By Erika Webb
Even though one of Downtown DeLand's best events of the year -- the DeLand Fall Festival of the Arts -- was set to take place in just over 48 hours, Mary Beth Harris, assistant director and special event coordinator for MainStreet DeLand Association, took time to talk about her new wardrobe.
Forget shoes, as MainStreet's incoming executive director, Ms. Harris will have to fill a variety of hats, Hawaiian shirts and other costumes.
Like the ones Jack wore.
After five years as executive director for MainStreet, Jack Becker is leaving to pursue other avenues.
He will step away from the helm Dec. 1, but he said he will stay on to help Ms. Harris through the busy holiday month.
"My background is actually sales and promotion. I want to help business and tourism with building sales, with growth," Mr. Becker said. "I have some freelance stuff I want to do. I've even had people approach me about teaching sales and promotions."
But, first, Mr. Becker said, he's going to spend some time with his wife, Maria, to whom he is grateful for unwavering support, and his grandchildren.
DeLand was the first community to receive the MainStreet designation, has won the "Great American MainStreet Award" and been five times voted the best MainStreet in Florida. DeLand was also a finalist for Most Patriotic Town in America in the Rand McNally/USA Today Best of the Road contest.
"Huffington Post called us one of the best five Main Streets," Mr. Becker said. "And CNN named DeLand one of the five Main Streets everyone should see at least once."
It was March 2008 when Mr. Becker joined MainStreet DeLand as executive director. Things were not going well. He said that was about the time everything was just starting to "bottom out." The association was losing membership and marketing partners. Real estate, title companies and banks were struggling, or worse.
He said one day that May he went home and talked with his wife.
"I said, 'I don't think MainStreet's gonna make it. I'm going to look for another job.' She said, 'What are you going to do about it?' That's not the answer I wanted to hear," Mr. Becker said.
But do something, he did.
"We had to go find a new model to make money. You can't help downtown if your doors aren't open," Mr. Becker said.
He said he knew he needed to get people downtown and the way to do that was through events.
"We started with Hot Summer Nights, which later became Hot August Nights 'cause I got in trouble for it," he said, referring to the stink that arose from using the already-claimed name.
Then, he said, an international beer and food festival was added to the September craft show to "keep the streets alive" in the evening.
The hugely successful chili cook-off took off in October 2008.
"Everything just started to grow from there," Mr. Becker said. "We solicited businesses throughout the community, getting them involved. We had car dealers putting cars on the street down here. Taste of DeLand provided an opportunity for restaurants outside of downtown to bring their food here."
From around nine downtown events to more than 50 in just five years, it's little wonder that Downtown DeLand has a business occupancy rate of more than 90 percent.
Patrick McMahon and his wife Toni own Pat and Toni's Sweet Things on Woodland Boulevard. Mr. McMahon left the real estate business for the candy business because it was succeeding. He said he largely credits Mr. Becker and Mainstreet DeLand Association.
"Part of our success has been because Jack helped heighten awareness of the downtown area which, in turn, helped us," Mr. McMahon said. "We're looking forward to Mary Beth continuing that."
Ms. Harris has lived and worked, mostly in banking, in DeLand for 30 years. She has volunteered for MainStreet for about 12 years, she said.
The Stetson University graduate said MainStreet has had a line of executive directors who were in the right place at the right time. She said each of the directors brought special talents to the association at the exact times they were needed.
"Jack got here when he needed to get here," she said. "MainStreet needed someone to take MainStreet to that next level."
She said Mr. Becker has been instrumental in providing more-than- effective leadership.
"I came on board last December to shadow Jack and I just love him so this is very bittersweet," Ms. Harris said. "He is truly an out-of-the-box thinker, which is what got MainStreet where it is."
She and Mr. Becker both said it has been, and will continue to be, the association's objective to "brand DeLand."
Both agreed the branding process extends to all entities, including small businesses and non-profit organizations as well as municipal and county governments.
"I have to say thank you to the board of directors and (board) presidents. I couldn't have done it without them allowing me to do some of the crazy things I've done," Mr. Becker said. "And I couldn't do it without the support of the City of DeLand. They are such a tremendous partner."
"I mean how many cities would let you borrow a fire truck and spray the kids? And then there's the mayor letting you dress him up as a pirate or an Indian," he said.
Another thing he and Ms. Harris stand together on is the fact Mainstreet DeLand is a business, that for the greater good, it must be.
He said in 2008 the organization was either going to make it or fall into mediocrity, or off the map altogether, and he added that "doing homework" including demographic studies to "get people down here" has worked exponentially.
"The focus is still on historic preservation and economic growth but MainStreet is a very healthy business," Mr. Becker said. "You can't do something for somebody else if your business isn't healthy itself."
New MainStreet member, Sun Citrus Café, opened downtown less than two months ago. Owners Ann Gilmore and Jerry Harris are happy with their location.
"We chose DeLand because of the community atmosphere," Ms. Gilmore said. "Word is getting out and business is improving every day."
Ms. Harris said she doesn't necessarily think MainStreet needs to change but she won't be resting on any laurels, either.
"We are 27 years strong and, like any successful business, you have to constantly reinvent yourself," she said. "I feel fortunate to be a part of a city with such a sense of community. It's apparent when you walk down the street. We just all have to pull on the rope in the same direction."
Mr. Becker said he tried to get Ms. Harris to join MainStreet three years before she did.
"She's not afraid to get her hands dirty, to get involved or to sweat," he said. "She's willing to do all of the things necessary to make MainStreet work."
And back to work she goes. There are streets to tape, packets to assemble, T-shirts to fold -- a fall festival to behold.
"It's very rewarding to see the finished product, original art in the middle of the road, people in the streets going in and out of our shops," she said. "That's what makes this job so rewarding and I get to do it every day," Ms. Harris said.