Appleton's Core Supporter: Jennifer Stephany
Jennifer Stephany’s job is a little like two separate roles working to create one big goal. As the executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc. (ADI), Stephany’s professional objective is to make downtown Appleton a thriving business destination.
She and her staff certainly focus on business recruitment and retention as well as district promotion. But the most visible way she and her staff make that happen is by creating a bustling entertainment schedule that draws a ton of traffic to the city center.
“A lot of what we do is create a place where people want to live,” she said of ADI. “What businesses want is for us to create experiences downtown. It revolves around place making. We used to focus strictly on businesses. But now our focus is on creating a livable downtown. A resident and a business owner want the same thing: a safe, clean, livable city. So I try to think about how do we now become a neighborhood as well as a
The ADI helps present 90 separate events throughout the year — from the annual Mile of Music concert series, which draws nearly 100,000 visitors to downtown Appleton for three days and nights of live music each summer, to Appleton’s Octoberfest and the weekly Downtown Appleton Farm Market.
The majority of events are free to attend. Some are presented solely by ADI, and some are partnerships with other community groups. It’s a jam-packed schedule that Stephany said is making the area a destination for both residents and businesses. But it wasn’t always that way.
“I came in to this position 17 years ago just as College Avenue was reconstructed and the Performing Arts Center was built,” she said. “Timing is everything. At that point, buildings and businesses were changing hands. Things were switching to mixed-use formats with entertainment and retail. For us, as an organization that’s focused on a thriving business district, we’re seeing our recruitment investments pay off.”
Today, 7,400 people are employed within the downtown district that centers around College Avenue and includes the Riverfront corridor. It’s rare to find a storefront that stays empty for long. And there’s always something Stephany’s fingerprints are on that continues to draw foot traffic downtown. The latest project is the Community Public Market, which staged its first offering in February and will fill the Fox Cities Exhibition Center again March 21 and April 18 with everything from local restaurant kiosks to fine art and family-centric DIY art projects along with a fresh farmer’s market.
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
Stephany’s work at ADI is tricky to encapsulate ... but her hectic days — though never duplicative — aren’t. A sample work day for her included an 8:00 a.m. Octoberfest planning meeting, sponsor/partnership meetings sprinkled in throughout the day, running payroll for her staff, a monthly meeting with an accountant, document preparations for a Business Improvement District audit, Community Public Market planning details and a meeting with a developer about a potential tenant.
“My favorite days are when a real estate agent calls to say they’re showing an open storefront and I can come along,” Stephany said. “It’s my chance to promote all the great things happening downtown.”
With just four full-time staff and two part-time seasonal employees, the ADI is a small group with a lot of projects. “We all have to be part of getting it all done as a team,” Stephany said. “We’re such a lean staff, so no one can have just one job.”
She said her team has nicknamed her “P.S.,” short for Problem Solver. In her line of work, it’s all about finding creative solutions. One of her more recent creative solutions evolved when she paired the need for affordably keeping downtown’s sidewalks clean with the group of future employees striving to build their work histories via Riverview Gardens. She teamed up with Riverview Gardens to provide job training and transitional employment opportunities for ServiceWorks job training program participants. Through the initiative, Downtown CARE groups assist existing cleaning services to keep sidewalks clean, remove graffiti and water flowers as well as operate the gum buster machine,
which rids the walkways of discarded chewing gum.
Another emphasis Stephany is anxious to implement in summer is the renovated Jones Park featuring a new $1 million amphitheater. She is looking forward to enhancing the summer concert series by staging monthly shows at the venue.
A RETURN TO HER ROOTS
Though she has been steering downtown Appleton projects for 17 years, this wasn’t her first position at the city’s center. In the mid-’90s, while earning her master’s degree in management and organizational behavior, she also served as the project manager for the Fox Cities Children’s Museum.
It’s a post that helped her fall in love with the city. So in 2002, when Stephany was serving as the executive director of the New London Area Chamber of Commerce and saw the ADI position was available, she instantly thought back to her time at the children’s museum.
“In an environment like that it’s all about community and embracing the love for creativity,” Stephany said. “To be in that environment was inspiring and fun. It’s where my network started to grow. When you connect with a community, you really fall in love with it.”
She credits some of that connection to one of her role models, Dr. John Mielke. “He taught me early on in my career that relationships are the cornerstone to all success,” Stephany said. “He showed me what was possible when people come together and no one cares who gets the credit. He showed me that a community that solves problems together will move farther faster. I am so grateful for his guidance and friendship all these years!”
MAKING TIME FOR FAMILY
Before 10-year-old Isabella was born, Stephany attended every single ADI event, forcing even her free time to meld into work functions. As a baby, Isabella would bounce along with her mom in a baby carrier to many downtown activities — and to this day she loves to dance at the summer concerts and march herself right into Bazil’s Pub or Copper Rock Coffee Co. as a bonafide “regular.”
But it was also through the birth of her daughter that Stephany realized she needed a more defined work-life balance. That’s how she and husband Jay came to purchase a permanent camp site at Evergreen Campground in Wild Rose. They get away for long weekends, ditch the electronics and enjoy each other’s company.
“Between basketball practice, softball practice, violin practice, homework and theater with Kidstage, we are kept very busy with Isabella,” Stephany said. “So we really look forward to recharging the batteries at the campground. It is our time to reconnect as a family and spend time with friends.”
Stephany grew up in Sheboygan. She has two siblings, Cindy and Paul, and maintains a close relationship with both of their families. Her entire family still lives in Sheboygan, and she visits frequently. “My mother has been battling Parkinson’s Disease for 16 years and continues to fight every day. My father is her caregiver. They are both amazing and I’m so proud and blessed to have them both active in my life,” Stephany said.
“My mother has always taught me to stand up for myself and to not question what I am capable of. I see it in her battle with Parkinson’s
Disease — she fights every day!” w