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Meagan Feeser: Good to be back helping to lead York

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Meagan Feeser had left her hometown of York way, way behind – “I could not get out of here fast enough,” she recalled.

She was working in Washington, D.C. when her father, Mark Hess, bet her $10,000 that she would come back to York County some day.

Her answer? No way.

Just a few years later, dad was right.

Feeser is back, helping to lead a continuing revitalization of the White Rose City, which is seeing an influx of new restaurants and businesses, plus plenty of residents in the same age bracket as the 36-year-old Feeser.

"You don't know how cool the town is you live in until you get some perspective and go somewhere else," said Feeser, chief marketing and development officer for the York economic and promotional nonprofit, Downtown Inc.

York had this amazing community around it

After graduating from West York Area High School, Feeser's trek out of York County took her to not just Washington but New York and Philadelphia, among other stops on the East Coast.

She taught at an all-boys school in Philadelphia that no longer exists, and used her performing experience - she has a bachelor's degree in English and theater from Gettysburg College, plus a master’s from the University of Virginia – working for a tour company in New York that took people on television and movie tours, showing them things like the "Friends" apartment and the diner from "Seinfeld."

Along the way, she developed a love for what was being called "new media." Assigned to create a web project for her master's degree, Feeser learned she enjoyed using that medium to tell a story.

When she came back to York in 2010 – and was surprised, as an East Coast urbanite, that people in York knew about Twitter, she admits now sheepishly – Feeser instantly saw something: "Not only were they using Twitter, but they had built this amazing community around it."

And in looking around the town she had left, she saw something else.

"There was a very real sense that things were changing here, that things were happening for the good," she said. "And I remembered thinking, 'If I'm going to be here for the rest of my life, I want to be a part of that.'"

Those cool young millennials? They are now having their own kids

She began volunteering for Downtown Inc and other groups, and was one of the first people hired by York marketing firm executive Mandy Arnold, who then was starting Gavin Advertising.

Eventually, Feeser's enthusiasm and writing and communication skills led her to a part-time position at Downtown Inc and, eventually, a full-time gig as its marketing director.

She has helped spearhead such efforts as the organization's First Friday, a business and city promotional event the first Friday of each month that turns York's city center into a block party.

The cool young millennials who were using Twitter and going to bars and restaurants back in 2010 are now having their own kids, but they still want to be a part of what's going on in downtown York, she said.

"I want to be able to do things where I can bring my kids downtown, and I know a lot of people who feel the same way," said Feeser, mother to daughter Holden, 5, and son Gatsby, 3 – both named for famous literary characters.

So Downtown Inc, which has a yearly operations budget of $620,000 and seven staff members, is always adding more family-friendly events, Feeser said: "I think it’s important to reach out to that younger generation so they grow up not hating York, not wanting to leave immediately, and we can fight some of that brain-drain, of people wanting to leave town after they graduate."

Downtown Inc, the result of a merger between the groups Main Street York and the York Business Improvement District Authority, is often thought of as a promotional organization, but in fact is has a number of other arms.

They include business and economic development (helping those interested in starting a business or working with those who already have one), public safety and "urban landscape," which includes cleaning up after its events and spearheading the ongoing Heritage Rail-Trail project.

Did dad collect on the bet?

Feeser, a downtown resident herself, knows York has had an image problem: "The perception of crime and a lack of parking is something that a lot of cities deal with, whether that's true or not – it's certainly not true for us, there's certainly a ton of parking. And we have a very safe downtown, no matter what people happen to hear."

Downtown Inc started reaching out to suburban Yorkers a few years ago with a marketing campaign called "Who Knew," listing facts like how there were 65 places to eat within a five-minute walk of the city center.

When negative things come up about York, Feeser said, "Those aren't people from Lancaster dumping on York, those are Yorkers dumping on York, and that's where we’re focusing our attention" to try to change the perception.

Feeser, who with her boyfriend Philip Given is an owner of York City Pretzel Co., said Downtown Inc also wants to work to increase housing in York's city center: "We’ve been fighting for so long to get people to come here and to have dinner, and now people are coming, and they want to live here. We're sort of at this really cool point – people are staying here, now what do we do with them?"

Since Downtown Inc is a nonprofit, she tells leaders with York County companies outside the city that the organization is worth supporting, since having a vibrant downtown York can help attract good employees.

For anyone who's wondering, it has been seven years since Feeser moved back home to York, seven years since her dad's $10,000 wager was proven correct.

"No, I have not paid him back on that bet yet," she said. "He hasn't called to cash in yet – hopefully he'll give me some time."

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David O'Connor

David O'Connor

Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @DaveOC_CPBJ.

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