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Rusty Worley, executive director, Urban Districts Alliance
Rusty Worley, executive director, Urban Districts Alliance

Business Advocate of the Year: Rusty Worley

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Since October 2005, Rusty Worley has served as executive director of Urban Districts Alliance, and during that time, his personal mission has come to mirror the organization’s focus on preserving and strengthening Springfield’s historic center city business districts: downtown, Walnut Street and Commercial Street.

UDA also acts as an umbrella organization, providing management services for eight other center city entities, including the Downtown Springfield Community Improvement District, Springfield Finance and Development Corp., Commercial Club and the Historic Walnut Street Association.

“We interact with so many different stakeholders, trying as best we can to listen to different perspectives and respond to those,” Worley says. “We’re never going to please everyone, but we certainly hope that we create processes where people feel like they have the opportunity to weigh in, offer suggestions, ask questions and at least have a better understanding of why things were done the way they were.”

UDA Board President Brad Toft, CEO of the Ozarks Regional YMCA, says UDA plays a key role in bringing together the entities that have a vested interest in center city, and he says Worley is well-suited to lead the way.

“He has great relationships with others,” Toft says. “He really works tirelessly for the benefit of downtown. If there’s an issue that comes up … he is on it as quickly as he can be, trying to find a solution. He does a good job of keeping the lines of communication open.”

Worley, one of six full-time UDA employees, says UDA’s work includes everyday maintenance, event management and spreading the word about center city.

The organization also relies on thousands of volunteers for special events each year and has an annual budget of about $350,000, he says. Factoring in the financial support of two community improvement districts and other center city organizations, Worley says UDA works with about $600,000 a year to promote center city development and attract visitors.

“There’s nothing like seeing a historic district vibrant and active, seeing thousands of people enjoying our areas whether (through) Artsfest, Cider Days (or) C-Street Jam,” Worley says. “Seeing people of all ages, all socioeconomic backgrounds coming together is really rewarding,” he says.

Seeing center city’s revival is perhaps more rewarding for Worley because of the region’s connection to his roots. His grandmother, he says, was once a hairdresser on McDaniel Street, not far from UDA’s office, and his father, a policeman for 31 years, once patrolled areas now served by UDA.

While he’s gratified by the fact that developments such as Hammons Field, Jordan Valley Ice Park and Hollywood Theaters are attracting younger generations to center city, Worley knows that there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“We’ve come a long way …  but we need to see large employers downtown,” Worley says. He also pinpoints several iconic projects, including the Heer’s building, developer John Q. Hammons’ delayed plans to build a hotel on 1.7 acres adjacent to the Expo Center and the retail component of College Station as yet-unfinished improvements that will aid in center city’s renaissance.

Those projects and others, he says, have fallen victim to the recession, but he notes that they aren’t stagnant, there is movement on them, though it may be behind the scenes.

“Despite the difficulty obtaining financing and the slowdown in retail growth, those projects … still have signs of life and are being pursued,” he says.

And though Worley says 25,000 people work within a mile of downtown and 16,000 people reside in a one-mile radius of center city, UDA’s continued efforts to attract more recreation opportunities, businesses and residential development stand to help the community as a whole.

“Most investors and residents will look at the downtown of a community as an indicator of the vitality of that community,” Worley says. “So having a vibrant downtown helps attract new prospects, new business development, helps make our higher education institutions more attractive to families.”[[In-content Ad]]

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