In 1986, a family from the Pacific Islands converted downtown’s notorious Five Star Bar into a venue that would go on to showcase an unknown band from Seattle: Nirvana. They had trouble, however, getting the city to approve an awning over its front window, a key piece needed to complete the renovation. The red tape they faced was emblematic of the powerlessness of downtown’s small businesses—and the need for an advocate.
While large companies and property owners had organizations and professionals who spoke for them at City Hall, I believed that downtown needed an organization that could speak for hard working business operators who lacked clout, connections and resources to lobby City Hall.
My conversations with neighboring businesses led to the founding of the San Jose Downtown Association. With the funds we raised from memberships, we incorporated a legal entity and formed a board of directors that included entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s, and members of the Latino and Vietnamese business communities—three constituencies that weren’t represented in the leadership of the business organizations of the day.
A committee to form a business improvement district was seated at the association’s first board of directors meeting on Oct. 24, 1986. We held a series of public meetings that included Mayor Tom McEnery as a featured speaker, as well as two leading consultants in planning downtown revitalization programs. An administrator was hired, an office was opened on the 400 block of South First Street and a business owner served as executive director, on an unpaid basis, for the first year.
A year later, in October 1987, the board approved a 10-point work plan.
1. Negotiate contract with San Jose.
2. Elect a new board and hold an annual meeting.
3. Lease, furnish and move into a new office.
4. Develop a logo and graphic identity.
5. Develop a year-round promotional calendar.
6. Draw up a budget.
7. Establish financial controls and operating procedures.
8. Continue efforts to ratify a business improvement district.
9. Begin planning a spring festival.
10. Recruit and hire an executive director.
The San Jose City Council was impressed enough with the grassroots initiative to fund a $650,000, three-year plan. In the association’s third year, a paid executive director, Scott Knies, was hired and the volunteer executive stepped aside.
Recent news coverage, as well as public statements by the downtown association, have erroneously referred to Knies as the association’s “founder,” “founding executive director,” “founding leader” or the one who opened the first office. None of those are true.
Hired in 1988, Knies came aboard a fully constituted organization with an active and diverse 23-member board and significant financial support, a work plan and an initiative to form a district that has generated tens of millions of dollars and funded the San Jose Downtown Association’s activities ever since.
While Knies has many accomplishments to cite during his long tenure, founding the downtown association is not one of them. Claiming to have led the association’s founding delegitimizes the association’s reason for existence and disrespects the actual founders, who, unlike him, were not professional association managers or paid $4 million for their efforts.
The creation of the San Jose Downtown Association also had nothing to do with transit mall construction mitigation. It was about a vision of a fully inclusive downtown in which independent operators could build livelihoods and thrive while creating an inviting downtown for the entire city.
Startups have a human cost. It was a lot of work, and the personal and financial toll eventually caused me to cut back my involvement. The business that sparked the San Jose Downtown Association’s creation, Marsugi’s, is no longer at the corner of First and San Salvador streets. It pains me to see how many legacy businesses have been lost, especially during the recent pandemic.
I hope that as the downtown association transitions its management to new executive Alex Stettinski, it represents history accurately. Remaining true to that founding vision, and acknowledging the risk-taking and sacrifices that built today’s downtown, is a key to its future success.
Raymond R. Rodriguez Jr. is a photographer and co-founder of the San Jose Downtown Association.