When Kathleen Rawson became CEO of DTSM in 1997, Downtown Santa Monica was a relatively unloved area, but during her tenure it blossomed into an internationally renowned retail and tourist destination.
Now as the Promenade enters its next phase of metamorphosis—adapting to the dual challenges of the pandemic and shifts in retail—Rawson has decided it’s time for a new adventure as she travels east to assume her new role as CEO of The Hollywood Partnership.
After 25 years leading Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. and over three decades working in Santa Monica, this is no easy goodbye. Nevertheless, Rawson is eager to help unlock the potential of Hollywood by creating a community focused public space centered around its many cultural venues and the upcoming 2028 Olympics.
“I’m excited about it; I think that it’s a great opportunity for me to take a lot of the things that I’ve learned here and developed here and play with the big boys in LA,” said Rawson.
Many of the challenges Rawson has had to deal with in her capacity at DTSM will apply closely to Hollywood, such as addressing homelessness, increasing cleanliness and creating family friendly spaces.
“Every new mayor, every new candidate is running on homelessness and crime and street life (in LA),” said Rawson. “There’s lots and lots of capital going into the neighborhood.. It’s got such great potential…I feel like there’s this amazing opportunity in the next few years to really make a difference.”
One of the biggest legacies Rawson leaves behind is the DTSM’s ambassador program, which was founded in 2008 and is now around 100 members strong. Between hospitality ambassadors, maintenance ambassadors, quality of life ambassadors and the 2021 addition of safety ambassadors, this team is deployed 24/7 with a mission to keep Downtown clean, safe and welcoming.
While the ambassadors are now familiar faces, it took a strong collaborative push to establish the team and convince Downtown property owners that it was worth the investment. The initial year’s investment collected around $3.5 million of private money, which was raised through a campaign led by Rawson in partnership with the DTSM Board of Directors and former Mayor Ken Genser.
Another keystone moment for Rawson’s DTSM career was the explosive popularity of the Promenade as a retail destination. This vision was already in place when Rawson took over as CEO, but it was the robust marketing campaign launched under her leadership that helped bring in the crowds.
“We really started to hit our stride I would say in the early 2000s and that’s when we attracted tenants such as Apple and Urban Outfitters,” said Rawson. “We had a building stock that was conducive to creating an outdoor experience and there wasn’t really anything like it.”
With the Promenade flourishing, Rawson shifted focus during her second decade of leadership towards making the area more of a local gathering spot and launched several annual events. A community favorite is ICE at Santa Monica, which began in 2007 and regularly attracts an average of 50,000 skaters a season.
Now a beloved winter tradition, Rawson initially came up with the idea of an ice rink as a means to ensure the Promenade remained a holiday shopping destination during the renovation of Santa Monica Place. While the event has been on hiatus during the pandemic it is expected to return in winter 2022.
“I’m a Minnesota girl and so I grew up ice skating,” said Rawson. “I’m really proud of it for so many reasons; first and foremost, it brings the local community together and it’s a festive time, and it’s a healthy activity. We have people who learned to skate on our rink who are now Olympic competitors.”
Other events that Rawson helped create include celebrations of Día de los Muertos, Black History Month, and SaMo PRIDE—which is her personal favorite.
“My partner Lisa and I have been together for 30 years, we have four kids…we used to go to the West Hollywood parade from time to time and it wasn’t as family friendly as you would want for little kids,” said Rawson. “So I said let’s do ours really focused on families and what I couldn’t have imagined then was the amount of community support for this concept, it was extraordinary, I loved it so much.”
The inaugural SaMo PRIDE celebration took place in 2019 and attracted more pedestrians to the Promenade than Black Friday did. While the event took place in a pared down format this year due to the pandemic, Rawson is looking forward to seeing it return in full force in the future.
The pandemic placed a great strain on Downtown Santa Monica between the loss in business revenue, loss in foot traffic and uptick in individuals experiencing homelessness. At the same time the retail world changed dramatically and the chain stores that formerly anchored the Promenade lost some of their allure to independent and online retailers.
“It’s hard after a period of time of such prosperity that the retail conditions have changed,” said Rawson. “It’s very hard for people to sort of get their head around that… and (they) think that maybe it’s so bad because you know, pick a plight: homelessness, nuisance, crime, and if you fix that then everything will be fine, but that’s really not how it goes.”
Recognizing these shifting dynamics Rawson and her team developed the Promenade revitalization plan during the pandemic. The plan seeks to modernize and elevate the Promenade as a dining, entertainment, and retail destination with a more diverse range of businesses and experiences that will appeal to both locals and visitors.
One thing Rawson would particularly like to see is an arts and culture venue that could offer a range of unique dance, theater, spoken word and music performances.
“That kind of venue doesn’t exist on this side of the 405 to any great degree and it’s something our community would love to have and be proud of,” said Rawson.
While Rawson dreams of such a venue for Santa Monica, she will not in charge of bring it to town, but instead looks forward to engaging with some of Los Angeles’ most iconic venues—such as the Palladium, the Hollywood Bowl, the Pantages and the Dolby—in her new position at the head of The Hollywood Partnership.