Natalie Williams is the small-business liaison for Downtown Inc, an organization whose purpose is not only to promote downtown York but also to help develop new business and assist current ones in the district.
Downtown Inc is the trade name for the joint venture between the York Business Improvement District Authority and the nonprofit Main Street York. The staff of four is led by an 11-member board of directors with the goal of fostering investment in the city’s core and nearby neighborhoods.
As she approaches her one-year anniversary, Williams took a few moments to talk about her job, about the potential for business in downtown York and what the future might hold for the city’s core.
Q: What exactly is a small-business liaison? What are your job duties?
A: I think of my job in three sectors: Business recruitment, business assistance and retention services. All of this falls under the umbrella of economic development.
With recruitment, I reach out to different prospects — local, regional prospects who might be looking to open another location — and help connect the dots. With business assistance, we facilitate property tours with Realtors or building owners. We guide them through the permitting, planning and zoning process, and we connect them with resources — SCORE, Community First Fund — to help them along and to develop a business plan.
In retention, we hold educational workshops and we do interviews with our small-business impact team. We go in and ask them how they are doing, find the positives of what they’re doing, find out if they need help with anything, then bring in other professional resources to assist them. We try to do 24 a year.
Briefly, what are some of your biggest success stories in the year you’ve been in your job?
The biggest success stories are the ones where I connect valuable spaces with people who are in limbo about opening a business, then seeing that through the process to the ribbon cutting. That happened with Elizabeth & West Fashion House (a clothing store that moved from online boutique to a storefront at 15 N. Beaver St. in May). I stayed in touch with (owner Rebecca Wattenschaidt) through her blog. Ben Chiaro (with Rock Commercial Real Estate) was signing the listing agreement at the same time as he had the letter of intent.
What do you see as the biggest thing people don’t understand about downtown York when it comes to opening a business?
They think that because it’s downtown, the spaces should be below the commercial rate. They think that starting a business down here they’re going to get cheap space. That’s not the case anymore. The more desirable locations are moving quicker than they can be listed. The desirable spaces are getting leased. The road blocks — the planning, permitting and zoning process, for example — are definitely not there anymore.
Where do you see the future going in downtown York?
(Downtown Inc executive director Sonia Huntzinger) says, “We’re tipping toward the top of the bell curve for revitalization.”
The goal is to fill the leasable space with creative and purposeful business and to foster a welcoming community. We want to create a destination. I mean, it already is, but we want everyone to know it is. We want them to have a positive experience here and tell others. We want to expand beyond the people who already know. I think that’s going to happen. Once we get that momentum going, and we have, it catapults off each other.
Specifically for you, why York? Why do you care about this town?
Because I grew up here. My grandmother was a county employee with the clerk of courts for 25 years. My other grandmother had a stand at Central Market. I remember, as a kid, holding onto my Mom and Dad’s hands for dear life because the place was so packed.
I want that again for my kids. I want them to experience a walkable, urban place and meet a diverse group of cool people. I don’t want to say that I want things to go back, because you should never go back. But I want to see something very similar to that again, where people can live out their dreams of owning a small business and be successful.
About Natalie Williams
Home: North York
Education: Dallastown Area High School; Penn State York and main campus
Experience: Worked for Rite Aid Corp.; the Realtors Association of York and Adams County; member of North York Borough Council
Family: Husband, Patrick; two children