It takes a village to raise a child and a community.



Bettina Swigger

CEO of Downtown SLO


I am the CEO of Downtown SLO, which is the downtown business improvement area and we are a nonprofit organization. We partner with the city of San Luis Obispo, but we’re a separate organization. Our primary role is to create events and programs that foster an economically vibrant downtown. We mostly do that by putting on events like the farmer’s market and putting on concerts in the plaza, holiday activations. Anyone who’s ever put on an event or had a wedding or planned a little kid’s birthday party knows that events are a lot of work. So that takes up a lot of our time. We also work with about 525 businesses that are in our area.

The work comprises public safety, beautification, cleanliness, accessibility, inclusion, diversity, equity practices, economic development, tourism, arts and culture… basically everything that you can think of in society. Homelessness, families, retirees, every demographic, we’re working in the public space, and so this field is called public space management. I never knew that was a thing. These public space management organizations have been around since the 1970s, which is in really close tandem to when the nonprofit system in general in the U.S. really started to gain steam.


My career has been almost entirely in nonprofit. I went to a liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, Colorado College, and I worked for the college for four years after I graduated and then I went into arts management. I’ve been leading nonprofit organizations since I was 27 years old. This is my third executive role at a nonprofit, which means that I’m a little bit crazy because it’s very challenging and very rewarding work, in equal parts. When I went to school, we talked a little bit about urban planning so I knew that people could go into a city planning program but there was no nonprofit management track; there was certainly no urban management track.


I’m currently serving on the board of directors for the California Downtown Association; it’s people like me from all these different cities. San Luis Obispo is a pretty small city, it’s about 45,000 people, we’re a college town, we’re in a county that only has 275,000 people. San Luis is sort of seen as the metropolitan center of that very rural, very agriculture-based, beautiful, idyllic place. But we’re not San Diego or San Francisco or Los Angeles. So I’m on this board with people who are representing major cities and huge districts that are serving downtown LA or the fashion district or the Tenderloin in San Francisco. But one of the things that I have in common with all of the people who are in my similar position is that we all have these totally random backgrounds and none of us knew that this field existed and we’re all just kind of like, “How did we get here?” We’re all kind of coming at this from where we’re at; you’ve got restauranteurs, you’ve got former real estate agents. Everyone is coming at it with their different lens and it works because it encompasses so much of society.

 

We call it a partnership, and it really is a partnership. We have a number of contracts for service that we do for the city, because as a nonprofit, frankly it’s just cheaper for the private sector to do things than it is for the public sector for a lot of different reasons. But also we have the tools and wherewithal and knowledge to do things that city government is not made for. I have a really strong relationship with our city manager. We are a strong city manager/weak council form of government here in San Luis Obispo. I know all of the council members very well; it’s a small town so they’re my friends and some of those friendships came before they were elected and some of them have developed because of being on the council. And I know all of the city department heads and it’s not unusual for me to reach out to the director of Public Works if I see that there’s a traffic light out or the permit technician if I see that someone’s been leaving their construction signs in the middle of the road. It takes a village to raise a child and a community, so I talk to them a lot and there’s a lot of back and forth. We have relationships with Public Safety as well; that’s something that has been quite challenging in the last two years because a lot of the conversations that we’ve had about unlearning racist and white supremacist institutions – our police officers and our police department have not had any of the issues that other police departments have had, but that narrative has been disruptive to the public’s trust. There’s another issue of the unhoused community and the economic disparity that is really causing more and more people to lose secure housing, and people have different opinions about that. Some of the business owners just don’t want to see it because it’s disruptive to their business practices and I have to make space for that, but I also have a very compassionate heart and I want to be able to advocate for people to get services and have the help that they need. We’re a college town, so most of our public safety needs are for people who are under the age of 25 and their amygdala isn’t fully developed and they’re trying to have a good time. And I want them to have a good time, that’s what that time in your life is for. So it’s just an interesting mix: how do we make sure that we feel that the businesses are safe, that it’s a safe place to visit, and then also creating an environment that’s fun. All of that is equally important, so it’s balancing act. Sometimes it’s skewed to one piece of that and sometimes it’s another.


I’m in my early 40s now and on Friday night we had a concert in the plaza and after the band played – it was an 80s cover band – the bass player has a 90s cover band that was playing that same night. We finished the concert, wrapped everything up, and then I was like, “Ok, they’re playing at this bar that’s on my way home,” so I just walked by and I ended up staying for an hour and a half because the band was so fun. But I’m usually not out that late! It was like 11:30 when the band stopped playing, and I was like, “I’m going to double back into the heart of downtown and just take a look around and see what’s happening,” and it was this totally different environment. I feel like downtown is my baby, I know every inch of it, I know what businesses are where, I know the streets, and this was like, “Oh yes, there’s a whole social economy that happens between the hours of 10 pm and 2 am when I’m usually in bed.” But that’s a huge part of people coming downtown to spend their money and have a good time. That’s a good lesson for me to remember: it’s a 24-hour environment, not an 8-to-6 environment.


It’s challenging because municipal governments are, by design, structured and they are a much larger institution. And institutions that are large by design are more rigid and they don’t have growth mindset. It infects other ways of providing services. So here’s an example and it’s not me throwing the city under the bus, it’s me throwing the county under the bus: going back to our unhoused neighbors who live downtown or who are camped out along the creek beds, a lot of them have pretty severe addiction issues. We know, and the research tells us, that making repeated requests and trying to invite people to get help is the way to get it. It takes something like 40 times of asking somebody if they want help before they’ll necessarily receive it. The office of drug and alcohol programs through the county is only open from 9 am to 5 pm. So you have to conveniently schedule when you decide to have your rock bottom moment and finally decide when you’re going to accept help, within those hours. If anybody has ever gotten drunk in their life... that’s not when that happens! So it’s just that very simple practical thinking that I think can be missing in large institutions.


I will say that even though the systems can be challenging and quite glacial in their pace, I do think that for the most part, especially our elected leaders, are interested in hearing from the people. That is where you can have some power. If you’re not getting a response from a code enforcement person, you might go to your council person in your district. I bet you every person who’s sitting on this patio right now has some kind of similar thing in their apartment complex, or their neighborhood, or where they take their kid to school, or a professor in a class they’re taking, where they feel like they’re powerless in a situation and they see something that should be changed and it’s not changing because of rigid thinking. I don’t have the answer for how to fix that, but I think if we acknowledge that it’s something that everybody feels, it’s maybe a positive step.

 

What’s been really cool in the last couple of years is to see the restaurants come out into the street with the parklets. I love that because it means that instead of just having this public space that’s occupied by a vehicle, you see people gathering in it and it makes the town feel so much more lively. It’s here to stay and our city just passed a permanent ordinance so that it now is something that will be around for years to come. That’s so cool to know that it was an emergency response and everybody worked so hard on it, but I love thinking about how my role in this community is a very finite piece of something that’s going to go on for so much longer than I can even conceive of, and that I was able to help advocate for that in this moment in time. Thirty years from now, people will still have this as a result of that. It’s really cool to think about your place in the overall evolution of what cities and towns and community looks like. It’s very exciting and it’s also a little daunting because there’s a burden of responsibility that comes with that. Ultimately, it’s not my responsibility because it’s the city that’s going to be making those choices but as the leader of the downtown organization, I can say things that have a little bit of weight behind them. It’s cool to think about that: what will it look like because I was here? It keeps me humble because I want to make sure that I’m listening to people and I don’t just get ideas in my own head that are not representative of what the community wants. But also simultaneously, have a vision that might push the community beyond what they are just comfortable with.


[During the pandemic shutdown] the idea was that here’s this plaza that these visionary people transformed from a street, and we could allow people to gather outside. The parklets were deployed, but we also wanted people to be able to take their take-out – something as simple as putting tables and chairs in the plaza. You saw how many people were in the plaza today; almost every one was filled. Those tables and chairs were not there in 2019. That was a new thing, and so simple! But it’s completely in line with the plaza. And we also worked with the city tourism department who was having to reallocate their funding. The Museum of Art had a really cool art installation by this woman named Laurie Shapiro who did this walk-through sculptural flower installation. The Children’s Museum for Earth Day had a giant inflatable earth… the inflator didn’t necessarily work all the time so I would get these texts: “The earth is deflated.” We’re like, “That is exactly what it feels like right now. That’s a thing that’s actually happening and it’s metaphorically happening.”


And then we did something that I am very proud of, and we just wrapped it for the third year in a row, it’s called the Mayflower Initiative. In the month of May – it started in 2020 when everything shut down – we invited local artists to come paint the windows of the downtown shops. We said, “Paint May flowers,” and people came out and did it, it was like 50 businesses that did it and the next year we did a huge installation in the plaza. We worked with the CalPoly Rose Parade float team who builds a float every year for the Rose Parade, but the parade was cancelled so they built a float for us. They built a giant butterfly and we got to go on campus and see their manufacturing facility – that was so fun, that was a really neat project because it gave them a sense of purpose and a sense of practice so that when [the parade] did come back they weren’t like, “Oh god, we don’t know how to do this because we haven’t done it in a bunch of years.”


In February, we put up – I’m not trying to underplay it, but they were very simple – little moments of surprise and delight. Pompoms that were hanging from the bistro lights, so you look up and you go, “Oh! That’s fun and festive. It’s Valentine’s Day this month,” and then we put up some inspirational quotes and a couple of selfie stations. And then in May we did a pop-up roller rink for the first time and that was so fun, very trendy and it spoke to my inner child for sure, growing up as a kid in the 80s. And then we brought the concerts back in June... it’s been really neat. I’m always thinking about other things we can do in that space to make it more inviting and more fun. The city really has put a lot of efforts into it too, like the new electrical and the new lighting; they’re also going to be redoing the restrooms. Bathrooms, trash cans, and parking. Those are probably three of the least sexy things that I do. But they’re so critical to society functioning. That’s been kind of an interesting shift for me personally because so much of my background has been in the arts which is also critical to humanity and society but is deemed as not being as critical.

 

The thing that brought me to California and San Luis Obispo was an executive director job with Festival Mosaic which is this amazing festival which just wrapped up last night. It brings musicians from all over the world, primarily classical music, and the festival has been going on for 50 years. I came in 2011 and led that for eight years and then I left that job to become the CEO at Downtown SLO in 2018. But one of the things in my goals as an arts administrator was that I was always trying to get a seat at the table and be very very vocal about the fact that the arts are part of the economy, part of society, they’re valuable, they’re not fluff and extra, they are fundamental. It’s interesting that now that I’m dealing with these fundamental things like having to pee and throw away your trash, my belief in that has not been shaken at all. If anything, I’m now thinking about how can I unite those two parts of myself, and make trash cans more visually appealing so that people are drawn to them to throw their trash away instead of throwing it on the ground because they don’t see a trash can. Or how can we work in a way that makes a public restroom function first but also maybe play music in it so people don’t linger. There are all kinds of environmental design questions that you can ask when you’re answering these fundamental questions.


I don’t know if I will be in this role forever because in my career, I’ve always been very dedicated to what I’m doing and I’m also open to new things. So I don’t know where I’ll be in ten years. I’m not one of those people that’s got it all planned out, and I’ve never been that way. But I do think that when I look at our downtown specifically, there are a number of projects that are going to be coming out of the ground that are going to fundamentally improve the downtown experience and they are all based around getting more people to live downtown. This is a downtown leader’s battle cry: we all want more residential downtown because when you have more people living in an area, they’re more likely to support the businesses, they will report public safety issues, there’s 24-hour activity happening, neighbors look out for each other. It’s just better.


I was at this conference recently and we got to hear a lot about how different downtowns fared [in the pandemic]. So, downtown LA – there’s like 30 different districts down there – but the downtown LA district, where the public market is, that area, they actually did really well. They have fewer vacancies, the community really came together because there’s so much housing there, there’s people living in the apartments above, it’s not just skyscrapers full of offices that got abandoned. Compare that to, say, Union Square in San Francisco, where there were very few residents who lived there and it was all offices that were abandoned and it was like, poof, like an atomic bomb went off. Empty streets, the businesses couldn’t survive. I think that’s been playing out in San Luis Obispo in a way, too because if you look back – history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it definitely rhymes. I don’t know who said that, but it was not me. In the 1950s, most of the housing was around the downtown. And there’s still a lot of housing; you’ll walk three blocks and you’ll see all these darling houses. But there was sort of a push to move out toward CalPoly, to develop more suburban areas, and that was appropriate for the type of growth that was needed.


But now, we’re at a moment where there’s 80 to 100 apartment units that are going to be coming into the downtown core over the next four to five years, and that’s going to mean people. A lot of those spaces are not built around cars, so some of those spaces were able to get through the municipal planning process with fewer parking requirements met, they have more bike storage built into them, very focused on just having a downtown lived experience. I think with the way that the work environment has been transformed for work-from-home, we’re seeing more people who are going to want to live downtown and they’re going to want to have that experience. I want to make it so the people who live downtown love it and they do not want to leave and they don’t feel the urge to go out to the suburbs and have that sort of typical American Dream that we talk about, because they have a place where there’s a park nearby where their kids can play and there’s a dog park where they can walk their animals. They don’t need to get in their car all the time. They can shop at the farmer’s market every week for their vegetables, and maybe if we get enough residential we can get a grocery store downtown. I think that’s going to really change the community for the better. So that’s what I’d like to see. Ultimately I’m not the developer, I’m not the investor, but I can say, “Yes, we support this,” and I can educate some of the people who are anti-developer. Or they think they’re anti-developer. Not all growth is bad. There’s a responsible, compact, urban form that can be really meaningful for creating a stronger community. And it’s happening across the country. In urban areas, that’s been the argument: more density, more livable downtown areas.

 

The other thing that I’m deeply invested in is that I’m a writer. I’m currently writing a book. I’ve totally put it on the back burner for the last couple of years, which I have grace about, but I’d really like to get back to working on it as part of my regular practice. For me writing is absolutely fundamental to who I am as a person. I write every single morning; it’s a practice that I’ve been doing for many years. I have all these bound books of my morning pages. When I don’t write, I feel really weird. I feel like I didn’t take my vitamin or something, it’s that important.


I’ve been working on this manuscript and I have about 250 pages written and it’s about my relationship with my mother. My mother died suddenly when I was 29. She had an aneurism and obviously it was totally unexpected, and that was sort of a pivotal moment in my life because I believe that if I hadn’t lost her, I would not be here right now. I was grieving that loss when I was approached about this job in California and I was like, “My mom would tell me to go for it.” I went for it, and my life has changed in such dramatic ways and what’s really interesting is that I have not spoken to her obviously since 2010, I had not seen her since 2009, but my relationship with her is deeper now than it was when she was alive because I know more about her. She was an artist, so I have a lot of her art, her journals, that history, and I have that additional distance where I can see her as a person instead of as my mother. That’s been such a wonderful project to work on and fundamental to my continual maturation and development into the adult that I am today.


I’ll never forget walking into her apartment after we had to take her off life support, and her Sunday afternoon was just laid out. She had gone to a symphony concert that afternoon, she came home, she had a headache, she was taken to the ER by a neighbor and she passed out in the MRI and never woke up. So we walk in, and there’s her teacup from the morning and her breakfast dishes and her lunch dishes and the newspaper she had been reading. It’s not like she was a slob or anything, but it was her day. Her toothbrush left on the sink and not in the cup... it was a life interrupted. I’m sure if she had been diagnosed with a debilitating illness, she would have probably gone through these papers and gotten rid of the things that were not relevant. She made lists, for example. She had lists of things that she wanted to do by the time she was 80. And some of them were so funny, like she wanted to “take a lover to Greece.” Rock on, mom, how cool is that? I’m sure if she had told me that, in the moment I would have been like, “Mom, that’s really weird.” Because she’s my mom. But now I think of her as Nancy, and Nancy was a cool lady, she was thinking about things.


The boundaries of that parent-daughter relationship were erased. And erased in really sad ways, too. Like, I don’t know what was important to her. I’ve had to make hard choices about what to keep and what to get rid of. Because she was an artist, for example, I’m going through some of her sketch books and I found some studies that she did in 2002 and I think, “Ok, she died in 2010, she kept them for eight years, she must have liked the sketches enough that she kept them.” There’s a couple that I think I want to get framed, but I don’t know. If I had asked her, would she be like, “Oh Bettina, that one’s terrible. That was just a study, it doesn’t mean anything to me.” But I like it. And she dated it, she didn’t sign it but she dated it. I’m kind of having to put myself in her head. So when I die and someone finds all my volumes of my morning pages, oh my god, I do not want them to take all that as gospel truth! It’s not meant to be. I think about famous authors and their diaries are published and you kind of go, “Ooo, awkward.” I think the point of all this is we can’t necessarily curate how we are perceived. I’m hoping that when I finish this book and put it out into the world that people will be able to see her and that they’ll be seeing her through my lens, but also through her own work and her own way of being in the world. I hope it’s good.