Outgoing Downtown Inc director sees path to success

Sean Philip Cotter

Sonia Huntzinger moved to downtown York when she got the job here and has lived just a couple of blocks from her offices at Downtown Inc, right by the middle of town, ever since.

"It wouldn't be right" to live anywhere else while she led the organization charged with helping revitalize the city's downtown, she said.

After six and a half years at the helm of the organization, her last day will be March 11; she'll be moving to Chester County soon to start a similar position in Coatesville but continues to see a bright future for the place she referred to as "my downtown" — the one in York City.

Organization: Downtown Inc formed in 2006 from the Main Street York nonprofit organization and the York Business Improvement District Authority, an entity created by York City government. The two entities still keep their books separately, but they work through the combined organization.

It's a quasi-governmental organization, an authority, similar in that regard to the city's Sewer Authority or the General Authority, which runs the city's parking lots and meters. York City Mayor Kim Bracey appoints the organization's board members, who are volunteers who then oversee the organization.

The organization's budget is just over half a million dollars, according to its four-year business plan, which it renewed at the start of this year. It's funded by the money raised by Main Street York's fundraising efforts and property assessments done through the YBIDA.

Strategy: Huntzinger stressed that what Downtown Inc's doing isn't just throwing the proverbial spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks.

"There is a science to it," she said of urban development. "There is a strategy."

She said evidence in other cities has shown what needs to be done to continue to revitalize downtown. The organizers have to focus on a few different things at once, most importantly economic development, safety, beautification, events and promotions. Slowly but steadily "incrementally" raising these together will result in a steadily more bustling downtown, she believes.

So that's what Downtown Inc is supposed to do — it "sets the table" for businesses to come in with as much ease as possible, works to create events, coordinates with police and works on the physical landscape of downtown. For example, it organizes First Friday events and was a driving force behind improvements to the Rail Trail.

"The organization’s goal is always a vibrant, bustling downtown," she said.

Sonia Huntzinger

Approach: She's seen varying approaches work in other places. Lancaster, for example, relied on those types of changes but also really used the arts as a major force for change — and now that's the place's hook, its niche.

"Lancaster used the arts as the primary driver," she said. "Because of that, I don't know if the region has another place for the arts (to be the main draw)."

She sees downtown York City's niche as staying more local.

"Downtown York is York County’s community downtown," she said.

It's a place people from all over the county can enjoy, she said.

"York (County) is its own community," she said. "(Downtown) is your community place, it’s where we celebrate things together."

She said the Who Knew? campaign is meant to highlight that, pointing out what there is to do around town.

She acknowledges the city's gone through several cycles of "highs and lows and ebbs and flows" in recent decades, but she is optimistic for the city's future. Part of that's thanks to a broad shift in American culture, a reversal of the flight out of cities that much of the latter half of the 20th century featured. Past generations have sought to leave cities when they can, leaving downtowns in favor of suburbia. But the millennial generation — people born between the early '80s and early 2000s, generally — find city life more appealing, Huntzinger said.

"Most of that generation wants to be in that walkable urban environment," she said. "They're looking to give up their cars, looking to work and play and exist in the same community."

Replacement: As Huntzinger only announced her upcoming departure a few days ago, the search for her replacement is still in its preliminary stages, said Eric Menzer, the vice president of Downtown Inc's board of directors.

Menzer said he was part of the search committee that eventually hired Huntzinger. At that point, the relatively newly formed organization was struggling to find its footing, he said.

Menzer, who's the president of the York Revolution baseball organization, opted for a sports metaphor to explain what Huntzinger's done best.

"It's the blocking and tackling," he said — the fundamentals. She got the organization working efficiently and following its bylaws, communicating effectively and focused on a specific vision, he said.

He's pleased with how Downtown Inc's grown under Huntzinger and thinks the ways it's changed and become more sophisticated make the executive director position an appealing job that should draw interest from plenty of talented people in the field.

"When we hired her, she was sticking her neck out for us," Menzer said. "I think the best compliment I can pay her is that she made it be a job people would want."

He said the organization is looking for someone to more or less continue in the direction Huntzinger has pointed the organization. She said much the same.

"Basically, keep the foot on the gas," she said.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com.