Meet Holly Childs, WDI’s new president

Holly Childs will take over as president of WDI on January 4. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — “Tangible results” are at the crux of Holly Childs’ work ethic. It’s what she hopes to bring to Wilmington when she takes over as president of Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) in January. 

WDI focuses on economic development and shaping the downtown area with viable business and real estate growth. It also promotes downtown to visitors, tourists and residents, works toward preserving its historic character, acts as a liaison between various interest groups, and supports existing downtown businesses with safety initiatives, programs, events, finances, and promotion.

Childs gained experience in her career thus far in leadership roles in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Phoenix, focusing on downtown business attraction, urban development and redevelopment, and helping with the financing of complex projects. She has overseen redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods, a $322 million LEED Gold-certified corporate headquarters, and planning and development of a 1,000-acre mixed-use business and retail park. The development included corporate and tech office, retail and future residential, interconnected by bike/pedestrian paths and greenspace, according to Childs.

“It’s much more than developing a business park or a lifestyle center; it’s creating a community asset and jobs center,” she said. “That’s exactly the kind of impact I want to have in Wilmington with my work here.”

Port City Daily interviewed Childs about her experience, hobbies, likes and dislikes, but most importantly her vision for downtown Wilmington, as she settles into her new hometown and position.

Port City Daily (PCD): Tell us where you’re moving from and what drew you to Wilmington aside from the job offer with WDI. 
Holly Childs (HC): I just moved this week from Morgantown, West Virginia, where I spent the past eight years working for a public development authority, a public-private economic development organization, and a private commercial real estate development firm. I had previously moved from Pittsburgh to Morgantown in 2013 to be near my family when I had three teenagers, but they are all now young adults living on their own, so it was time for me to re-evaluate my empty nest and decide where to go next completely on my own. 

I am actually returning to North Carolina, as I was both born here (while my dad was stationed at Fort Bragg) and educated here (I am a Wake Forest University alumna). My family has also vacationed here many times over the years, and Wilmington has such an amazing energy — it really draws people in.  

PCD: Tell us about your family.
HC: My greatest love is my family of three adult children:  a daughter completing her master’s degree in Social Work and getting married just after Christmas, and identical twin sons – one in college studying mechanical engineering and the other an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army.  They are wonderful people, and I couldn’t be prouder of each of them for who they have become.

PCD: What were your first impressions of Downtown Wilmington?
HC: Downtown Wilmington is amazing!  There is so much to love here — the arts, culture and educational amenities of a large city, but with a much less dense population and at a much more affordable price point.  Wilmington has so many great assets: the Riverwalk, Historic District, museums and art galleries, performing arts venues, restaurants and breweries, nearby beaches. The list just continues to grow [with] reasons why Wilmington is a great place to live and work. 

The people that I have met throughout the WDI interview process [Childs was interviewed by WDI board members] over the past three months have been unbelievably warm and welcoming, and I am personally really excited to have just moved into my new home downtown in the Brooklyn Arts District.

PCD: How will your previous work inform your job in Wilmington?
HC: I believe my past positions have each contributed in some definitive way to shaping who I am, and what I plan to do in my new role of leading WDI. 

I have a strong sense of creating sustainable projects. My graduate work was in environmental economics, and I am LEED-accredited in green building design and construction, so sustainable design principles definitely inform my work.  I also have a real passion for tech jobs — both through entrepreneurial support and business attraction. And I most recently completed work with Leidos, a Fortune 500 technology company, on the development of an integrated corporate campus to support 250 new software engineering jobs. 

Over the past three months, I have started reading even more about Wilmington and the entrepreneurial support infrastructure being built here by groups like Genesis Block ILM and the Network for Entrepreneurs (NEW). These are very impressive initiatives, and I’m looking forward to developing those partnerships to create new jobs and opportunities for everyone.

PCD: What are some of the first goals, economic or otherwise, you want to take on for our historic district?
HC: WDI has a proud history of more than 40 years of supporting the growth of downtown Wilmington, and throughout recent years, that work program has been heavily weighted toward downtown events. My mission — and the WDI Board’s clear direction — is to refocus the bulk of WDI’s attention and our resources on true economic development: creating new jobs and investment in our downtown.

My first priority is to build strong relationships because nothing gets done without them. So, I will be focused on engaging in partnerships with existing developers, financial institutions, other development/business organizations (Chamber, Wilmington Business Development), universities/colleges (UNCW, CFCC), hospitals (New Hanover Regional Medical Center), churches, museums, historical societies, and public utilities. Building trusting relationships is critical to creating great development.

PCD: Do you have ideas you can share on the types of new jobs or businesses you’d like to lure to Downtown Wilmington that will help grow our city?
HC: I think that tech and entrepreneurial jobs will be a top priority for us to continue to grow the base of young people living and working downtown, which in turn supports all of our existing small businesses like boutiques, restaurants and breweries. As the population continues to grow downtown, WDI needs to base our economic strategy on increasing the local circulation of goods and services to support that growth, like a downtown grocery store and other services that keep money downtown.

PCD: Can you tell us how you’ve worked between public and private sectors for other cities and what those results yielded?
HC: At this point in my career, I have spent roughly two-thirds of my career in the public sector doing economic development work, and one-third in the private commercial real estate development field, and these sectors each need one another to move forward: No meaningful economic development project is “fully public” or “fully private” anymore. All projects need passionate, committed leadership, and that takes a public-private team to achieve. 

I have personally worked on a number of projects with very complex planning, financing and development structures – from engaging the community in planning workshops for local input at the very beginning of the process, to developing plans and budgets and seeking financing, to managing architectural, engineering and construction bidding and contracts throughout development. These projects take years of purposeful drive to complete, but when done right, can create assets that will last for generations: baseball parks and community centers, corporate office headquarters, tech incubators, downtown retail and lifestyle centers — the specific end goal is community-driven, as it should be.

PCD: What are your hobbies? 
HC: I love to cook, read, ride my Peloton and walk/hike.  I’m also a big wine enthusiast, which leads me to start up book clubs that ultimately involve wine and food with friends.

PCD: Fave food? Music? Movies? 
HC: I enjoy Mediterranean food and seafood, as well as Latin American dishes – anything fresh and flavorful, and I’ve already started making my rounds of Wilmington (new huge fan of Savorez).  My playlist (and vinyl collection) is pretty eclectic:  Norah Jones, Prince, Kings of Leon, U2, John Mayer, DMB, John Coltrane, Iron & Wine, and Etta James. For movies, I definitely lean suspense/thriller, unless (like many times this year) I just need a feel-good movie to restore my happy.

PCD: Biggest fear? 
HC: Definitely granddaddy long legs.  Although I am honestly quite concerned about the palmetto bugs going forward.

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