With a little more than two months on the job, Andrew Holt is still getting a feel for the town — and trying to sample the wares of as many restaurants as he can.
The new executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc. says he likes every place he’s visited thus far, and he loves how many unique retail stores downtown has to offer.
“If you go into The Toy Store and you don’t think that’s one of the most fabulous places you’ve ever been in, then I’d have to check your pulse,” he jokes.
Holt took the helm of DLI in mid-April, and his role will involve promoting and championing all things Downtown Lawrence, Kansas, as well as lobbying for the interests of downtown businesses.
Heading to Lawrence from the Northwest
Holt, 59, came to Lawrence as a “solo act,” and he’s living alone downtown in an upstairs apartment. He has family in Santa Barbara, California.
Holt is a big sports fan, which naturally makes Lawrence a great fit for him.
He spent the early part of his career in radio broadcasting. Working for the college radio station during his senior year at UCLA, Holt had access to everything the pro sportscasters had — calling the Rose Bowl, and basketball games at Pauley Pavilion.
He recalls the prophetic words of Bill Bennett, then the university’s assistant sports information director.
“He says, ‘Holt, you’re gonna spend your entire life trying to get back here’ — and he was right,” Holt acknowledges.
He worked some very long Fridays as a radio broadcaster: he’d wake up at 5:30 a.m. to do the morning show and get off work in the afternoon only to drive hours away to get set up and call the high school game. Once the game wrapped late in the evening, there was another 2 1/2 hour drive back to Walla Walla, Washington.
“And you always stopped at a fast food place with the team and had some good stories and conversations with the team,” he says.
Ultimately, he didn’t make it out of the small to medium markets and into the big leagues of broadcasting — but he’d made the right connections as he looked to move on to something new.
Michael Davidson, a recent former leader of eXplore Lawrence, was Holt’s first boss in his current career. Holt had interviewed Davidson, who was head of Visit Walla Walla, on the radio for several years for monthly spots about tourism.
“He took a chance on me,” Holt says, by hiring him as tourism services manager. “… That’s how I got into what some people would say is destination marketing or economic development, nonprofit work. So he showed me the ropes.”
Davidson made his way to Lawrence in 2016 and led eXplore Lawrence until early 2021, when he retired. Holt then decided to take a job with the chamber in Dayton, Washington, about 30 minutes down the road.
“We did tourism, chamber and Main Street,” but the Main Street part had the most potential and was the most dynamic, Holt says. He went on to become the first full-time director of the budding Downtown Association of Yakima, Washington, where he spent the last six years.
At the time, the city had an agreement with DAY that DAY would take over many popular events the city had been running once the full-time director was hired. One of the biggest events was a summer concert series that ran for 10 weeks, each week with road blocks, a temporary stage, tents and a beer garden to set up — “It’s wildly successful, but it is a huge lift,” Holt says. “… I learned how to be an event coordinator.”
Davidson says he tipped Holt off to the Downtown Lawrence Inc. job once he heard longtime director Sally Zogry was stepping down. Davidson was impressed by Holt’s work over the years, and the following he’d gained in Yakima.
Davidson says he thinks Holt is a great communicator who thinks outside the box.
“All destinations from time to time need to bring people in from outside who look at things from a different perspective,” he says. “I just thought Andrew could bring all of that to the table.”
With the caveat that he’s still getting to know the community, Holt shared some of his favorite attributes of Lawrence’s downtown so far.
There is turnover and there are vacancies downtown, but the vacancy rate is fairly low compared to other communities where he’s worked, Holt says.
“Lawrence has six blocks of solid, historic buildings with storefronts filled with viable businesses, and that is not the case in many downtowns in the United States, so we’re very fortunate that way.”
People can come downtown for lunch or dinner and walk around, and there are a lot of shops that are still open at dinner time, he says. And walkability is a big thing. He says having one lane of traffic in each direction, bumpouts on the corners and jagged parking create a sense of comfort for pedestrians, “and that’s exactly what you want in your downtown.”
There’s a lot of life — greenery and vegetation, as well as active and passionate business owners, Holt says. And finally, “We’ve got KU right on our doorstep, right? How good is that?”
Holt has heard some concerns, however. Living and working downtown, Holt says it’s clear the city has people experiencing homelessness and houselessness.
Though he says he doesn’t want to minimize problems, the situation in Lawrence is not as bad as some communities where he’s lived and worked. In Yakima, he says, his beautification crew would clean up abandoned campsites daily.
“There’s definitely something that we need to address because it is affecting the businesses, and also, we want these people to have homes,” he says.
“DLI is in a situation where we want to be supportive toward efforts to alleviate homelessness and houselessness, but we want to make sure that we’re doing things that are actionable, that make a difference and improve the situation.”
He’s heard some other concerns, as well.
“There’s — concern about parking, at least, I would say,” Holt says. “I’m still learning a lot about it. … We certainly have people on the whole spectrum regarding parking.”
In addition, high property values and rents for businesses have come up as issues, he says. “(We want to) make sure that we’re not pricing businesses out of business.”
Some community members have suggested a vacancy tax for downtown buildings that go unused or underused.
“It has actually worked in some places, spurred development, but I think you have to be very cautious before you do it because it is a stick instead of a carrot,” Holt says. “… I don’t think we’re there yet.”
What about blocking off part of Mass Street to become a pedestrian mall?
“I think that it’s very worthwhile looking at it,” Holt says, “… but you’ve got to look at your data. You’ve got to do your homework and make sure that you get buy-in.”
Every downtown is different, he emphasizes, and pedestrian malls have been successful in many communities.
“Research has shown that the more people you have walking in your downtown, the better it is for the entire downtown,” Holt says. Ideally, you want people to think about where they’ll go to eat, then decide to just head downtown and walk around until they figure it out. “… We do want to honor our destination businesses, but you want a place where people go to hang out.”
Holt will be downtown for the first annual Mid Summer Night on Mass — an event that actually preceded him, he says — and he’s looking forward to seeing more of the community come out. That’s set for Friday, June 23. Check out this article and the event website, msnonmass.com, to learn more.
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Note: Post updated at 10:58 a.m. Friday, June 23