A New Voice for Downtown
Fresh out of the mayor’s office, Kris Michell takes the reins of the Downtown San Diego Partnership
Title: President of the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
Salary: Not disclosed.
• Community affairs director, Building Industry Association.
• Director of community outreach, director of special projects and chief of staff to former Mayor Susan Golding.
• Vice president of governmental relations for the San Diego Padres.
• Vice president at Marsh Risk and Insurance Services, leading the real estate and public entity practice.
• Vice president of the Sickels Group, responsible for risk management and government approval and entitlements for key projects.
• Chief of staff to Mayor Jerry Sanders.
By Manny Cruz
Kris Michell has easily moved from private industry employment to government service jobs a number of times over the past several years, serving business interests at times and taxpayers at other times. She has served two mayors — Jerry Sanders and Susan Golding — as chief of staff, coordinated the successful ballot campaign that led to the construction of Petco Park and labored for the Building Industry Association as its community affairs director. That breadth of experience, only a small fraction of her professional career, has helped prime Michell for her newest challenge.
Today, Michell, 49, is a few weeks into her new role as president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, the 325-member, business-supported organization that promotes the economic vitality of the Downtown area. She is fresh from running the day-to-day operations of Sanders’ office as chief of staff and a principal policy adviser to the mayor. In that role she was content to work behind the scenes, rarely attracting public attention. Now she is the public face of an organization that has many issues on its plate — from finding solutions to the homeless problem to attracting new commercial ventures Downtown to fighting against the threat of the removal of redevelopment dollars.
While some may find those issues intimidating, Michell gives the impression that she is exhilarated by the challenges. “In my whole career, I feel that this job brings together all the different pieces of a puzzle that I’ve been working on since I started out in the Building Industry Association,” said Michell in a recent interview. “I’ve always believed that Downtown can either be a big positive for the region or a big negative … Downtown is exactly where we should have the future growth of our region. We have the infrastructure for it … Advocating for Downtown to me is my dream.”
While the Downtown Partnership is not a government institution, it is siding with cities up and down California in slamming Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to dismantle redevelopment agencies in an effort to help solve the state’s severe budget shortfall. “We know that the state has problems, but to take away a program that actually is effective to the city of San Diego is actually something we will fight (against),” said Michell. “We recognize that there have been abuses and we acknowledge that, but you can’t just throw it all out because we need it more than ever — we as a region need it. So we will fight for that and work with our partners, those who also feel like-minded, and lobby the state to try to see if we can effectuate change on that front.”
The Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), the entity responsible for Downtown’s revitalization, is one of the governor’s targets for elimination. To Michell, one of CCDC’s greatest accomplishments — one that has not been publicly hailed — has been to set down a coherent planning and development process for projects proposed for the Downtown area. “It is so effective in the way people who have projects or businesses can go through that process that we would hate to see that completely change,” she said.
The Downtown Partnership’s leadership team is scheduled to sit down for a strategic planning session in May to decide what programs and initiatives the organization should pursue — or continue pursuing — in the future. While Michell said she can’t entirely predict everything that will come out of that planning meeting, she mentioned a few initiatives that certainly will be on the Partnership’s action agenda.
One of those is the proposed expansion of the San Diego Convention Center at a cost originally estimated at $752 million that would make it the largest facility of its kind on the West Coast and enhance its ability to attract and keep large-scale conventions that bring much-needed dollars into the region. Officials hope to get a plan to the California Coastal Commission next year with a possible opening in 2015. “That is a project that we support strongly,” said Michell. “It’s not just that we want to grow the convention center expansion business, but we’re going to start losing business if we don’t expand the center. There are conventions that are outgrowing our center and they will go somewhere else. It will give short-term job stability and long-term visitor industry jobs.”
Michell said the Downtown Partnership also will continue to work on solving the Downtown homeless problem, mentioning the organization’s leadership role in last fall’s Registry Week where 30 survey teams took to the streets to identify the most vulnerable homeless individuals sleeping on the streets and working to help them find permanent housing. “You know this is a problem for every downtown and its not only our Downtown, it is the entire region,” she said. “We need to first understand why they’re on the streets, if there are things we can do to help them and I think Registry Week was a huge success.” (Canvassing teams made contact with more than 1,040 homeless persons. Of those, 737 took part in a survey that used a formula to determine the number at a higher risk than others for dying if they remained on the streets. The survey found that 279 or 38 percent were vulnerable based on health conditions or other indicators.)
Between 1998 and 2000, Michell was vice president of governmental relations for the San Diego Padres and coordinated the Proposition C campaign for Petco Park. It was during that time, working under former Padres President Larry Lucchino, that she came to realize the importance of bringing in new developments to Downtown to stimulate other developments. “You need a catalyst for the remaining development,” she said. “People think Downtown is filled up. It isn’t. You take a look at the northeast side, East Village, you take a look at so much opportunity there and that’s what we need so that a stadium, maybe a sports arena, a sports and entertainment area, — that catalyst could help finish the 20 blocks.”
Of course one of the catalysts for future development would be a proposed Downtown stadium for the San Diego Chargers. While the Downtown Partnership won’t get into recommending financing alternatives for such a project, said Michell, it would look closely at any proposals. “We would certainly review it and look at it, but if it made sense, which I have got to believe it would, then yeah, advocate for it. “Because it’s got to be something that is integrated into the fabric of the community, but financially works … I don’t want to speculate on what the city will do or what the Chargers will do. I know they have challenges, I know the NFL has challenges this year, a potential lockout, but what we’d do is take a look at it, analyze it and, as a board, as a group, make a determination. But, you know, no matter what, it’s going to be a good deal for San Diego and I think for everybody involved in this knows that.”
Michell joined Mayor Sanders’ office in 2005, working on a myriad of issues ranging from the city’s pension problems to budget issues and building projects such as the new Downtown library, convention center expansion, among others. When asked what her proudest achievements were as chief of staff, she deflects to Sanders. “If there are any successes, they are the mayor’s successes, not mine,” she said. “I think the mayor has restored integrity back into the city . . . On the visionary side, I think he is following through on the convention center expansion, which I think will be great, the library — an absolutely wonderful project — and getting that done.”
Her strength as a manager? “I learned something from working with Larry Lucchino. He always said, ‘Play people in their right positions.’ So when you take the baseball analogy and say, you don’t make the pitcher the catcher, I think that’s what it is. Find out how to put people in positions to succeed and then let them go, let them flourish.”
What she likes the least: “I like to work. That’s a problem. I think I’ll always work. I’ll always have something going on. My husband will tell you that.” (Her husband, Frank, is deputy commissioner with the state Board of Parole Hearings, a 12-member panel that conducts parole consideration hearings for inmates sentenced to life terms with the possibility of parole.)
Although she has been with the Downtown Partnership for just a little while, Michell has definite ideas on how the organization’s value should be measured. “Cities are either growing or dying and the value of the Partnership has been advocating on behalf of Downtown and all the issues surrounding Downtown,” she said. “But I really believe the Partnership advocates for the region. As a resident of Scripps Ranch, I want certain things Downtown and I don’t want them in my community. My family is here and I have a large family and I know what they want and what they don’t want. So a healthy, vibrant Downtown benefits everyone and every community. That’s how I think we should be measured. How we move the needle on that. Have we helped? Have we helped the homeless? Have we helped on the convention center? Is there a business attraction and retention program where we are creating jobs in Downtown? Those are our goals and that’s how we should be measured.”