Pat DiGiovanni knows all about cities that are losing too many of their best and brightest young people, and what has to be done to reverse that brain drain. He served as city manager in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a city of 80,000 located between Chicago and Detroit, in the 1990s when a study he commissioned showed a growing talent flight from the Midwestern city.
He took the study to business and civic leaders, using it to forge more progressive policies aimed at making the city a more attractive venue for educated young people seeking good jobs and an appealing lifestyle. A coteries of seven anonymous hometown philanthropists played their part, creating the Kalamazoo Promise, a $135 million fund that guarantees any Kalamazoo resident who graduates from high school will be able to attend a public institution of higher learning in the state.
In 2005, Digiovanni received a telephone call from another former Kalamazoo city manager who had just left in her job as deputy city manager in Phoenix to become city manager in San Antonio. Sheryl Sculley had been on the job only two weeks when she called. “I need a deputy,” he remembers her saying. That was early November , although she had really been on the job, unofficially, since early September when Hurricane Katrina sent waves of dispossessed Louisiana residents to shelter in San Antonio.
“I suggested she wait awhile, get her feet on the ground, and then we’d talk again,” Digiovanni said. It didn’t take long for that next phone call to happen. By early December Digiovanni was headed south for an interview and his first look at San Antonio. “It was 25 degrees and raining. I had a room at La Mansión and I couldn’t get warm.”
Fortunately for San Antonio, Sculley and Digiovanni struck up a warm working relationship that has endured six years and led to the building of a management team that is widely regarded as the best in the city’s modern history. Digiovanni has played a central role in the drive to create a more vibrant downtown with a growing number of work and lifestyle opportunities that only a few years ago would have seemed beyond the city’s grasp.
“He’s a seasoned professional, and while it takes a whole team to build a better city, Pat is the individual who has helped everyone advance the downtown initiative,” Sculley said. “Many of the most important projects are entrusted to Pat. He’s done a great job and we wouldn’t be as far along as we are without him here.”
‘Downtowner of the Year’
That recognition unfolded in a very visible way Friday afternoon when Digiovanni was named ‘Downtowner of the Year’ by the Downtown Alliance at its annual Downtown’s Best Awards luncheon. More than 300 people attending the event at the Grand Hyatt gave the deputy city manager a standing ovation.
Mayor Julián Castro, a former Downtowner of the Year who was traveling, sent in his own words of praise. “Even though I couldn’t be at this great event today, I didn’t want the occasion to pass without sending a hearty congratulations to Pat DiGiovanni for being named Downtowner of the Year,” Castro said. “Under Pat’s watch we’ve added 1,500 housing units in the past two years, attracted large employers like Argo and HVHC to our skyline and added innovative amenities like B-cycle. Thank you, Pat, for keeping the momentum behind the Decade of the Downtown.”
Digiovanni took possession for one year of the Downtowner Torch created by Garcia Art Glass, and told his audience that he was unaccustomed to the limelight and just a bit nervous. “I spilled the salad dressing at my table,” he said, before going on to recognize many of the people he works with at City Hall who normally do not stand in the spotlight, either. DiGiovanni was surrounded by friends and various family members, including his fiancée, Alicia Stolts. The couple will be married Oct. 12 at Brackenridege Golf Course, a redevelopment project he helped supervise, in a ceremony with former Mayor Phil Hardberger presiding.
In an interview Thursday, Digiovanni talked about initiatives dominating his work agenda into 2012: the May 12 bond election and the soon-to-start redevelopment of HemisFair Park, and the SA2020 initiative, which will soon be brought before City Council for a vote.
“SA2020 is not a downtown program, it’s a citywide program,” he said. “No city anywhere has survived where the urban core was lost.” The population inside Loop 410 declined from 200-10, he noted, but now is climbing again, the best indicator of revitalization in the core city as new jobs and enhanced lifestyle amenities attract new residents. “We have to pay attention to what is going on inside the city’s original core of 36 square miles. The goal is to end the pattern of training and educating our kids and then watching them leave.”
You can view a slide show of all the winners at the Downtown Alliance website. In a year when the city experienced a breathtaking pace of central city development, the winners included familiar names like the Historic Pearl Brewery, the King William Cultural Arts District, San Antonio B-Cycle Municipal Bike Share Program and CPS Energy for sustainability initiatives. The Hugman Tour was selected for a Best Way to Get Lost…in San Antonio History award.
The fast-leasing 1221 Broadway and Cevallos Lofts both won awards as new living spaces, and the TownPlaceSuites by Marriott in the historic Neisner Building was recognized as the best adaptive reuse project. The University Health System Robert B. Green Campus Expansion was singled out for its new Clinical Pavilion and as a gateway linking downtown to the Westside. Mission Restaurant Supply won as the best downtown neighbor, notably for its central role in partnering with Chef Mark Bliss to develop and open Bliss, Southtown’s newest dining out destination in what has become an increasingly popular restaurant district.
The downtown food delivery service, Bike Waiter, was named best new business. Las Canarias and Liberty Bar were honored in the hotel and neighborhood restaurant categories.The Echale! Latino Music Series at the Pearl and the San Antonio Cocktail Conference also won awards.
A special Living the Dream Award was created by the judges to posthumously recognize Rodney J. Smith, the first director of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, who passed away during the early development of the project. His widow, Donna, flew in from Denver to accept the award.