Every downtown needs a champion. For some midstate communities, that person has been Kelly Withum.
Withum, a veteran community development expert with experience in Lancaster and Lititz, added a third “L” to her resume last month when she stepped into the role of executive director for Lebanon’s Neighborhood Improvement District Management Association, which oversees the Lebanon Business Improvement District.
The city’s BID, as such groups are commonly known, was established in 2016.
Under the terms of its creation, businesses in the BID will, for the five-year life of the program, pay an annual assessment of $2 for every $1,000 of assessed value for their properties. Through that mechanism, the BID is expected to bring in about $100,000 annually, funds that will support advertising, cleaning services and an executive director, among other items.
That’s where Withum comes in.
For the past decade, she served as executive director of Venture Lititz, a nonprofit that supports downtown development in Lititz. Before that, she was executive director at the Lancaster Downtown Investment District.
In Lebanon, she will oversee daily operations and financial management, including grant procurement. She also will be responsible for creating and implementing programs to attract new businesses, visitors and residents.
On her first day in the job, Withum took time out of her busy schedule to talk with the Business Journal about her vision for the role.
Q: What are you most looking forward to with this job?
A: It’s exciting to take the experience that I have from previous positions of downtown revitalization and vitalization. I don’t always say “revitalization,” because with some things, it’s a matter of bringing fresh and innovative ideas that haven’t been tried before. I’m very excited about being in Lebanon, and the organization is new.
What are the biggest challenges?
For me, not being from the community, it’s about building all the relationships. With every business, relationships are a huge part of success, and that’s what I’ll be doing the first month. It’s about getting going from the ground up. But with experience, you can avoid pitfalls, and you have the knowledge base to understand what works well and what does not.
You talked about building relationships. Tell me more about that process.
I love doing business recruitment. So you have to establish relationships with property owners, which is great. In your first round of recruitment, you work to fill empty spaces, and you can do that very creatively, which is a lot of fun.
What needs do you see in the community?
As with every traditional downtown, whether in a city of the third class or a borough, downtown Lebanon has experienced somewhere between 30 and 50 years of decline because of mechanization, suburbanization and sprawl. So it is a matter of laying the groundwork and encouraging people to move back into the downtown.
So often in communities you experience brain drain. Young people up and leave. That’s normal. But it’s a matter of getting them to come back.
How do you get people and businesses to come back?
There are so many things. For young families, you need to have family activities. You need them to feel safe in the downtown area at all hours, day or night.
But you also need to have things to do for other groups, including adult beverages – craft breweries, ethnic restaurants, other eateries. In most traditional downtowns, the trend that seems to be sustainable is adding more food and drink establishments. Not necessarily things that are so trendy they come and go in a year, but things that are sustainable. Those are the types of things that help create a sustainable downtown.
What’s the mood in the community like?
I can tell the timing is right. They are anxious for change, and it seems like the ducks are lining up. There’s a real sense of community pride. I believe that people understand the downtown is not going to be the way it was 50 or 60 years ago, but they’re anxious for it to be all that it can be.