Economy & Economic Development  March 18, 2019

Despite challenges, outgoing Downtown Boulder Partnership sees bright future for area

BOULDER — As Boulder Downtown Partnership CEO Sean Maher enters the final month of his 10-year tenure leading the organization, he feels confident about the area’s future even in the face of strong headwinds.

Maher will leave his position in April to take over as CEO of RRC Associates, a Boulder-based market research and consulting firm.

“I’ve worked with RRC for 20 years as clients,” he said. “I’ve known the founders of the company for a long time, and it’s just a really solid, first-class company here in Boulder.”

Maher was approached a couple of years ago about joining the organization, but he wasn’t ready to leave Downtown Boulder.

“I loved my job, and I still do,” he said. “But it has been 10 years. That’s a great run, and I think it is time for the next chapter.”

Looking in the rearview mirror, the creation of the Downtown Boulder Foundation, an effort spearheaded by Maher, stands out as a particularly important accomplishment.

“We’ve created a [nonprofit foundation], which has already started doing some exciting things,” he said. “We’re using [the Downtown Boulder Foundation] to focus on supporting public art and culture in the downtown district.”

The foundation joined with Open Studios last year to open a pop-up gallery on Pearl Street showcasing work from Boulder County artists. The group plans to do a similar project this year.

That embrace of community and creativity helps Boulder stand out from other nearby cities with lively downtown areas.

“It’s such a special place. I think what separates us from a lot of other destinations in the region is we are very authentic,” Maher said. “We’ve got businesses that have been here for 30, 40 years … There aren’t a lot of places you can go in the Denver area where you see that kind of longevity.”

But maintaining that independent, locally owned flavor poses quite a challenge, he said.

“It’s getting tougher every day because of the cost [to rent or buy commercial space downtown]. Because of all of the amazing and unique business we have here, it has become such a destination and so popular,” he said. “So as demand has gone up, the cost of being here has gone up as well. That makes it more challenging to maintain that local vibe.”

It’s not just rents that have gone up, it is also property taxes, he said.

“Over the past few years, it has just skyrocketed,” Maher said, and because property taxes are established by state law, there is little local groups can do to combat rising rates.

Property taxes and rents aren’t the only things on the increase that pose a challenge for downtown businesses. Competition from businesses in other areas — even other neighborhoods in Boulder — is always increasing.

“There are tons of great restaurants and shops east of [Pearl Street] Mall, west of the mall,” Maher said. “There are a lot of other communities around us and a lot of other destinations: [Denver neighborhoods River North, Lower Downtown], Louisville, Longmont, Lafayette. Everyone has looked to the success that we have had and said, ‘Oh wow, we should be doing that.’ If you live in Louisville, you don’t have to come into Boulder anymore if you want to have a great meal.”

He added: “We have to work to make ourselves stand out. That’s getting harder and harder, but we have to keep doing it.”

Bringing in innovative types of businesses is one way to distinguish downtown Boulder, he said, pointing to the upcoming arrival of new dining concepts such as Avanti Food & Beverage. That new foodhall, an offshoot of a Denver collective eatery, will be located at the site of the shuttered Cheesecake Factory.

While competition is fiercer than ever, this isn’t the first time downtown Boulder business leaders have dealt with it.

“When Flatiron Crossing opened up [in Broomfield] all I heard was, ‘Oh no, the whole town [of Boulder] is going to die,’” he said. “Well, you know what, it didn’t. Downtown has done just fine. We heard the same thing when Twenty Ninth Street mall was developed. It wasn’t the end of downtown, downtown got better and stronger.”

Susan Connelly, who has served in a variety of local leadership roles including executive director of the Colorado Chautauqua Association and Boulder’s deputy director of Community Vitality, will take over as the partnership’s interim CEO in April. She will serve in that role until August, when the board expects to have a permanent successor in place.

“She’s a longtime, well-known leader in Boulder,” Maher said. “She knows our staff, our board. She knows downtown. She’s going to be fantastic.”

Identifying a permanent successor for Maher could present its own challenges for Downtown Boulder’s board of directors.

“I hate to say that this strictly an either/or thing, but the question comes down to whether you pursue someone who has an in-depth background and experience managing a downtown or do you look for a candidate who really knows Boulder,” Maher said.

Because of Boulder’s unique business and regulatory climate, “some people would suggest that rather than finding someone who really knows how to run a downtown, we should find someone who really knows a lot of Boulder,” Maher said. “That’s going to be something the search committee is really going to need to think about and figure out.”

The board of directors is expected to consider candidates both locally and from around the country.

As he prepares to depart, Maher said, “The future of downtown is extraordinarily bright.”

“It’s a vibrant and historic living place, and the future looks good,” he said. “Whoever comes in for my job is certainly going to have some challenges, but they are also going to have a whole lot of fun. I think downtown is going to be just fine.”

BOULDER — As Boulder Downtown Partnership CEO Sean Maher enters the final month of his 10-year tenure leading the organization, he feels confident about the area’s future even in the face of strong headwinds.

Maher will leave his position in April to take over as CEO of RRC Associates, a Boulder-based market research and consulting firm.

“I’ve worked with RRC for 20 years as clients,” he said. “I’ve known the founders of the company for a long time, and it’s just a really solid, first-class company here in Boulder.”

Maher was approached a couple…

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