Business Profile: The Studebaker that drives North Park Main Street
By Manny Cruz
When Elizabeth “Liz” Studebaker was offered the job of executive director of North Park Main Street in 2007, the executive committee that selected her out of a handful of candidates couldn’t have been more pessimistic about the challenges she faced if she took the job. Patrick Edwards, the board president at the time, recalls the moment: “We said, ‘Liz, we have no money, no prospects, we may not even be here in a year. Your job is to save our butts. Oh, and by the way, you have to work day and night, with little benefits and very little money, with not much hope for renewal of your contract. And she said, ‘Fine, I can do that.’”
Edwards, the owner of Antique Refinishers on Utah Street, may be guilty of a little exaggeration in what the committee told Studebaker, but he wasn’t far off. The business improvement district was in disarray, its books were disorganized and it had little money. The previous executive director resigned after less than a year on the job. It forced Edwards to spend the next year running the organization. “I tried to bring back the volunteers and get back on the mission to improve the district,” said Edwards. “We were finally able to pull together some funds to hire Liz.”
Today, Edwards is just one of many in the North Park business and cultural community who credits Studebaker with turning the organization into one of the best run business improvement districts of the 17 now operating in the city of San Diego. “She has really grabbed the organization by the head, creating good relationships with people I never knew existed,” said Edwards. “When she came in, we were really in bad shape. Now, the business improvement district is as strong as ever.”
Not only strong, but bigger. The district’s boundaries were recently expanded, doubling the number of business members to 600. The district spans University Avenue from the Georgia Street bridge on the west to Interstate 805 on the east, and it includes 30th Street from Howard Street south to Thorn Street.
North Park Main Street derives its name from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which devised a community-based “Main Street” system to save historic and significant commercial buildings within depressed commercial districts through revitalization. The city of San Diego adopted the Main Street strategy in the late 1990s, giving rise to North Park Main Street. The BID, supported by member businesses, funds business-related activities and improvements through assessments levied by the city of San Diego. Assessments are based on the size of the business and the number of full-time employees, and range between $125 and $500 per year. Last year’s expansion of North Park Main Street’s BID boundaries occurred after members voted their preference in a ballot election between May and June.
The headquarters of North Park Main Street are at 3076 University Ave., a
long, narrow office that Studebaker shares with Amy Colony, her executive assistant, and with volunteers who come in periodically to work on assignments. Visitors include local business owners and persons inquiring about establishing a business in the community. Occasionally, Studebaker employs interns in the office.
Although she is 31, Studebaker looks like a young college student. She is slender, with dark, curly hair that she sometimes complains about not being able to manage properly. She dresses casually most days. A self-confessed workaholic, she has a passion for organization and doing everything she can to help revitalize North Park in the fields she enjoys — arts, culture, entertainment and business. She characterizes her working style as someone who brings people together. “Everything is dependent on collaboration,” she says, “business advocacy through community collaboration.”
Studebaker was born in the District of Columbia and lived in Maryland until she was 8 years old. When she was in third grade, her mother, a single parent, brought she and her brother, James, to San Diego in hopes of living and working here permanently. It didn’t work out financially and the family returned to the East. Studebaker, however, found something she liked here and returned in 1997 after high school graduation and enrolled at Palomar College. A year later she transferred to UCSD to finish undergraduate studies and came away in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Fresh out of college, Studebaker landed her first job as office manager at San Diego Coastkeeper, at the time a small, nonprofit environmental organization with a staff of four and a mission of protecting the region’s bays, beaches and waterways. Studebaker began acquiring additional responsibilities so that she was eventually planning all the organization’s special events, its regional cleanup programs and formal fundraising dinners, and writing grant applications. She was given the title of outreach director and saw the organization grow from four to 14 staff members in the four years she worked there.
Bruce Reznik, Coastkeeper’s executive director, says he hired Studebaker, even though she had no previous experience in the field. “One of the things you do when you hire people, you kind of go with your gut feeling,” he says. “Though she was a fairly recent graduate at UCSD, she had a sort of can-do and take-charge attitude, like nothing was going to stand in her way. She turned out to be a jack-of-all trades, managing outreach, the beach cleanup activities — it was really a broad role of responsibilities.
“And she took those programs to a new level, getting 5,000 volunteers in our coastal cleanup days. We were able to build on that. She just figures out a way to make things happen.”
Somewhere along the line, the two fell in love and became engaged while Studebaker was still employed by Coastkeeper. They were married in May 2005. Although both Studebaker and Reznik are a little sensitive about how it might look that their working relationship turned into something more than that, Reznik says it was basically because they both share the same kind of interests. “We’re both a little on the workaholic side,” he says. “We both share a passion to make this world a better place. If Liz was working in a job that she didn’t care about, she’d still do a good job. It just wouldn’t be an all-consuming thing.”
Reznik says Studebaker is not easily flustered, but she can get annoyed or angry when she detects that people she is working with “aren’t working toward a solution.”
Studebaker describes her husband in the same way people describe her. “He’s very laid back and easygoing in his personal life, but he is very passionate in his work,” she says. “We have a strong shared belief in community advocacy work and social justice and working on projects we really believe in. I have a lot of respect for Bruce. I feel really lucky to be sharing my life with someone who I trust so much and can share pretty much everything with.”
Studebaker’s career turned from environmental matters to politics in the summer of 2005 when she left Coastkeeper to volunteer in the campaign of close friend Lorena Gonzalez, who was running for the District 2 seat on the San Diego City Council against eventual winner Kevin Faulconer. She was miffed over the election returns. “We lost that election by less than 500 votes,” she complains.
After the campaign, Studebaker was eager to get her hands into another line of work where she could continue to help others. She found it with the San Diego-Imperial County Labor Council. She worked there a year, first as a counselor and later as a precinct worker for labor-backed political candidates. When Studebaker learned about the executive director’s position becoming available at North Park Main Street, she left the Labor Council and applied for the job. By that time, she and Reznik had purchased a home in North Park, a three-bedroom, Spanish-style house built in 1927.
Studebaker was attracted to the North Park job for a number of reasons. “It was close to home and the type of setting I felt comfortable with,” she says. “I felt like it was a good fit for my personality.” More than that, she admired the mission of North Park Main Street, its focus on advocating for small businesses and historic preservation. “Those are key tenants of the organization and issues that I care a lot about,” she says.
North Park Main Street’s board of directors wanted Studebaker to tackle some key projects at the start of her tenure. One was to reopen the farmer’s market, which had been closed in 2004 because it was in the way of the construction of the parking garage on 29th Street and the renovation of the Birch North Park Theatre. “We had the market up and running in July 2007,” says Studebaker. The market, now located at 32nd Street and University Avenue, runs year-round with about 30 vendors. It’s managed by David Larson, an independent contractor who started the Hillcrest Farmers Market 15 years ago. “We help with promotions, advertising and pretty much everything David needs,” says Studebaker.
Today, the Farmers Market has extended its Thursday hours to 4 to 8 p.m. to better accommodate residents and regional shoppers who couldn’t reach the market at its old closing time of sunset. Besides the longer hours, the market will have live musical performances each week, provided by Alma Rodriguez of Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center, and Dang Nguyen of Bar Pink. County Supervisor Ron Roberts contributed $16,500 from the county’s Neighborhood Reinvestment Program for marketing and promotional material for the North Park market, including banners bearing a new logo.
Studebaker says she did a lot of listening and learning in her first year as executive director. She became heavily involved in the planning for the expansion of the business improvement district, walking door-to-door in the business community talking about North Park Main Street’s long-term vision for the area to business owners and asking them what they wanted to see in additional services. “Whenever I’ve called her for advice or needed any contact with the city, she’s been on top of it,” says Kate Ross, owner of a men and women’s clothing store on University. “She’s a vital part of the neighborhood. She has great energy, great follow-through.”
Another of Studebaker’s accomplishments has been the beefing up of the North Park Festival of the Arts, the annual celebration of arts, culture and entertainment that takes over University Avenue between 30th and 32nd streets every May. Last year’s festival attracted more than 130 vendors and included a beer fest with 30 breweries represented. The one-day event lured 30,000 visitors. This year’s festival is on May 16. Studebaker credits volunteers with making the festival a success. “North Park Main Street and other organizations owe much of our success to our volunteers,” she says. “I try not to lose sight of that.”
Over the next several months, Studebaker and the board of directors will be working on a community profile of North Park, what she describes as a comprehensive snapshot and dissection of the community that looks at the demographics, the flow of money into and out of the community — a tool that small businesses and investors can use in determining whether to locate in North Park. The organization is hoping to raise $7,000 for a consultant to develop the profile. All the information in the profile would be accessible on the organization’s Website (northparkmainstreet.com) with hard copies available in the office. Studebaker expects the profile to be finished this year.
Studebaker also is working with several board members, business owners, environmentalists, architects and utility representatives on the development of a model she calls “Sustainable North Park Main Street,” a sustainability template that can be applied to all new developments coming into the community. “One of our first goals is to figure out how to do an energy audit of all the commercial buildings and determine how to decrease their carbon footprint,” Studebaker says. “One of our goals is to work with government agencies on an incentive program to help business owners operate in an environmentally friendly way.” Funds to develop such a model still must be found. Studebaker estimates that the project will take about a year to develop.
North Park, says Studebaker, has become an attractive destination for new business. “What makes me really proud is seeing the long-term stability and pride that many of our businesses have in being in North Park,” she says. “I’m also proud to see new businesses opening and thriving, like Urban Solace, really unique business models that have paved the way for other businesses to take a chance on North Park.”
Outside the office, Studebaker and Reznik enjoy a variety of pursuits — walking their 3-year-old labrador, Sasha, going to movies, the theater and traveling. Many of their vacations, though, are centered on work trips for one or both of them. Earlier this year, the couple “vacationed” in New York, the site of an annual conference staged by San Diego Coastkeeper’s parent organization, the Waterkeeper Alliance. In 2004, Studebaker was coordinator for the conference when it was held at University of San Diego.
Edwards, who had been president of the North Park Main Street board for the past 10 years, says Studebaker has brought stability to the organization. “She’s really exceeded every one of my dreams of what a director should do,” he says.