Man On The Street

Ron Redmond walks to the beat of many drummers as cheerleader, collaborator and facilitator for the denizens of Burlington's Church Street Marketplace.

by Cal Workman

Since Dec. 28, 1998, Ron Redmond has lent his affable personality and can-do attitude to the task of executive director of the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington. He calls his role "sometimes leadership, sometimes 'followship' and always stewardship."

It's hard to imagine Burlington without the Church Street Marketplace. For 21-plus years, this four- block, brick-lined pedestrian mall anchored by the Unitarian Church and City Hall has been the "heart and soul of the region." So says Ron Redmond, executive director of its governing institution.

With an annual budget of $575,000, Redmond and his staff of six ensure the Marketplace lives up to the founders' vision to be a "unique and thriving downtown pedestrian mall by creating an experience that attracts visitors to shop, dine and explore."

Supported by fees charged to property owners, the Marketplace staff, in a nutshell, maintains and markets the street.

To sustain its vitality over the course of the last 21 years, the Marketplace has had to meet several challenges head-on, tackling tough issues like suburban sprawl, safety and security, parking, rising costs and a sluggish economy. Redmond credits collaboration for its success.

Marketplace stakeholders city government and residents; Marketplace property owners and merchants; and public service agencies such as police, fire, public works and nonprofit organizations join together like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. At the hub is the Church Street Marketplace Commission and Redmond, responsible for "bringing everyone into the tent," a process he describes as both challenging and rewarding.

"A lot of what I do is collaboration and facilitation," he says. "My role is sometimes leadership, sometimes 'followship' and always stewardship, finding the right role to get the job done. My responsibility is to take care of the place and be mindful of others' wants, needs and ideas. My job tests me at all corners of my capability. One minute I'm dealing with a police issue, the next minute I'm meeting with a merchant."

It's an understatement to say variety is built into Redmond's job description. Reporting to both the mayor and the nine-member commission, appointed by the Burlington City Council and chaired for more than a decade by Tim Halvorson of Halvorson's Upstreet Cafe, Redmond walks to the beat of many drummers. His responsibilities include the day-to-day administration of the Marketplace; serving the needs of 22 restaurants and 67 retail establishments; and issuing and regulating licenses and permits for 22 sidewalk cafes, 19 cart vendors and a steady stream of street entertainers, artisans and special events. Working with marketing director Milia Bell, he organizes such events as Fresh Fest, a summer sidewalk sale, Marketfest, the holiday tree lighting, a Black History Month celebration and the Halloween parade. The Marketplace also works in partnership with First Night and Discover Jazz organizers.

When the parties are over, things have to be cleaned up. A maintenance crew of three led by Pat Rideout takes care of it, as well as seeing to snow and trash removal, eliminating graffiti and maintaining cleanliness in public spaces.

Redmond also serves as the Marketplace liaison among the Burlington Police Department, the Street Outreach Advisory Committee, the parks patrol, Howard Human Services and United Way, which work together to increase safety and security in the area.

Revenues for running the operation are generated by fees established by committee and based on the "ground-floor usable retail space" charged to 40 property owners at $1.78 per square foot which represents an increase of about 5 percent in the last 10 years and an added fee to underwrite two free hours of parking in one of Burlington's three municipal lots. Street vendors pay an annual fee of $1,100. Sidewalk cafes and miscellaneous licenses and permits bring in additional income. The fees are poured into the Marketplace budget, with 45 percent spent on marketing, 40 percent on maintenance and 15 percent on administration.

To overcome rising costs of goods and services and increases in health insurance and related expenses while continuing to work with essentially the same budget, Redmond and Milia have turned to corporate sponsorships for supplemental support. Event sponsorships represent a huge and growing source of revenue, up from $10,000 in 1998 when Redmond came on board to today's $70,000, which includes underwriting support from Stowe Mountain Resort, Charter One Bank and others.

"We offer a great venue for an event, and we can deliver a well educated, high-income shopper," says Redmond. "Corporate sponsors and organizations are attracted to the Marketplace because of its atmosphere and the services we provide. We work hard to understand a sponsor's business and find ways to service their needs."

Sponsors can expect bang for their bucks. The Marketplace bustles with a healthy mix of local "recreational" shoppers and out-of-towners. Events draw hordes of people. Ten thousand people attended last year's tree-lighting ceremony, and 30,000 showed up for First Night. Marketplace staff create mini-events under the umbrella of larger headliner events, set up product sampling opportunities and recognize sponsors in large, colorful banners strung across the street.

Pat Rideout, maintenance director, and his crew of three make sure things on the Marketplace are clean and in good shape. That includes snow- and trash-removal and elimin-ating graffiti. Marketing director Milia Bell sometimes contributes to the messes he must clean up.

Events and density provide the Marketplace with the edge that distinguishes it from competing suburban malls.

"Would you be inspired to go to a festival at Taft Corners?" asks Redmond. "What would it be like to stand under a tent in the middle of the parking lot? You go there to shop, and you come here for the experience."

He doesn't view Taft Corners and the University Mall as much of a threat. The goods and services offered elsewhere are very different from what one expects to find downtown. The Marketplace is a living, experiential brand, he says.

"We offer a sense of place. It's a feeling that's hard to capture, but the Marketplace is where you experience community. Downtown we have history, architecture, the lake, the Flynn Theatre, state agencies and the region's largest concentration of restaurants. You come here and you run into a friend, discover a street entertainer, celebrate a festival, or try something new from a street vendor or retail shop. You won't experience that anywhere else."

Halvorson, one of the original Marketplace residents, agrees.

"The individual character of the street and the dominance of independents is the Marketplace's greatest strength, and that hasn't changed over the years. The Marketplace used to shut down in the summer at the end of the school year, and now, increased recognition of the Marketplace as a cool place to visit and an effort to make it a 24-hour downtown has really increased its viability."

Downtown Burlington was always the dominant center of commerce in the region. That position was endangered in the 1970s when University Mall was completed and discussions for a Pyramid Mall in Williston threatened to diminish the relevance of downtown. Business leaders Pat Robins of SymQuest (then the president of McAuliffe Office Supplies) and architect Bill Truex and city government under then-Mayor Gordon Paquette recognized the need to rejuvenate the area, making it more pedestrian-friendly and adding amenities and entertainment. Sen. Patrick Leahy was instrumental in securing an initial federal grant of $5.4 million in 1979 by "walking into President Carter's office and personally lobbying him," says Redmond. Burlington residents voiced their support by passing a $1.6 million bond necessary to secure the federal funds for the project.

Before breaking ground, the founders traveled to a lot of successful and not-so-successful downtowns. They were most inspired by a visit to Disneyland's Main Street, where they noted an excitement, a vitality and, most of all, a clean, safe environment. Key to its success, they believed, was the fact that a managing group was personally responsible for taking care of the space.

"If something was broken, someone was there right away to fix it. If there was trash, it was picked up," says Redmond. "A sense of ownership and order is so important."

The Marketplace officially opened in September 1981. Twenty years later, the Marketplace has evolved, weathering change while holding on to its traditions and charm. The most recent evolution has brought an influx of national retailers such as Borders, Urban Outfitters, Ann Taylor and Eddie Bauer, and corporate-owned restaurants such as Ri Ra and Starbuck's that together occupy about 50 percent of available space. Locally owned shops maintain a strong presence, and many of the Marketplace's original stores and restaurants are alive and well, among them Leunig's, Fremeau Jewelers, Boutilier's, Bertha Church, Ken's Pub & Brewery and Halvorson's.

In the last three years, the Marketplace has experienced what Redmond calls a "retail explosion" with the $30 million transformation of Burlington Square Mall into Burlington Town Center. While it lured high-end retailers Williams-Sonoma, Filene's and Pottery Barn to Vermont in a light-filled space that is now nearly filled to capacity, Redmond says the chance of the Marketplace's being overtaken by nationals is slim. Nationals need large footprints like Old Navy's 24,000 square feet to operate and the dominance of medium and small spaces keep the mix in check, he says.

Today, ambitious plans are on the table. In 2000 and 2001, Leahy secured $1.5 million for capital improvement funds for the Marketplace through a transportation appropriation. The funds will help deteriorating infrastructure, including improvements to electrical and water systems, resurfacing crumbling walkways, revamping an alleyway, adding new trees with protective grates, and buying new trash receptacles.

Merchants, restaurateurs and delegates from City Hall, representing the first block the only portion of the Marketplace open to automobiles will meet soon with SE Group, the Marketplace landscape design firm, to discuss the block's future. Many want to expand their outdoor cafes, improve the fountain in front of City Hall, add new trees and public art, and possibly erect an archway off Main Street where the Marketplace begins.

Mimi Gutchell, manager of permits and licensing, works with the Marketplace's 22 sidewalk cafes, 19 cart vendors and a steady stream of street entertainers, artisans and special events.

Redmond will devote much of his time and energy to the project, delegating more day-to-day responsibilities to his staff. Both he and his office mates seem up for the challenge.

Redmond is the third executive director in Marketplace history preceded by Penrose Jackson and Molly Lambert in a position that Halvorson says really utilizes Redmond's skills in marketing and collaboration.

"I can't be happier with the job he's done," says Halvorson. "He's well liked and respected in the business community and in City Hall." He's accomplished a lot, particularly in identifying the value of Church Street as a backdrop for events and recognizing we can't keep hitting up the merchants to pay for them. Without the corporate sponsorship he's secured, we wouldn't be able to offer so many programs."

Redmond's background prepared him well for the job. A 1977 Southern California graduate in journalism, Redmond jumped to "the other side of the fence" and worked 20 years in marketing, advertising and public relations in both the private and public sector. In his late 20s, he managed a 50-person marketing department for a transit district in Southern California, "making every mistake imaginable," he says, adding, "I can only hope I've learned from them." He moved to Knoxville, Tenn., to work in marketing communications for a consumer electronics division of Magnavox, but was laid off along with 150 others in 1987.

Soon afterward, he moved to Vermont, where he met his future wife, Karen Loso. Karen is a 20-year veteran of IBM who works as a project manager. They married in 1990 and settled in Essex. Their daughter, Liana, was born in 1994.

Redmond joined The Burlington Free Press as its first marketing director, then moved on in 1992 to manage the Community Giving Program for Long Distance North, a privately held Vermont telecommunications company that was sold to Rochester Telephone and renamed Frontier Communications before Rochester sold it to the now-ailing Global Crossing.

At Frontier, Redmond used cause-related marketing strategies exchanging services in lieu of cash as a way to simultaneously promote brand and serve community. His personal mission to make a difference and be of service to others was allowed to flourish. He supplied homeless shelters with free voice mail service so individuals looking for work could supply a phone number where they could be reached. He partnered with local district attorneys' offices in six major cities, donating cell phones used as protective measures for abused women holding restraining orders.

"In the first week, a woman in Rochester watched her husband break into her apartment and approach her threateningly," he remembers. "She dialed 911 just in time. He was strangling her when the police came. The phone saved her life, and it was an incredible moment that showed me what one person can do working with his company."

Redmond continues to involve himself in making a difference. He is active on a number of boards, including United Way of Chittenden Country, Queen City Police Foundation and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. To unwind, he "hangs out with my girls" and enjoys running and canoeing. He calls Church Street his second home.

"This is the community where I work, where I bring my family, where I shop, eat, and go to events and meetings. I spend many nights and weekends here. I am deeply committed to the success of the Marketplace because I believe in it so much."

From the cramped Marketplace office located upstairs in Richardson Place, Redmond can get a boost whenever he needs it by simply peering outside.

"We're doing exactly what was intended back in the '70s when the idea of the Marketplace was conceived. We've successfully created community in a downtown. We're a living laboratory for how downtowns have changed in a real positive way. That's extremely gratifying."

Originally published in December 2002 Business People-Vermont