Katie Essing is living the dream. Six months into her new job as director of the Downtown Community Improvement District, she has immersed herself in the downtown’s small-business culture, working in what she calls her “dream career.”
Essing, 40, brings experience in retail and marketing to her new position. She spent several years working for General Growth Properties — as general manager of Columbia Mall here and Jefferson City’s Capital Mall, as well as five years managing General Growth’s mall in Columbia, Md. She returned to mid-Missouri in 2013 to serve as vice president of marketing and communications for the Missouri Association of Realtors. A native of northwest Missouri, Essing has a degree in marketing from the University of Missouri and serves as an adjunct instructor of retail marketing at MU’s Trulaske College of Business.
She and her husband, Blake, have two sons and a multitude of pets. “Seriously,” she says, “a German shepherd, calico barn cat, two sugar gliders, a million fish and a 5-foot black snake named Reginald in the garden, who scares me every time.”
Essing balances scary garden encounters with introspection — yoga, meditation and running.
“I love running,” she says. “I do my best thinking while on a long MKT trail run.”
Essing shares some of that thinking in a conversation about The District’s eclectic business mix amid a downtown in transition.
Downtown Columbia has experienced significant changes in recent years. What are the challenges and opportunities of managing transition in this area?
Our downtown is at a critical point, as development is going to continue to be strong. Our opportunity as a Community Improvement District is to communicate and ensure that we understand the long-term impacts and overall vision for the area. The challenge is to keep up, to stay informed and involved in this rapidly moving discussion.
Our property owners are looking for thoughtful growth, with open discussion and communication. We are actively participating in the city-led process of creating development code form and development controls, mindful of elements such as building height and open space.
The Downtown CID recently completed its voluntary 2015 Design Guidelines, which establishes a common vision for the area and provides broad design principles for which all new projects should comply. Overall design guidelines provide general rules for new construction projects. The District’s design guidelines contribute to our strategic vision by promoting development of a constantly adapting community that provides opportunities for all to live, work and share community experiences in one place.
How have you set about building trust among longtime city stakeholders and new players on the scene, who propose to take downtown to the next level?
Building relationships, one meeting at a time. I enjoy talking to and learning from our constituents, to understand their interests and concerns. It is very rewarding to establish partnerships and work together on projects that are mutually beneficial for our downtown and the business owners.
I have been working closely with the CID board, constituents and the city to add recycling to The District. We’ve listened to the community, which strongly supports this service. The process has taken time, to make sure that the program launched serves the needs of the community. It is exciting to be part of a program that will make such a big impact.
I still have a lot of work yet to do in this area, with many more people to meet; however, it is a top priority. Whenever I need a break from my desk, I love to walk around The District to talk to people.
The city faces infrastructure issues throughout Columbia. What’s on downtown property owners’ “wish list” for infrastructure work in The District?
Items on the “wish list” include places for people — such as adequate gathering spaces, parking, wide sidewalks and safe accessibility for pedestrians, bicyclists and cars. We are also looking for infrastructure that meets the needs of business — effective sewer, utility and storm water management systems; landscaping and public art; efficient trash, recycling, grease locations; places for delivery trucks that don’t impact traffic flow.
Columbia’s traditional downtown faces competition from many areas in this growing college town. Are there initiatives on the table for The District to protect its market share?
Many of the other retail and commercial areas in Columbia house big-box, national retailers. These are important tenants for our community, as customers vote with their dollars and will travel to St. Louis or Kansas City or online to find what they are looking for. The District is different, as many of our businesses are locally owned and unique.
Our overall retail community is strong, with high occupancy levels and a powerful lineup of retailers and restaurants. We co-exist well by offering our customers what they want, when they want it and where they want it. We are a unique mixed-use area in that we offer hotels, residential, local shops and restaurants, offices, bars and clubs, parks and trail access, personal service and gyms, churches and the city and county government offices. Our customers can walk from location to location and choose from a variety of experiences. The District is also known for historic structures that provide the charm of downtown and architectural style.
We will continue to brand The District and use a multifaceted marketing campaign to reach the customers. We are really proud of our new video series that captures our active, exciting environment. In addition, we promote The District via a weekly video series, website, social media, traditional advertising and signature events such as Living Windows and Shop Hop.
Sales tax revenue appears to be plateauing in Columbia. As an indicator of business transactions, is this an area of concern?
The Downtown CID is funded by property and sales tax, and is projecting revenues to increase both this year and in fiscal year 2016 due to high occupancy levels and thriving business downtown. We are fortunate to have a high level of occupancy and well-performing businesses, with continued growth expected.
What can The District do to level the playing field for local retailers competing against online merchants that don’t charge sales tax? How are local merchants positioning themselves in this new era of commerce?
Customers still want to touch and feel merchandise, and enjoy the social experience of shopping and dining. The District offers a place where you can meet your friends to enjoy dinner, drinks, shopping, music … we are a place to hang out and enjoy people, which you won’t find with an online website.
As a local business community, we must be aware of online shopping and our competition, and be nimble to adjust as needed. Several of our locally owned businesses operate websites and market to customers via social media, adapting to stay competitive.
The District offers a merchandising mix that includes unique, artistic, local products that you want to experience firsthand — while enjoying a handcrafted coffee beverage in hand and deciding which local restaurant you’d like to enjoy after shopping!
What does downtown Columbia look like to you in five years, 10 years and 20 years?
We like to describe The District as a live/work/play neighborhood that sparks the creative, the eclectic and the local. We’re a constantly adapting community of people, tradition blending harmoniously with high tech and the latest trends in fashion, food and the arts.
The District will need thoughtful growth over the next five, 10 and 20 years to maintain a retail mix that offers something for everyone — families, young adults, retirees, students. We currently have a balance of storefronts that are open at different times of day, so you can find active streets day and night.
More residential units are being planned and built, and we will continue to see growth in the number of people living downtown. The benefit of more residents is that people offer safety, vibrancy and support business.
As we grow, we also must work to maintain history and buildings that are important.
Another exciting project that the Downtown CID is currently working on is the Gateway Master Plan. This project will help define the physical boundaries of The District, enhance the civic identity of our downtown and capture our active and artistic personality. The goals are to create four gateways into downtown that define the area, draw people to The District and further our brand. Elements include signage, landscaping, creative lighting and artwork, and a pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. I hope to have this well underway within five years!
What keeps you up at night?
Quality-of-life issues keep me up at night. The District is a 24/7 place, with thousands of people enjoying our establishments late at night, as well as residents who live downtown. I feel personally responsible that everyone is safe and secure, and that our downtown will be clean for our first coffee and doughnut shops and businesses to open in the morning.
This is an area of focus that helps me sleep: The Downtown CID is currently working on a “hospitality zone assessment” with the Responsible Hospitality Institute. This process is designed to empower our community to create short- and long-term action plans to successfully plan, manage and police our nighttime economy. We are talking to stakeholders with different perspectives and building consensus on plans that embrace entertainment, multiuse sidewalks, public safety, venue safety, transportation and quality of life. Our assessment is led by a team of community leaders, and will include roundtable discussions from a variety of constituents to develop action plans we’ll complete by early fall.
What are the joys of promoting downtown Columbia?
The people! Our downtown is a strong community, with close relationships between business owners. The majority of our retailers and restaurants are locally owned, and it is a pleasure to work with these talented and experienced individuals, who are passionate about both their business and the future of our downtown. There is a strong sense of pride in our place, and a willingness to work together. The District is such an eclectic, artistic, vibrant place — there is an energy and sense of opportunity when you are here. I truly enjoy being able to bring my retail experience and background to work on the downtown that I love … this is my dream career.
View The District’s 2015 Design Guidelines at www.discoverthedistrict.com/business/projects.