Lisa Harmon says there is no intrigue attached to her decision to step down as director of the Downtown Billings Alliance.
“No scandal, no crisis,” she said. Just math.
“I’m in my 50s and I’ve probably only got one career move left,” she said.
And she says she doesn’t have a clue what she’ll do next. Her plan is to stay on with the DBA until June 30, unless her successor is chosen before then, and then to see what happens.
Her 12-year stint with the downtown organization, she said, has been “the biggest honor of my life and the biggest job I’ve ever done.”
Since being hired as the operations manager of the Downtown Billings Partnership in 2005, that big job has included forming a Business Improvement District, under which business and property owners collectively pay for services focused on keeping the downtown clean and safe.
Since 2010, as an expansion of that program, downtown property owners have paid nearly $800,000 for two police officers who work the downtown beat exclusively.
In 2006 she helped launch Spare Change for Real Change, to which people were encouraged to make donations as an alternative to supporting panhandlers, with proceeds going to programs that help homeless people and transients.
The DBA also kept adding events and enlarging others—including the Alive After 5 concert series, Strawberry Fest, the Purple 5K run, HarvestFest, parades and a Christmas Stroll—adding up to about 50 events a year downtown. The popular downtown ArtWalk also came under the DBA’s umbrella.
In 2015, the two downtown cops were joined by a licensed addiction counselor from the Rimrock Foundation—his time downtown paid for by Spare Change for Real Change—whose job was to nudge the chronic alcoholics on downtown streets into treatment.
“This organization came into being with her leadership,” said Sam Merrick, who sits on two DBA boards and is also on the search committee to find Harmon’s successor.
“She’s the Pied Piper of downtown,” he said. “She talks and people follow.”
Harmon, a native of Virginia Beach, Va., taught high school French and German for five years, then started a healthy-cookie company in Virginia in the late 1980s. After moving to Billings with her then-husband in 1993, Harmon re-launched the company as Montana Moon Cookies, which she ran for 10 years with her two sisters.
She was ready for something new when the job with what was then called the Downtown Billings Association opened up. Her job was mainly working on business development, as an entrepreneur herself, “I felt like I could really understand what it was to turn on the lights on in a business,” she said.
There were many changes in the organization over the years, and eventually Harmon became executive director of the renamed Downtown Billings Alliance, which includes the association, the BID and the downtown partnership.
Harmon gives much of the credit for the downtown’s resurgence to Greg Kreuger, who has been with the DBA for 20 years and is now development director for the alliance. She said she and Kreuger were immediately compatible and have worked together closely during her years with the alliance.
They have attended hundreds of City Council meetings, she said, and Kreuger recently presented for council consideration the 285th downtown project funded by the downtown tax increment district, a funding mechanism that has aided projects ranging from a simple awning on one business to the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Northern Hotel.
One aspect of Harmon’s job that she was unprepared for, and which has presented the biggest challenges, is dealing with homelessness, transience, street crimes, public drunkenness and panhandling.
She was the first chair of the Mayor’s Committee on Homelessness, and she would later take the lead in the Community Innovations initiative, a collaborative effort that was begun not just to “do something” about problems on the street but to provide help for the people causing the problems.
She was gearing up for the first Community Innovations Summit in the summer of 2014 when Mike Sample, a widely known photographer, was stabbed to death outside the downtown office of his family’s philanthropic foundation.
“That hurt because it hurt the psyche of our city,” Harmon said. Sample’s murder was part of a wave of crime and violence that many people connected to spillover from the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota. As terrible as it was, Harmon said, it gave added impetus to the Community Innovations effort.
The initiatives that grew out of that effort, including the hiring of a counselor to work the streets with the downtown cops, was widely heralded, and in 2015, on the strength of the Community Innovations program, the DBA was chosen to receive the Pinnacle Award from the International Downtown Association.
On that, too, Harmon is quick to give credit to others, including the Rimrock Foundation, St. Vincent DePaul, the Crisis Center and especially the Montana Tribal Leadership Council.
The DBA’s partnership with the tribal leadership council, she said, “is an active collaboration. It is not an afterthought. I’m so blessed to have been part of that work.”
In the midst of talking about her years with the DBA, Harmon paused several times, looking mildly panicked, afraid of omitting anyone deserving of thanks or credit. She mentioned the Billings Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Economic Development, the city’s Community Development Division, and the 12 employees who work under the alliance umbrella.
“It is the most gracious, loving, productive team I’ve ever worked with,” she said.
At one point, having bestowed thanks and praise on several individuals and organizations, Harmon said, “I’m not trying to sound like a politician here. That’s the
way I am.”
Biff Hagstrom, another member of the DBA board and search committee, said Harmon will be hard to replace.
“People like to get behind her because of her verve,” he said. “Verve is the right word.” It helps that she has “a really wonderful combination” of right- and left-brain thinking, he said.
“She’s an accountant and an artist at the same time,” Hagstrom said. “She inspires people.”
Harmon said there is no perfect time to leave an organization you love, but she figures this is a fairly opportune moment, since the DBA is just starting the process of updating the 20-year-old Downtown Framework Plan, the blueprint that jumpstarted so much of the downtown’s redevelopment.
It will make sense to have a new director come on just as the new elements of the updated plan are being put into effect, she said. And for all that has been accomplished in the past 12 years, there is so much more to do.
“That’s the nature of downtown,” Harmon said. “You are never done. You are never done.”