When Todd Cutts was hired as the executive director of the Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA) two years ago, he spent much of his time engaging with local business owners. The goal was simple, yet important. He wanted to learn “what they thought our identity was, and the direction they thought we should go as an organization,” Cutts said.
Those conversations have helped shape the ODA’s vision of supporting downtown business owners through four key initiatives: advocacy; business assistance; image making; and creating a vibrant, safe, and clean environment.
Cutts’ background is largely in economic and strategic development for downtown management organizations. He was most recently city manager for the city of SeaTac, development and transportation coordinator for the Downtown Denver Partnership, and economic development manager of the Downtown Long Beach Associates.
Returning to Olympia to live and work is a homecoming of sorts for his family.
“My wife was actually born and raised in Olympia,” Cutts explained. “When we had an opportunity to choose where to relocate, one of the factors we weighed most heavily was the presence of a downtown. We have three kids, and (we) wanted them to be around an urban environment. We really enjoy what urban environments can offer.”
Cutts shared his thoughts on downtown Olympia and the ODA’s role in making it an enjoyable place to visit and do business.
Q: What are some of the challenges specific to downtown businesses?
A:Probably the most widely reported challenge that you hear is about homelessness. I would say that this is something societally that we’re challenged with, and we’re all trying to figure out compassionate solutions to. When you really have a fully formed conversation and talk to people about that issue, many times what I hear is not necessarily around homelessness, but rather around behaviors. Sometimes, individuals that are acting in anti-social ways have issues with mental health and substance abuse. I think some of those underlying causes — in downtown Olympia, Olympia as a whole, Thurston County, the state of Washington, and this nation — are things that we are working to find solutions around.
In terms of our downtown, our organization, (along with) business owners, (the) police department, (and) the city of Olympia (are) rallying to find some of those solutions. I’m not going to say that there aren’t ever any challenges here, but I also think part of what we try to work through is a perception issue in our downtown.
Q: What are some of the opportunities downtown?
A: If individuals come downtown to go shopping on a Sunday afternoon, they’re going to find a wonderful customer experience where they are going to feel comfortable. The great, exciting, new, and traditional businesses offer a cool, creative downtown environment for people to visit.
We also have a ton of new development that’s going on down here right now. In terms of residential units, we’ve got a little under 500 units that are planned right now, about 300 that are underway, and 250 that have been completed in the last few years. So, the face of downtown is evolving as we speak.
Q: How do you incorporate the needs of various stakeholders, such as business owners, property owners, and visitors?
A: Carefully. Yes; there is a large variety of stakeholders in downtown Olympia. Part of the beauty of this downtown is the diversity of voices, opinions, ideologies, lines of business — that’s what creates that rich tapestry of downtown Olympia.
Having said all that, when you really filter through what it is that they’re asking from an organization like ours, there’s a lot of alignment. For example, business owners, their employees, their customers, and visitors from outside of the area can all align around the fact that we want everyone to feel safe and comfortable in our downtown.
Q: How do you leverage your expertise in economic development to contribute to the growth that downtown Olympia is experiencing?
A: Economic development can be a somewhat amorphous term. We don’t proactively do recruitment and retention efforts, because it’s not part of our strategic plan.
Having said that, I think some of the things we are doing lend themselves directly to that. Whether it’s our Advocacy efforts or the Clean and Safe piece, that foundational piece is really an economic development tool.
A more traditional tool that we employ is partnerships that we’ve formed around Business Assistance. We have a great partnership with the Thurston Economic Development Council and the City of Olympia through Community Development Block Grant dollars. We have developed a Business Assistance program that really meets our downtown businesses where they are. We have business coaches and individual technical advising sessions complimentary to downtown businesses.
Q: What makes downtown Olympia unique?
A: This is in our mission statement, but it probably bears repeating: Downtown Olympia is the heart of our region, offering our unique local flavor in a clean and safe setting while blending our contemporary quirkiness with historic charm. Organizationally, we’ve embraced the ethos of downtown Olympia and we want that quirkiness to remain around here. There is a uniqueness to Olympia that we certainly don’t want to lose as we evolve as a downtown.