San Jose Downtown Association looks for new leader
San Jose Downtown Association CEO Scott Knies speaks at an April 2021 news conference regarding downtown small businesses in this file photo.

The powerful San Jose Downtown Association is preparing for its first leadership change in 34 years.

The business group announced a nationwide search on Monday to find its next CEO. Scott Knies, who has led the organization since opening its first office in March 1988, will step down on Nov. 1. Applications for the job are due April 22.

Formed by a group of business owners to protect their interests from transit and development projects, the San Jose Downtown Association has transformed into an influential advocacy organization that plays a key role in shaping the future of the downtown core.

Knies’ departure was first announced publicly in August 2020. He isn’t retiring, but is staying quiet about future plans for now. He told San José Spotlight he’s going to take some time off and assess his options.

“I still have fire in my belly for this,” Knies said. “You can hear it in my voice—there’s a second act.”

Under his leadership, the association has started numerous events to add vibrancy to the downtown area, including the summer concert series Music in the Park, SoFA Street Fair, Downtown Farmers’ Market and Starlight Cinemas outdoor movies. The association has also lobbied successfully for downtown to be a property-based improvement district, which created a pool of money from local businesses to fund initiatives like Groundwerx, which employs homeless and low-income residents to clean up trash and graffiti.

The association has also played a pivotal role influencing downtown development projects, including maximizing building heights, Google’s Downtown West campus and BART subway planning. Knies and the association have lobbied for policies to support the recovery of downtown businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elizabeth Chien-Hale, a board member of the San Jose Downtown Association, told San José Spotlight that Knies will be difficult to replace. She hopes the next CEO will prioritize revitalizing the downtown area, which was hit hard by the pandemic, and making it easier to get around.

“I hope the CEO will continue to take an interest in the public transportation and other infrastructure developments,” she said.

A major task facing the next CEO is finding ways to draw more people downtown. Foot traffic dropped off during the pandemic as office workers went remote, harming many local businesses.

Randy Musterer, owner of the restaurant  Sushi Confidential, said safety is the number one concern for business owners downtown.

“It seems like crime and homelessness have moved back into the downtown core,” Musterer told San José Spotlight. “So as we’re coming out of the pandemic there might be a little shock when employees return to their corporate offices and might see more homeless people sleeping on their front door steps.”

Whoever ends up with the job will face a new political landscape in San Jose. Mayor Sam Liccardo, a consistent ally to businesses in San Jose and proponent of development downtown, terms out at the end of the year. District 3 Councilmember Raul Peralez, who represents a significant chunk of downtown, is running for mayor and terms out this year—so the new leader will also need to build a relationship with his replacement as well.

Knies said he hopes his replacement continues to strive for a cohesive and collaborative downtown plan that involves input from private and public stakeholders. He emphasized developing downtown requires thoughtfulness, such as figuring out how the core interacts with the rapidly developing west side, and how to strengthen the ties between hip areas like San Pedro Square and SoFa.

“We’re adding these incredible projects and density and going through the construction process,” Knies said. “Keeping every business we have open right now is precious and needs to be retained.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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