Casey Gilbert traveled a long way to get from her native New Hampshire to Portland, where she began work this month as the executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, a nonprofit group that promotes the area’s economic vitality.

From her hometown in Laconia, New Hampshire, the first step was small – to the University of Vermont, where she majored in community development and applied economics. After she returned to New Hampshire and the family business of managing apartments, Gilbert took a much bigger step: She was accepted to Carnegie-Mellon’s graduate school, but the college was encouraging students to go to its new campus in Adelaide, Australia, instead of the main campus in Pittsburgh. There, Gilbert earned her master’s degree in public policy and management and worked on developing a strategic plan for the state of South Australia.

After she returned to the U.S. and lived briefly in Boston, Gilbert’s family bought a 1950s-style beach hotel in Melbourne, Forida, and she moved south to renovate and manage the property. While there, she volunteered for Melbourne Main Street, a downtown revitalization effort, and then was hired as its executive director. This spring, her husband took a job in Maine and Gilbert looked for work in Portland and learned that the district’s executive director, Steve Hewins, was stepping down. She started the job July 1.

Q: What about the district job interested you?

A: It feels like the perfect fit. The whole board is committed to a very holistic approach to downtown Portland and they recognize that what happens eight blocks from here will affect what happens here. They have a new five-year strategic plan and to be involved on the ground in an organization that will effect change in downtown Portland, that’s why it’s a perfect fit for me.

Q: What’s in the five-year plan?


A: It’s big. There are initiatives based on (themes of) experience, vitality, advocacy and growth. I came up with the acronym VEGA, but they don’t use it. It’s not just vague initiatives, there are strategic priorities under each.

For instance, with the experience initiative, we’re talking about street-level (impacts) instead of high-level. We’re going to be hiring a community services coordinator, who will work with property owners and managers to open up a dialogue to get what their needs are – finding out what their concerns are. And we’re also working on sidewalks and tree wells issues, like the new project on upper Exchange Street that’s underway as we speak. Graffiti removal continues to be an issue. We have an expanded cadet program, to make it safer and provide the sense of being safer. These are young 20-somethings who are training to be police officers and this year, we doubled our budget for cadets and now we have four cadets who walk the district and look for things like aggressive panhandling, graffiti and smoking. If it’s something more serious, they call the police. For visitors and merchants, it gives them a better sense of safety.

And we’re also going to relaunching our brand, changing our name from Portland’s Downtown District to just Portland Downtown and we’ll be rolling that out in September. It’s a very exciting time. We’re moving toward inclusivity … hoping to expand the district, so we’d like to see all the stakeholders involved in Portland’s downtown.

Q: After all your moving around, what’s it like to return to northern New England?

A: I’m a New Englander at heart. It’s in your blood, it never goes away. Going to different places gives you a – I don’t want to overuse the word – a holistic and broad perspective on what other people are doing, the best practices, if you will. And the people in Portland have been so welcoming. There’s a stigma about (not welcoming) people from away, but I don’t feel that. And more and more, people are moving to Portland from other states and countries; people are looking for the quality of life we have here. So, it’s been a very comfortable transition to me.

Q: What do you think Portland has and what is it lacking?


A: I really think Portland has it all. You’ve got a very robust tourism industry, you’ve got great colleges and universities, it’s a booming foodie city, the focus on economic development is huge and it’s a walkable city. Thinking up something that’s lacking is something I’d really have to grasp for. If there is one need, it would probably more residential housing in downtown, so there would be more 24-hour people downtown. They would be here 24 hours a day and it would be great to have more people on the peninsula. But Portland has so much going on that I would be nitpicking to find try to find something wrong.

Q: Have you encountered any surprises in Portland?

A: The variety of cultural, arts, restaurants and retail choices has been a pleasant surprise. If I want to buy something, I can buy it downtown. I’m always impressed with how much is going on. And Portland is a very giving community. I personally have not had any negative experiences, but parking is something that’s come up on a number of levels and it’s tough to wrap your brain around. But if you go to any city, that’s probably number one on the list, so it’s not a surprise.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish personally in your new job?

A: I want to work really closely with the city and our other private stakeholders to make all these visions a reality. I want to be able to assist in the execution and look back and say, “That was something on our list and I improved that, we got that done.” The board has given me a vision and now it’s up to me to execute it. I would like to see Portland as a world-class destination and compete on the national and international level for talent and investment.

Q: Do you live in Portland?

A: I will be closing on a house in August in Deering Center. … I want to be a Portlander.


Comments are no longer available on this story