Eastern Market MainStreet’s Executive Director Odendahl Reflects as She Exits
By Larry Janezich
Madeleine Odendahl, Executive Director of Eastern Market MainStreet, (EMMS) is leaving because she was made an offer she couldn’t refuse. Her three year stint as a “resource broker” for the businesses that make up EMMS will end November 26. Odendahl has accepted an offer to become Operating Director for District Bridges, a community organization that runs five MainStreets elsewhere in the District.
Odendahl says, “When I had to tell MainStreet’s Executive Committee I was leaving they were shocked. I wanted them to know that ‘I’m not trying to leave you – but I really couldn’t say no.’” Another factor, she said, is that she is expecting her first child in April which will cut into the 150% commitment that being Executive Director requires.
Capitol Hill Corner asked her to describe her job and the role of EMMS.
She said that EMMS is a neighborhood development and small business efficacy organization: “I am like a mall manager without any of the actual power – no say on leases, decorating or opening hours. My job is to try to create a vibrant atmosphere to support our businesses and bring them more customers. I call myself a resource broker – we’re a small organization in a tiny area in DC – a lot of what I try to do is connect businesses with larger resources. If someone has an issue I can’t solve I put them in touch with the people they should be talking to.”
She said that in the beginning, it was stressful: “I definitely got thrown into the deep end, but that I really enjoyed it.” What she brought to EMMS was an ability both to develop relationships and also to put together a work plan to address the concerns and needs of the business owners.
One of the things she likes about the job is that no two days are the same. There are a lot of projects in the air, she said, and each day is measured by how far she is able to push them forward. There are larger strategic things like the redesign of Metro Park and wayfinding for the neighborhood to smaller projects like getting more bike racks, grant and event programming, and coordinating education workshops.
Asked about her reaction to the failure of the group she was part of to win the DMPED grant for a $300,000 Eastern Market Strategic Study, Odendahl explained that EMMS was part of a larger group which included a DC economic development firm, Project for Public Spaces in NYC (they write marketing strategic plans) and Brand Guild, a marketing and public relations firm which has worked on projects in large cities. The group was one of the two finalists considered for the contract.
She said that EMMS and CHAMPS were the neighborhood connection, focusing on business engagement, insuring that businesses inside the market and the brick and mortars would be included in the conversation. Odendahl said, “We knew the players in the neighborhood and could make sure their voices were included.”
As for why her group didn’t win the bid from the city she said, “We really don’t know. The letter we got from DMPED kind of contradicted itself. They saw a conflict of interest with us being so close to the community, but then said they didn’t think our proposal included enough about Eastern Market as a whole. We showed a connection to the community and that we knew about EM history and that we already had ideas about how we wanted to shape the conversation in a certain direction, but then were told that that we were to close. So that was a little confusing.”
She said she knows little about Architrave, who won the bid, only what she’s been able to see from their website. They have reached out to EMMS for an initial discussion. “My concern,” she said, “is that they are not marketing specialists – it looks like they’re architects, which is lovely if you’re designing a building. I hope I’m proven wrong. We want the best product – EMMS’ concern is we want the best plan that is useable and can be implemented – and we’ll see if that comes from architecture.”
Capitol Hill Corner asked her what she thought about the viability of Eastern Market as a food market. She said, “I think it can stay a food market. I hear concerns ‘we don’t want a Union Market.’ It doesn’t have to become Union Market. But remaining a fresh food market and staying the same are two different things. Things are changing in the way we interact with other people and businesses – if you’re just maintaining, you’re declining – because everything else is growing. Eastern Market has been maintained, and 15 years ago that was fine, but now is not the time for maintaining. Now is the time for innovation and creativity. There are things that can be done that foster more collaboration between merchants, things like implementing an on line order system or a valet service where purchases could be brought to the car – small things could help move Eastern Market forward like encouraging younger shoppers. And some signage would be nice.”
Some of the challenges Odendahl sees for EMMS moving forward is how to encourage the workers in the large office buildings including 600 – 605 and 700 Pennsylvania Avenue to see this as their neighborhood – to patronize local businesses rather than coming to work, having lunch at their desk, and going home at the end of the day. Other concerns include finding ways to get more tour buses to visit the area and using social media and advertising to help draw more people to the neighborhood. She cited EMMS program “Holly Days” which grew out of “Small Business Saturday” as one of her efforts to encourage local shopping.
Asked about obstacles she faced as she took over the reins of the fledgling EMMS as its first Executive Director, Odendahl said she had encountered issues based on the perception of her age and experience. “In a neighborhood where there is a lot of longevity in community engagement by people who have been in the trenches for a long time,” she said, “some of them found it hard to welcome someone who was new. That made it harder to push issues forward and in some cases hard to be taken seriously. Also, I understood that if I was going to fulfill the mission of what EMMS promised to do, I was going to have to ruffle some feathers. I tried to do that with sincerity and humility. I think I unruffled most of the feathers eventually, but that’s something I regularly encountered with someone who just brushed me off. And I think it wasn’t just me but the youth of the organization – and attitude from some of the residents – not the businesses – of ‘Why do we need you?’
I think the businesses understand what value we bring to the community and we’ve tried to show what value we hold to the residents, but that has been a harder sell.”
Oldendahl’s successor has been announced – he is Charles McCaffrey, former Director of the South Fairfax Small Business Development Center and most recently, Director of the Veterans Business Outreach Center. Odendahl says, she’s confident her successor will “continue what I’ve started and take the organization to a new level. I’m excited to watch.”
Here’s a link to the EMMS website: https://www.easternmarketmainstreet.org/