Downtown in transition

New DCBA chief brings hope for improvements

Downtown merchants are excited about new DCBA Executive Director Heather Keag and the potential of the organization under her leadership.

Downtown merchants are excited about new DCBA Executive Director Heather Keag and the potential of the organization under her leadership.

Photo By kyle delmar

Everybody loves Chico’s Thursday Night Market, right? Well, not exactly.

Yes, the market has been a hugely popular tradition for 15 years. Throngs attend it from April through September to buy food, arts and crafts or just soak up live entertainment.

But if you talk to a number of downtown business owners, you’ll hear that the event puts a severe dent in their customer traffic and sales.

“I’ve had many customers tell me they’ll come in to do business on Thursday, then say, ‘Wait, that’s the Thursday market. I’ll come in another day,’” said Budd Schwab, a new Downtown Chico Business Association board member and co-owner of the downtown Campus Bicycles shop.

The controversial seasonal market is organized by the Downtown Chico Business Association, the promotional nonprofit that is seeing some changes under the recent guidance of Heather Keag, its new executive director.

Keag took over the post on June 6 and thus far has received glowing reviews for her work with downtown merchants and for the positive changes occurring within the organization. For instance, Schwab said that DCBA’s previous event meetings had become extremely uncomfortable for many, with little or no meaningful communication taking place.

“At a recent ‘merchants discussion’ of the DCBA, before Heather’s arrival, I was the only merchant there,” said the 64-year-old Schwab, laughing. “Now, thanks to her supportive energy, I’ve been to more meetings in the past two weeks than I have in my entire life.”

Keag said the Thursday markets are her biggest priority, partly because they are so loved by the community, but also because they, along with the annual A Taste of Chico, raise the most revenue for the DCBA. About 77 percent of the organization’s funding comes from special events and fundraising.

The nonprofit also takes in revenue from the city in the form of transient-occupancy taxes and member assessment fees. (All businesses within the organization’s 40-square-block boundaries are automatically members and mandated to pay an annual fee, which is based on location, number of employees and type of business.)

For her part, the 36-year-old Keag acknowledges the merchants’ complaints, and she’s focused on communicating personally with them to get feedback on potential changes.

What may help guide that process is a recent business survey, a brainchild of the new board elected this past spring. It features face-to-face surveys conducted by the board members of 135 street-level downtown business owners to gauge their thoughts on the effectiveness of the DCBA and its events. The study is intended to encourage communication and gather recommendations for changes.

“I’ve owned Campus Bicycles for 30 years, and not once has a DCBA officer come in and asked me for my input,” Schwab said.

The survey’s results will be compiled in August and used by the board, along with input from Keag, to make event changes for 2012. A common suggestion so far has been to move vendors to the middle of the streets to give storefronts more exposure.

Keag notes, however, that no event can be expected to please every business. “DCBA events are mostly about exposing the public to downtown Chico, and building an affinity for it, so they want to come back,” she said.

Keag has been praised for her listening skills. Those were honed, she said, during her service as a director for AmeriCorps in San Jose from 2001-08 where, among other things, she placed staff volunteers to help under-resourced schools. Most recently, she worked for the city of San Jose and its redevelopment agency, focusing on the needs of businesses, youth and churches.

The job skill she says is most relevant to her new post is letting individual groups decide their own priorities. It’s an approach she learned from her time in Nepal with the Peace Corps back in 2000. She recalled hearing from village mothers of their babies catching infections and even dying as a result of poor health practices, and then helping them by leading workshops on the use of clean water and sanitation.

“My work with the Peace Corps taught me that it doesn’t really matter what I think is important for a group, but that they must tell me their highest priorities,” she said.

Keag also knows and loves Chico, having spent four years as a director of residential advisers for Chico State’s dormitories from 1997-2000. She emphasized her desire to make the DCBA the best it can be for both businesses and the community and encouraged anyone interested in downtown issues to attend its meetings.

“If you love downtown Chico, there’s a place for you at the DCBA committee meetings,” she said.