After serving as president and CEO of the Downtown Spokane Partnership for nine years, Mark Richard has announced he will step down from his position effective mid-February and move to Tampa, Florida where he will be the vice president of expansion and real estate for the United Soccer League.
Richard is a lifelong Spokanite, having only spent one year in Bellingham during college, and another five years living in Twin Lakes, in North Idaho, but commuting to Spokane for work every day. Now, at 57 years old, he hopes ultimately to retire in sunny Florida, a dream he and his wife have held for over 20 years.
Prior to stepping into the post at DSP, Richard also served two terms as Spokane County Commissioner and has experience in real estate sales. The Journal sat down with Richard recently to discuss his decision to step down, what he is most proud of accomplishing during his tenure at the business advocacy nonprofit, and what he hopes for in the next leader to fill his role.
After being in Spokane your entire life, why the change now? And why soccer?
It’s a couple of reasons. Ever since I’ve been married—now 27-plus years—my wife and I have talked about and longed for this idea of moving to a warmer climate.
Going back 20 years ago, just before I ran for public office, we were down in Florida visiting family and had a serious discussion about doing it. But we had young kids and I also had a dream of running for public office, and I just knew that my best chance to fulfill that dream was in my hometown where I was born and raised. So we came back, but we resolved that we might retire to the tropics one day.
Then, three years ago, I went to visit a dear friend of mine, Steve Salvatori, the former (Spokane) councilperson, in Florida, where he had retired with his wife, and once again it got my juices flowing. I thought, I’m 57 now, maybe in 10 years.
But then this opportunity just came to me. Justin Papadakis from the United Soccer League reached out to me about this position.
So, moving quicker but really fulfilling one of our dreams was definitely a part of it, but also, I actually played soccer way back when. From middle school to high school, I really love the sport. And my daughters also played. I know what an impact it had on me and how it helped my daughters grow. And now, here we are.
So you were headhunted by the United Soccer League?
Not exactly. We had built this relationship together over the years when I took over the USL project from Cindy Chipman. Cindy had taken up this mantle trying to encourage the school district to move the stadium downtown. For her, it was about soccer.
When she reached out to me, it was about developing downtown. I saw what bringing the stadium closer to downtown could do for the area. So, I started working with USL as they were one of the stakeholders interested in seeing this happen. But they were only interested if it happened downtown, because they knew if the stadium was rebuilt on the northwest part of town, they wouldn’t get the attendees, sponsors, and media.
I worked with USL and the Spokane Public Facilities District because I know what this can do for Spokane in terms of fan base, energy, and the economics of it. And I also know what potential that means for our young kids and our community. I built a relationship with USL, and they got to see me, how I interacted, and the skills I have that were of interest to them.
USL is committed to bringing essentially a men’s professional soccer team and a women’s semiprofessional soccer team, to start. Its goal is to launch a full-blown women’s professional league within a few years. And the ultimate goal is to have a women’s professional team here as well.
During your nine years at Downtown Spokane Partnership, what have you been most proud of?
We don’t take all the responsibility for this, but we certainly played a huge role in supporting, energizing, activating, and keeping downtown safe and clean. Just seeing in the time I’ve been here an explosion in the coffee scene, food scene, brewery and wine scene, that’s been really rewarding to me because as a young adult growing up here, one of the things you wrangle with is that Spokane was kind of sleepy. And frankly, that’s why we were formed back in 1995, because we were sleepy. So just seeing that growth has been personally rewarding.
Another thing that I’m most proud of is the team that we have built here at DSP has been incredibly rewarding to me. It’s not just their skill set, but how much they care. They are worrying about the well-being of these hard-working employees and entrepreneurs who are putting everything on the line and trying to start a cool new business. Having a team that has that passion is something that I will always remember.
Another thing would be just making it through the pandemic. Our day job is to help entrepreneurs, businesses, and employees, it was incredibly emotional for me and my team to know what they were going through. The fear, can I pay my bills? My employees? Can I keep bread on the table?
Our team’s ability to rethink everything and roll up our sleeves and just put our hearts and soul into helping our customers find resources, to helping them figure out creative ways to combat the impact of COVID-19, to expanding our voice to the community and asking them to support our downtown businesses.
Then there were the logistics of it, like 10-minute parking spaces to pick up take-out and helping businesses get permits to expand their patios onto the sidewalk for outdoor seating. And, of course, working with our counterparts like Greater Spokane Incorporated and the Valley chamber of commerce to make the pitch and get the county to commit to $10 million in local relief for these businesses. We then literally went door-to-door to the hospitality businesses downtown to let them know these funds were available.
I firmly believe that it was all those things that played a part in the fact that, last time I checked the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, which is a joint study out of Harvard and Brown, they placed us the second strongest in the state in terms of net loss of businesses due to COVID-19. Just to be part of that equation is really rewarding. We don’t take or deserve all the credit, but we certainly played a part and that feels amazing.
So you feel you are leaving at a good time?
Yeah. I think we do have some challenges, like the percentage of people who are homeless because of mental illness or addiction. The impact that is having on our community as a whole—and certainly in our downtown—remains something that I will continue to worry about long after I leave because this is my hometown.
But we are financially strong. Our team is incredible, and our board as well. We have good relationships with the city, which is imperative for our organization. So, yeah, I feel like I’m leaving at the right time. Things are solid and sound and we are heading in a good direction. And I’m excited to see that hopefully we find someone brighter and better to take us to the next level.
What do you look for in the person taking your role?
The advice I would give is that this position is nothing without the team. You have to provide an environment that is safe for your employees to take risks, where they feel their voice is heard and they feel empowered. Where they feel they can express their identity, they’re not micromanaged and have access to me at any time to question, or challenge, or pose solutions. To me, it’s best to be a servant-leader and create that culture and environment, and the rest will take care of itself, frankly.
The other piece is that this role is a political position, so it is critical that a person use all of their communication skills, first and foremost, their listening skills. Our customer base is made up of 1,300 different entities, so you have to have good listening skills to genuinely understand and have what I believe is essential, and that is empathy.
Do you see yourself coming back to Spokane?
I honestly don’t know. I’ve never lived away from here before. In the back of my mind, I have these thoughts like, well, am I really going to like it? Is it everything my wife and I envisioned? I don’t know.
I can tell you I have my whole family here. I have six brothers and sisters who live here, as well as nieces and nephews and grand nephews. So I won’t say never, for sure. I love Spokane. It’s why I’ve stayed here my entire life. But we want to go, and I’m ecstatic about this opportunity.
At this point, my goal is to retire there and live out the rest of my life.
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