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Lunch with Mimi: Irene Miller, new executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District

by on January 01, 2018 10:30 AM

Since September, 31-year-old Irene Miller has brought a youthful energy to the Downtown State College Improvement District as its new executive director. DSCID extends from Atherton Street to Sowers Street, College Avenue to Highland Alley. Miller is tasked to retain, expand, and attract businesses and investment to improve the downtown environment. The goal is to make downtown a destination — a place where you can come to play, live, and work.

Born in Kentucky, she moved around a lot as a child from Tennessee to Indiana, DC to North Carolina, but spent the majority of her life in Mississippi. Graduating from Mississippi University for Women in 2008 with a degree in political science, she has been in State College for six years.

Before being appointed by the DSCID board, Miller was with Centre Foundation for four years coordinating events, marketing and donor development. She has been a member of Rotary, State College Young Professionals, CBICC Connect, and Leadership Centre County Class of 2015.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Miller at India Pavilion to discuss the mission of the Downtown State College Improvement District and how Miller plans to transform the spirit and enhance the vitality of the downtown.

Mimi: Well, of course I know you from the wonderful job you did at Centre Foundation and now you’ve moved from out from the boonies to downtown State College, the center of it all. Define for me and our readers exactly what your mission is as executive director of the Downtown Improvement District.

Irene: The Downtown State College Improvement District’s mission is to make downtown a vibrant place to live, work, and play. We do that through a variety of ways. My goal is to make sure people know it is a wonderful place to come 365 days a year, whether you live here, work here, or just come to visit.

Mimi: Now, some will say, “If you can find a parking space!” But that’s a myth, isn’t it?

Irene: Parking is plentiful and with validations, it can be free. But we live in a very bike- and environmentally-friendly area, so a lot of people walk and bike downtown as well.

Mimi: You have to realize that I first knew downtown State College in 1950 and one could argue that it bustled a whole lot more then than it does now with foot traffic. The real challenge in my mind is how do you redirect people to the habit of going downtown? What do you bring to the table that can make that happen 365 days a year?

Irene: Absolutely, well our community is blessed. We have a lot of people who love to come and visit, whether it’s for a graduation or athletics on campus. But we also have a huge population base — we’re the population base of the county, so it’s just a matter of making sure that locals, who already love living here, making sure they also are aware of all the happenings downtown.

Mimi: It starts with the myth that we can’t get a parking space. We both know that’s a myth. And part of what’s happened, the selection of retail options, other than dining and bars, is slim. Have you checked at all or are you affiliated at all with other college communities, towns that are enhanced by the presence of higher education? Are they experiencing the same thing we are here? Most of the growth downtown in recent times is high-rise for student housing, and more little ethnic restaurants to appeal to the diversity of the students. Is there an organization that you could refer to and collaborate with to know what the most successful things are in places like State College?

Irene: I think people come downtown to go out to eat or they have tickets to an event, but once they’re down here, they are walking around and we have many specialty stores like The Branch and the Vine, and The Makery has relocated from Boalsburg in recent years. And there’s also a lot of experiential stores like The Escape Room. So, if you think about our marketing efforts as a pebble that you throw into the lake and the lake is our community, that pebble makes the biggest wave here locally. And then the next ripple is the people that live in the outlying areas, whether you’re in the Park Forest area, out in Pleasant Gap, down in Boalsburg, or in the Ferguson Township area, and then it goes on from there.

Mimi: What will do that the best?

Irene: One of the things that I’m focused on is making sure that we have a message that resonates with locals who enjoy where they live. One of my friends said it needs to be something that people are willing to wear on their t-shirt. So, making our brand resonate with people and making it marketable.

Mimi: Most people call that Happy Valley, not State College, in reality.

Irene: It’s New York City, but people call it the Big Apple and they’ll still wear that on their shirt. I think it’s the same type of principle.

Mimi: Experience of the past is often the prologue for the future. This is an interesting interview to me because I’ve been here long enough to remember when you could shop for almost anything in downtown State College. Now it’s quite limited in the minds of most people. There are certain things of high quality. The most recent great example of that is Harper’s and their remarkable investing in a location and in an approach that is high quality. We need more of that. So, I see the biggest problem for downtown from my historic past is the inability for the various components that make up downtown to generate enthusiasm and cooperation together to do the things you’d really like to do, and I see your biggest hurdle as arriving at a consensus among the diversity of downtown State College, because you can’t do it without buy-in by a huge percentage of all the pieces. Is that your biggest challenge in this job?

Irene: To your point about Harper’s, Brian’s doing a great job. He has a beautiful store and our wonderful board chair, Sharon Herlocher, recently encouraged Brian Cohen to join our board for that exact experience. He has a wonderful business mentality and he does a great job with marketing. He was able to partner with the Borough to make sure that everything he needed to get done was able to get done in a timely and legal manner.

Mimi: Too often, the activity downtown is the building of high-rises these days and not the enhancement of the commercial potential of a great downtown. With a new broom like you, young, full of good ideas, do you have any ideas about how you can get the smallest of merchants excited, not just in the present but in the future that will bring even more business to the downtown. I’m trying to get you in the mode of, how do you begin a transformation of the spirit of downtown State College?

Irene: I love that you’ve used the word “spirit” because I feel like attitude gets you everywhere. We have wonderful people who are really energetic – who just need to harness that and insert that can-do spirit that I think efforts like what Brian did at Harper’s embody. Whatever a merchant wants to accomplish, first we envision it and then we support them and we’re able to insert that can-do spirit.

Mimi: What is your biggest focus? What do you think is your most important demographic?

Irene: Locals. Locals are here throughout the year. Students are here four years, hopefully longer.

Mimi: Have you engaged in conversation with anyone on campus that can be helpful to your efforts?

Irene: We have a designated board member from Penn State; we also have one from the State College Borough because those are both important partners to the organization.

Mimi: What do you hope to accomplish in 2018? What are your hopes, dreams, and wishes as you put your footprint on this new job?

Irene: I’m really, really excited. I’m so passionate about it. Having a healthy, thriving downtown is so important to our entire economy. It means that if a young family opened a business it means they can buy a house or they can start a family, they can afford to send a kid to college so making sure that we have a thriving downtown is so important, even on a micro level. What I’m really excited about is being able to wrap an inviting and memorable message around downtown that resonates with locals and that like my friend said they’re willing to wear on a t-shirt or what have you. Making sure that people know throughout the year, no matter if it’s a Tuesday or a festival weekend, there is something really fun that you’re going to enjoy coming downtown and really getting a lot out of, and making sure we activate different demographics that might not have always come downtown and realize that there are things for them that they could enjoy.

Mimi: Success begets success. You’re on the way. I’m going to watch you closely and others will be too. I’m sure your board will be as well. I hope your capacity to think as a young person with fresh ideas is encouraged by the people for whom you work, because part of what happens in this crazy life we all live, it’s often same old, same old. So, I wish you good luck in your challenge. I know you’ve got the capacity to be a catalyst for change, and there is a necessity for exciting change.

Irene: I’m excited. We have a whole group of young professionals working downtown and in the larger community, and we all know each other, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.

 

Darren Andrew Weimert

Irene Miller (right) discusses her new downtown role with Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith at India Pavilion.

 

 

 

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