DDA quickly begins search for director

November 14, 2011
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The next step for the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority is to hire an executive search firm to help find a replacement for its Executive Director Jay Fowler, who announced last week that in February he will leave the post he has held for the past nine years.

DDA Chairwoman Kayem Dunn said she spoke with a few local organizations that recently replaced key executives, such as the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

“I think the question is who has the best network and the best understanding of our needs,” said Dunn. “Three firms have surfaced from my early exploration, but it’s not closed.”

Board members agreed to spend up to $40,000 for a search.

“It really needs to be a transparent, thoughtful process,” said Mayor George Heartwell, who was elected to a third four-year term last week and serves on the board. A decision still has to be made on how the DDA will select a search firm.

Board members also agreed last week to create a nine-member committee to assist in the search for a replacement. Dunn, Brian Harris and Jim Talen are the DDA members who will serve on the committee. They will be joined by Bob Herr, Kara Wood, Eddie Tadlock, Ruth Kelly, Luisa Schumacher and Greg McNeilly.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do as a committee,” said Harris, DDA vice chairman.

Board members also decided to make their next executive director an employee of the DDA and not of the city, as Fowler and the organization’s three other employees are.

“We know we have some opportunities ahead of us, and having that independence could be beneficial for us. This choice is in no way a comment against the city,” said John Bultema, DDA member.

“The DDA is a legal authority, so we can hire. The SmartZone has its own employees, so there is precedence,” said Dunn.

“The city is open to whatever works best for the DDA,” said Heartwell. “You’re not going to get a pushback from the city.”

But city commissioners will have to approve the candidate chosen by the DDA. The DDA pays the city an administrative fee for its employees. Dunn said the board will use data from the International Downtown Association to establish a compensation package for the new director.

Fowler is only the second executive director the DDA has had; he replaced Jim Knack who also resigned from the post. Fowler, who has been with the city for more than 30 years, said he is leaving for personal reasons. He plans to travel after he resigns and doesn’t have another job lined up. His date to leave is Feb. 17, but he indicated that he may be willing to stay on a bit longer on an interim basis if a replacement isn’t found by then.

“What we know is Jay is held in high regard in the community. Jay has presided over a period of tremendous growth in downtown. This is a little bit like planning a funeral. I didn’t want to do it,” said Dunn of having to replace Fowler.

“I believe our city has a bright future. Downtown is set up for more success moving forward,” said Fowler. “I voluntarily offered my resignation because it’s time for a change for me personally and my family. It has been a true honor to serve the citizens of Grand Rapids, and I look forward to new adventures in life.”

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