Carrie Kelly
Carrie Kelly has resigned as executive director of Santa Barbara’s Downtown Organization. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk file photo)

Amid the largest and most significant financial challenge to ever hit the city, the executive director of Santa Barbara’s Downtown Organization has jumped ship.

Although she gave her two-week notice on Monday, Carrie Kelly’s last official day was Wednesday. She said she earned $96,000 annually.

“I feel I left the organization stronger than it was when I came there,” Kelly told Noozhawk. “I think they are really poised to do something great.”

Kelly took a job in Arizona as the executive director of the Arizona Association for Economic Development. Kelly, her husband and her daughter have already moved back. She came to the Central Coast from Kingman, Ariz.

Kelly worked for 16 months at the Downtown Organization, a group that flourished under the longtime leadership of Marshall Rose in the 1990s and early 2000s. She replaced Maggie Campbell, who was in charge of the group for four years.

Bob Stout, board president of the Downtown Organization, said he was a member of the search committe for both Campbell and Kelly. 

“Each brought energy and potential, but came from out of state,” said Stout, owner of the Wildcat Lounge. “At present, I think the organization could benefit from finding someone with Santa Barbara familiarity.”

Kelly said she felt like she fit in well with the Santa Barbara community and that she wanted to bring fresh eyes to the city.

“When I look at the downtown, especially new coming in, I see something great and amazing,” Kelly said. “And I think when you have been there, and grow up there, there is a bit of a longing for the past.”

Kelly spent the first year of her time in Santa Barbara meeting people and developing relationships. The plan for year two, she told the council earlier this year, was to begin executing a vision and plan for downtown.

The Downtown Organization’s job is to promote and support businesses in the downtown area. It also manages the downtown maintenance of State Street. The group is funded through a self-assessment and city funding.

Kelly’s departure comes after longtime marketing director Kate Schwab left the organization in 2019, and amid a massive state of upheaval over the shelter-in-place coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic that has brought most restaurant and retail businesses to a screeching halt. Thousands of people in Santa Barbara County have been laid off in the past week.

Stout said the Downtown Organization is “actively engaged in hiring a new executive director.” He wasn’t sure whether the position would be part time or full time, or what the annually salary would be.

“So much depends on how quickly we can get our promotions and outreach activities like First Thursday back on the street,” Stout said. “We would prefer to replace Carrie as soon as possible with a full-time executive director. Having said that, we have enough current staffing and a willing and able board of directors who can hold things down until we find the right person.”

The City of Santa Barbara gives the Downtown Organization about $650,000 a year, according to City Administrator Paul Casey. 

“The city really values our partners,” Casey said. “We need a strong Downtown Organization to deal with this calamity. We need them to be an effective business improvement district.”

Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said it is a difficult time for downtown businesses.

“We need all hands on deck,” Harmon said. “I know that downtown businesses will come out strong and better from all of this. Santa Barbara is unlike any other place in the world to overcome a crisis.”

Kelly, who received a bonus in December, said she cares deeply about the community and its future.

“It was a really difficult decision,” Kelly said. “Our family loved the area and loved the people. I met some of the most creative and inventive people there. I feel like I was at the job for five years. The people I worked with were incredible. There is a lot of strong leadership within the organization who want the best for downtown.”

As for the next leader, Kelly said, “It would probably be beneficial to get someone from Santa Barbara.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.