The woman at the helm

By Lana Harrison | Downtown Partnership News

A changing of the guard poses both unique challenges and opportunities to an organization.

We bid a fond farewell to Kris Michell in October 2017, who after seven years of tenacious leadership at the Partnership moved on to serve as San Diego’s chief operating officer. We continued to thrive as a staff and as an organization under the interim leadership of Bill Geppert.

Having recently relocated back to San Diego with her two kids, Betsy Brennan takes on the role of president & CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. (Courtesy DSDP)

Now, after a thorough selection process and much anticipation, we enthusiastically welcome Betsy Brennan to the helm.

Who is Betsy? After a week into the job as president and CEO of the Partnership, we are eager to share not only who she is, but what her goals and vision are as a leader in collaboration for all of Downtown.

What is your professional background and what drew you to the Partnership?

I’ve had a two-decade career in government, public policy, land-use law, philanthropy and higher education. That mixture gave me a real good foundation on which to start at the Downtown Partnership, because of the work we do in all of those areas. I consider San Diego my home. When the opportunity came to work with the Partnership members and board, and elevate what was happening Downtown, I jumped at the chance to be a part of it.

What is your leadership style?

My leadership style is characterized by an openness to hearing different ideas and voices, but also an understanding that plans must be implemented. We have a great staff at the Partnership, so I want to empower the employees we have to go out and do great things in their areas of expertise — whether that’s placemaking, our Clean & Safe program, or advocating for Downtown policies at City Council.

What excites you the most as you start this next journey with the Partnership?

I was really excited to come into a solid organization. As Downtown grows up, it’s becoming more and more important to celebrate the uniqueness of each neighborhood and how distinct characteristics of each community make Downtown vibrant as a whole. We don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to our work. We’re going to take the best parts of each area of Downtown and advance those aspects for those who live, work, and visit.

Describe some immediate challenges and your general approach to addressing those.

Oftentimes, different entities get a lot of pressure to make change or implement action and they’re not always working collaboratively. It is both a challenge and an opportunity to ask, “How do we get more voices around the table to really get thoughtful solutions?”

Homelessness is a very important issue for our entire region. We want to be compassionate with our solutions, find out best practices across the nation, and work collaboratively to put those solutions into action.

How involved is the Partnership in placemaking?

Having lived abroad at points in my life and seeing the 24/7 activation of public space both in parks and plazas, I think there is a lot of opportunity in Downtown San Diego to do similar activation. We recently launched CANVAS, which is a neighborhood enhancement program designed to build on the unique assets already present in our communities. That can look like painting utility boxes in the Columbia District specific to the personality of that neighborhood or transforming a parking lot after hours into an outdoor urban movie theater experience. Placemaking efforts are what transform buildings, streets and businesses into a community with character.

Why is the Clean & Safe program important to the Downtown community?

Clean & Safe is an integral part of the fabric of Downtown. Our safety and maintenance ambassadors do such important work. The Family Reunification Program is an initiative we can hold up as a successful collaborative effort between the Partnership, city, Housing Commission and the Police Department. Since June, we’ve placed more than 500 homeless individuals with support systems and loved ones. We also collected data from follow-up communication, which is important because we want to make sure that programs are results-based — and this one is. In general, we want to continue to give excellent customer service to all our residents, business owners and visitors to Downtown.

What do the next couple of months on the job look like as you settle in?

When I lived here, I was very involved in civic issues and in the Downtown community for more than a decade. Now, I’m taking some time to re-energize the relationships I already have, but I’m also focusing on forming new relationships with residents, business owners and Partnership board members. I also want to spend time getting to know staff members to better understand the strength of the team we have and to use our resources most efficiently and most effectively.

What do you most love about living in San Diego?

Because of its topography and the natural features that shape the land, there is so much uniqueness and vibrancy in many different parts of San Diego — particularly in Downtown.

I like that when you walk out of your office door, you might see a farmers market or see people doing yoga in the park. That sort of vibrancy and excitement and joy is what excited me most about being back. I like to explore different neighborhoods and the best way to do that is on foot. You really get a sense of the area and the quirkiness of the different places. I love going to Padres games, going to the beach, getting a bite to eat at one of the hundreds of restaurants we have — and doing all of that with my kids.

Describe your experience specifically as a woman in leading an important Downtown organization.

Diversity and inclusion are really important tenets that I’ve focused on throughout my career and my life. I want as many different kinds of voices and people with different perspectives and experiences, so that we can have richer solutions. I also care very much about empowering other historically underrepresented communities throughout San Diego, whether that’s Latino, African-American, or low-resourced communities. It’s important to have these voices at the table to move forward together as a region.

—Lana Harrison is the communications coordinator for the Downtown San Diego Partnership. She can be reached at


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