In January, our fearless leader, Alliance for Pioneer Square Executive Director Lisa Howard returned from maternity leave after welcoming the newest addition to her growing family. With a few weeks back at the helm, Lisa reflects on 2020, shares with us her hopes for the neighborhood in 2021, and what her thoughts are on economic recovery for Pioneer Square.
In her role as Executive Director of the Alliance, Lisa uses her strong relationships with city leaders and key organizations to advocate for the neighborhood and the issues that impact Pioneer Square at the city, county, and state levels.
Welcome back. One thing you’ve missed most about the Alliance or neighborhood while you were on leave?
Definitely the people. That has actually been a theme through this entire pandemic – the Alliance team, our partners, and various stakeholders. I’m incredibly grateful for the time with our new addition but it’s great to be back in the mix.
As you reflect on the last year, what are some of your biggest insights?
I think my biggest insight is that no one is an expert in pandemic response. We are all learning this together. A year and a half ago I never would have predicted Pioneer Square (and the world) would have been going through such an event. The complexity of Pioneer Square has always been a major draw for me personally and we see that complexity playing out in numerous ways right now. Each industry within and around the district – upper floor tech companies, retailers, restaurants, human services, the sports teams to the south – everyone has had to respond to the pandemic in order to survive. What we’ve witnessed over the last eleven months has been incredibly inspiring. People have had to make really hard choices and they’ve done that with a grit that isn’t so readily obvious in “normal” times. One of the conversations we had internally early on was how to support all our people. Whether they find a path forward within their existing business model or need to do a complete 180, we asked ourselves ‘how do we support each individual so they are a part of this neighborhood when we come out the other side?’
How have you managed to maintain a connected work culture throughout the pandemic, with the Alliance staff working primarily from home? How has the pandemic informed your leadership style? What are some of the challenges of this new normal?
This was my biggest concern when we started working from home in March 2020, especially given the fact we had new staff members and one in the mid-interview process. Zoom has been a lifesaver and changing it up to have daily staff meetings was incredibly important. Staying connected to Pioneer Square and our people was a top priority and we put policies in place to allow safe access to the office early on. In the pandemic, I’ve found it’s necessary to find new and unique ways to be accessible and transparent given that we aren’t together in an office every day.
The biggest challenge by far is the loss of “office chatter”. The Alliance works many projects simultaneously and overhearing what was happening with everyone else was an important way to stay informed. We’ve had to be more deliberate in briefing our co-workers on what’s happening in a changing environment.
What do you think the long-term impact of the pandemic will be on the neighborhood?
Pioneer Square has a proven track record of being incredibly resilient. From rebuilding after the Great Fire to picking up the pieces after numerous earthquakes, this district is always able to emerge a little better than before. The short and mid-term may be challenging, but I think people will look back at this time in 30, 40 years and see the result of the incredible people that pulled through.
Thinking about an economic recovery for Pioneer Square, what are the different factors involved to return the neighborhood to pre-pandemic levels? What do you see benefiting the businesses the most in this phase?
We need our customers to come back to the neighborhood. When the pandemic first hit, and people started working from home and going out less, we worked to support businesses getting dollars into the door through online means. But to hit pre-pandemic levels, and to ultimately support the long term viability of businesses, we need to phase in the return of our upper floor office workers, tourists, and game day traffic. Our residential population is a small but mighty group that has been working to support our small businesses though the last year, however it isn’t enough to sustain many of our businesses that rely on those other groups of folks.
The theme I hear the most is concern for public safety. This is an incredibly complex topic in Seattle, but at the end of the day we need to ensure everyone – residents, business owners, employees, and individuals accessing services – can navigate Pioneer Square without threat of personal harm. We need to stop conflating homelessness and dangerous criminal activity and work as a region to systematically address both.
What do you hope to focus on in 2021 to make sure the Alliance and our neighborhood returns to some semblance of normal?
I’ve started to dislike the term “normal”, as we need to recognize the change over the last year and continually adapt to it. We are all facing these new challenges but people are showing up, turning on their lights, and doing what they can to be successful. Recovery isn’t going to be linear, there will be ups and downs, good days and bad. Our focus is to make sure people feel supported to make it through the bad days and there to help them celebrate the good ones.
There are a couple projects I am really excited for. One of them is an equity in placemaking program – ensuring that this organization is authentically ensuring all people are welcome in Pioneer Square. The other is the Northeast Pioneer Square Framework Plan. The northeast corner of our neighborhood was essentially severed when 2nd Ave Ext cut through, and challenges have existed ever since. Finding ways to reconnect the neighborhood, making that corner a true gateway to the district, is an exciting project on the books this year.
Almost a year after the Covid-19 pandemic began, care to make any predictions for the next 12 months?
People will return. I really believe this. There have been so many predictions that businesses will continue the work from home model but for the types of businesses that choose to be in Pioneer Square, that in-person model is critical to success. Perhaps workplace flexibility will be key moving forward, but the opportunity to walk down the street to grab a cup of coffee and be inspired? You can’t find that at home, but you can in Pioneer Square.
Photo by Captured by Candace Photography