis said.
The visitors bureau and DSI each will continue to pay half the salary of Mollie Ruf, the project coordinator who serves both organizations.
The city of Salisbury continues to provide the biggest chunk of DSI’s budget, this year appropriating $129,000. Tax revenue from the Municipal Services District totals $120,000, and other DSI income including rent from a few tenants in the Empire totals $67,500.
City Manager Doug Paris, who serves on the DSI board, said Bohland will “do a fantastic job.”
Although both finalists for the executive director’s position were “outstanding candidates,” Paris said, “the board made the absolute right decision to find a candidate that the whole board will agree on.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.