An Interview with Ben Brewer, MMD’s New Executive Director
Ben Brewer was hired for the position of Executive Director of the Montrose Management District in July 2017. A native of Houston (he was born in the Montrose neighborhood), Ben recently relocated back to Montrose after serving as President of Downtown Alliance San Antonio, as well as President of the Centro San Antonio Management Corporation, both focused on downtown services and public improvement.
Here, Ben expands upon his goals for Montrose’s future as a neighborhood, a management district and his personal ties to this area of Houston.
What are your priorities as you take over the day-to-day management of the District?
First thing, I must get up to speed with everything that’s going on in the District. Montrose is such a dynamic place and is literally transforming right before our eyes from being a well-known cultural hub of Houston to becoming this incredibly attractive place to live, work and do business. At a high level, my goals are to help contribute my skills and background to accelerating the progress that has already been made by the District.
I also want Montrose to grow and develop, but not lose its soul in the process. The character of Montrose is so important. It needs to be a major consideration as the neighborhood and commercial corridors evolve. Everything I do in this leadership role will be addressed through that lens. I love this neighborhood and will do everything in my power to protect it.
What do you think makes Montrose so unique?
As a citizen, I am attracted to the demographic diversity. Anyone who ever fell in love with Montrose would say the say the same thing. As a professional economic developer, I am excited to see the types of businesses that operate here. Most people think of Montrose in the context of the major commercial corridors along Montrose and Westheimer, but I am energized by the small businesses that work on many of the less traveled streets.
As part of my re-introduction to the neighborhood, my girlfriend has been driving me to a different part of Montrose early each morning and I walk back to our home in the District along streets that I would not normally use; north to south, east to west. I love seeing the small design studios and dress shops that are off the beaten path. Those businesses are an incredibly important part of what Montrose is about, and I want to do everything to support them and encourage more businesses like them.
What are some of the biggest challenges that lie ahead for the district?
Although highly interrelated, two things come to mind…
- First, we need to do a better job communicating the value that the Management District already provides. There are so many positive things happening behind the scenes that don’t receive the visibility they should; things that make tremendous contributions to Montrose’s momentum. We need to be more out front about what the District already does, along with ideas that are being considered for the future.
- Second, we need greater input from business owners and residents in the District. When property and business owners, and the residents they serve are active in decision-making and planning, great things happen. I will find ways to have more direct participation. I want to hear from the fans and the critics. I promise this, no one will ever fault me for not listening. I want to hear everything.
How do you encourage business owners to be involved?
We simply must make it worthwhile for them to participate. In my experience, exposure to the day-to-day minutia of running the District is not going to attract busy professionals to show up to meetings more than a few times. I would like us to start thinking on a grander scale. What’s often missing is identifying the “what’s possible.”
In San Antonio, for example, we would pay the travel expenses for experts from other cities across the country to come present projects and initiatives they’d undertaken that have been hugely successful. As an example, that is how we were able to get our property owners to buy into the concept of creating an improvement district in downtown. They heard from Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Houston and others on their great programs and successes. Finally our folks said, “Let’s do this!” When property owners understand that the sky’s the limit to what’s possible, they start getting involved.
What is your vision for the value the District should be providing?
The two most important programs a Management District can perform are to make sure the area is safe and clean. These services are already being provided and can be improved. The District supplements HPD by underwriting public safety patrols – a critically important service that impacts everyone who lives, visits and operates businesses here. The reports we receive about arrests, homelessness and vandalism help us prioritize so we are constantly evolving our planning and actions. The District is also working to clean up areas affected by graffiti and litter. There’s more to do in both areas, but those core activities will continue and be enhanced over the next few years.
My goal for the Management District is that it becomes more visible. I love the new monuments, but I would like to see evidence of our brand promise on every block, whether that means signage, trash receptacles, benches or uniformed workers with brooms and dustpans keeping our streets clean. I feel strongly that we need consistent evidence that reinforces our community’s identity and instills a strong sense of community pride.
What are some immediate actions you can take to improve things for the District?
As an extension of doing a better job communicating the District’s value on a regular basis, I want the District to be known for the resource it is. I want to enhance our ability to attract new businesses and development by offering data that justifies investment. I want the District to be the first place prospective businesses contact for information about traffic numbers, changing demographics, housing availability and costs; all factors that influence whether a project is undertaken here or in some other area of the city. The District already has much of this data, but I would like to see it more easily accessible and comprehensive.
I would also like to do whatever I can to make Montrose a more walkable neighborhood and accessible by multiple transportation options like bikes, rideshare and better transit. There are so many factors involved in this undertaking but I am personally energized by the promise of a dense urban neighborhood, and the concept that the neighborhood can provide the employment opportunities and proximity to make commuting in cars much less prevalent. There will always be cars on the street in Montrose, but let’s give some of the other modalities a chance and a more attractive environment. Our goal will be encouraging folks to try an alternative to driving. There are low cost actions we can take today that will help us move in this direction over the next years and decades.