Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of Downtown Partnership, talks with Sixty35 Managing Editor Helen Lewis about her journey to leadership — and today’s challenges — next Wednesday (March 8) at The Venue at Almagre, 2460 Montebello Square Drive, 4:30-6 p.m.
It’s hard to imagine anyone filling the President and CEO roles of Colorado Springs’ Downtown Partnership better than Susan Edmondson — and they’re posts she’s held for nearly a decade. The Downtown Partnership nonprofit manages the Greater Downtown Colorado Springs Business Improvement District and Downtown Development Authority, as well as the charitable nonprofit Downtown Ventures, serving as an entity that bolsters Downtown Colorado Springs as a vibrant cultural center for the city. “What I love about my job is that every day is different,” Edmondson says. “Every day presents a different series of challenges.”
With dreams of becoming an author in her youth, Edmondson got her start by earning her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where she served as editor for the university’s newspaper. After a few years with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, she landed in Colorado Springs, eventually taking up the mantle of The Gazette’s Arts & Entertainment editor.
Loving journalism but seeing the high burnout, she earned her Master’s of Public Administration from UCCS at the peak of print news. Her thesis and capstone project involved the study of a professionally staffed cultural office for the community — which became reality as the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, or COPPeR.
She left The Gazette in 2003 for the executive director role at the Bee Vradenberg Foundation, a position she held for a decade. “The transition was very fortuitous because while I was going into a different career field — philanthropy — I was still working with local arts organizations,” she says. “So instead of covering them, it was much more about supporting them financially and providing technical assistance. I didn’t have to learn about our arts community; I already knew them.”
Her work at the Bee Vradenberg Foundation allowed her to get more involved with other businesses and entities Downtown. “I was on the board of the Downtown Development Authority, so when this opportunity came up, I threw my hat in the ring,” she says, “and I’ve been here at the Downtown Partnership for not quite 10 years.”
What kind of skills do you need to go from journalist to running a nonprofit for the arts to administrating different entities for the downtown of a booming city?
Well, I think there’s a couple through-lines of my three different careers of journalism, philanthropy and urban place management.
One is communications. Obviously, that’s very literal with journalism and the communications role, but in all of these it’s about how we tell a story that is compelling, motivating and inspiring. That’s an important part that I’ve carried through all of the jobs I’ve had, starting with local journalists covering and telling the stories of people and organizations in our community, then running a very community-oriented organization that was helping local nonprofits and then being able to help keep our city center strong and thriving.
Those aren’t things that you think about when you start your career — only looking back can you see a pattern that these are similar things carried me through. If you can’t communicate what’s needed to your board of directors or to your stakeholders well, that’s a real problem, right? So, communication is a strong element, and so is a sense of community.
When you’re a manager, you have this holistic view of everything, which means you can tell this story as beginning, middle and end.
Yeah, and especially with Downtown. When I started with Downtown Partnership in 2013, there hadn’t been a lot of activity except minor investments here or there. Not horrible, but not great either. To get people motivated to invest in or to consider Downtown for their business, you have to tell the story of where we’re headed. Some great things started coming on board with City for Champions and other initiatives, but we weren’t tracking our data. Data has a way of telling a story — and the more that we’re able to tell a story of a Downtown that’s moving forward, other people take notice and say, “Oh, I should check out Downtown Colorado Springs for my business, there’s some great opportunities here.”
What’s a day in your life working with all of these different businesses, organizations and even governments? How does it work? Do you have four calendars?
My joke about how we operate is that it’s like Winston Churchill’s quote about democracy: “It’s the worst form of government except for all the rest.” But it works for us. It’s not that different than a lot of other downtowns. Some are just a nonprofit organization, some are just a business improvement district, but many are like us where they have multiple entities. My job is to make sure all of those are working in harmony and moving in the same direction.
I love that I work with such a smart, committed team of people, no matter what their job description is. They’re super creative because they are problem solvers every day. They’re customer service oriented. When there’s a call from a business about some seemingly minor issue, we’re on it immediately.
I’m always Downtown and I’m always observing. When I see a piece of graffiti, I take a picture and immediately text that so we can get it cleaned up right away. I see if a business is busy or not busy. Every store I walk into, I ask them, “How’s business going?” It’s something that just sort of becomes a part of [your routine] all the time and it’s a little hard to get off the clock. You have to physically go somewhere else.
One day you may be talking about how we can support outreach workers to serve our unhoused population that’s Downtown. And then you’re going to be dealing with a marketing plan for a small business during the holidays. And then we’re going to be looking at a public works issue. Whatever it is, it’s so different every day, which is what I love about it. You know you’ve got to be a bit of a generalist about a lot of things.