March 21, 2013 10:26:15 AM
Barbara Bigelow absolutely exudes high energy, from her bright eyes and quick smile to the hands that can't help but get involved in the conversation when she gets excited and wants to emphasize her point.
Expect to see a lot of that over the coming weeks. A self-described part worker bee, part cheerleader, she has enthusiastically embraced her new role as director of Main Street Columbus, jumping without hesitation into the organization's busiest season.
Bigelow, former director of community relations for the Frank P. Phillips YMCA, took over as director on Feb. 25. Since then, she has been in non-stop motion.
Every day, she walks into her office and is greeted by eight to 10 phone messages left overnight. There are meetings with her board of directors, visits with downtown merchants, the five-week Noon Tunes lunchtime concert series, which kicks off today, and, oh yeah -- The Columbus Pilgrimage and the Market Street Festival.
It's not a light undertaking. Between 35,000 and 40,000 people are expected to flood the streets May 3-4 for the 18th annual festival, and Bigelow is well aware that this is Main Street's time to shine.
As the biggest event Main Street Columbus puts on each year, organization and pre-planning are critical components of making sure everything goes off without a hitch. Former Main Street director Amber Brislin is helping with this year's festival, but make no mistake: Bigelow is in the thick of the action, and she likes it that way.
The only downside is that, at the moment, she isn't getting the opportunity to spend as much time with the merchants as she would like. She knows most of them from her years of strolling downtown, stopping in to shop or just say hello, and she has personally called around 20 of them, but she wants to talk with the others as soon as possible.
"I just need to close my door and lock it and do that, but there are so many phone calls and so many people walking in, I'm like, 'Wow,'" she said Wednesday. "I'm not complaining. It's a very busy time, but you know me -- I like to be busy."
She and her husband, Chuck, moved to Columbus 13 years ago, and in that period of time, she has become intimately familiar with the challenges and strengths of downtown Columbus.
One of her biggest missions is to foster a sense of teamwork and pride in what she believes is one of the best Main Streets in the nation.
And she's not the only one who feels that way. The National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Main Street Columbus with the 2010 Great American Main Street Award in 2010.
The appeal of downtown lies not only in its aesthetics but also in its heritage and diversity, she said.
"We've got attorneys, we've got retail, we've got restaurants -- we have a variety of businesses here, and they're all thriving," Bigelow said. "It's a beautiful area. It's unique, historic. We keep our buildings in good shape. I think it's a beautiful downtown. Our Riverwalk can't be beat. It's gorgeous. Not every place can boast a river walk and the river a block from town, the waterway, the friendly people. I think we have a lot to offer. We value our heritage and it shows."
Though there are some vacant storefronts downtown, perception doesn't necessarily equal reality, she said. The commercial occupancy downtown is 89 percent, compared with the state average of 83 percent.
Although she doesn't see keeping buildings filled as a primary role of Main Street Columbus, she does see ways she can facilitate things by keeping materials on-hand in her office for prospective tenants and connecting people with those who do make it their business to bring merchants downtown.
"We're not a real estate agent," she said. "We can't go out and fill these buildings, but we can certainly help."
Promotion is one of the four points proven to be effective in running successful Main Street programs, and it's a job Bigelow takes seriously. The other three priorities are bringing the community together for the common purpose of having a great downtown, making sure the downtown area is attractive and welcoming to visitors and helping grease the economic wheels that keep downtown thriving.
"Your downtown is the hub of your city, and you want it to be," she said. "You want it to be where people want to come and gather, enjoy and have fun, socialize and eat, attend events and just hang out with their families. That's my goal to have that happen, and it is now. It's a great place."
Another goal is to raise Main Street's profile county-wide by increasing membership. There is a misconception that a business or individual has to have a direct connection to downtown to be a member, but that's not the case, she said. Anyone can join the organization, and she feels increased membership will benefit everyone, from downtown merchants to businesses along Highway 45, in east Columbus and even county residents.
Main Street Columbus currently has 99 members and operates on an annual budget of $114,250.
With all she would like to do, the hardest part may be figuring out where to begin, but Bigelow even has a plan for that -- she intends to rally the troops.
"I'm one of those that would like to do a thousand things, and my mind just goes, 'Oh my gosh, we could do this and we could do this,'" she said. "But (Main Street Columbus) has limited resources. So I'm going to be one to reach out and ask for help."
As for those she recruits to the cause, their biggest challenge may be keeping up with her.
"I'm thrilled to be here," she said.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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