Kate Borders didn’t consider herself a candidate for the position of University Circle Inc. (UCI) president — at least, not initially. In fact, the president of the Downtown Tempe Authority & Downtown Tempe Foundation, both in Arizona, began thinking of others who could fill the post when a recruiter conducting a search for longtime UCI leader Chris Ronayne’s successor contacted her in July.
But as Borders read and reread the job description detailing the duties and responsibilities involved in heading the community-development nonprofit serving Cleveland’s cultural epicenter, she became more and more interested in it. The position seemed to be tailor-made for her, one in a “really cool place” that would draw on her passions for the arts and its institutions, community education and outreach, event-planning and production — building a neighborhood around a district.
“One day it just hit me: ‘Oh, my gosh! I’m excited about this!’” Borders remembers.
That enthusiasm is just one of the many reasons Borders will be assuming the position currently held by interim president Gary Hanson on June 12, according to search committee member Katie Brancato, vice president, chief of staff and strategic adviser to the president of Case Western Reserve University. She recalls that Borders not only “checked off all the boxes” in terms of experience — she articulated a vision of University Circle as a safe, welcoming destination that would keep visitors in the area.
“She really stood out as someone that had done her homework, understood the gems of University Circle and saw the potential of taking the area to the next level,” Brancato says.
Borders’ love of those cultural gems is rooted in her Rock Hill, South Carolina, childhood, nurtured by a fine art photographer mother and contractor father. She entered Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as a music major who played piano and viola. But summers working in the box office and designing performance programs at Brevard Music Center in Brevard, North Carolina, changed her mind.
“I decided I wanted to be around the arts rather than spend all of my years in a practice room,” Borders says.
Eager for new experiences in new places, Borders enrolled at the University of Arizona and earned a bachelor of music, then completed work on a master’s degree in arts administration at Columbia College Chicago — a school close to extended family in the big-city environment she craved. She attended classes at night and worked days as a program manager at The Coleman Foundation, a local grant-making entity where she learned to review nonprofits from a funder’s perspective. In 2003 the then-29-year-old landed her first leadership position: executive director of the Peoria Arts Guild in Peoria, Illinois.
Over the next two years she managed the guild’s building and staff, some of whom were older than she was, as well as overseeing the production of an annual fine-art fair involving 150 artists and hundreds of volunteers.
A persistent yearning for city life precipitated the need for another change in 2005: a move to Milwaukee to assume the executive directorship of the East Town Association. Her event-producing experience was invaluable in running neighborhood-association draws such as a 16-week summer concert series, four-day street festival and weekly farmers market. But the place-based nonprofit was also an introduction to streetscaping, public art and wayfinding signage projects.
“My whole vision expanded into, ‘Wow, these districts are everywhere, these places that the public thinks are run by the city but are really not!’” she recalls.
That continued in 2011 as president and CEO of the Downtown Fresno Partnership in Fresno, California. Unlike the East Town Association, a merchant membership organization financially dependent on business’ fees, the Downtown Fresno Partnership was a newly created business improvement district funded by property owner-approved assessments. The result was a bigger budget that supported more programming and other endeavors.
Three years later, Borders ran into a longtime acquaintance at a conference. She told Borders she was retiring as president of the Downtown Tempe Authority & Downtown Tempe Foundation and asked if she’d be interested in applying for the job.
“For whatever reason, it just kind of sparked my interest,” Borders recalls. “I came and visited and applied and just loved the district.”
She says her biggest accomplishment over the last nine-plus years has been building and strengthening relationships. For example, she began meeting regularly with leaders of the Tempe Chamber of Commerce and Tempe Tourism Office. Those meetings yielded Team Tempe, which she describes as a “very formalized, very powerful” partnership that also includes the city’s economic development department and members of its marketing team.
Borders talks of her desire to build and strengthen relationships with members of the University Circle community, “to better understand what they need and where the gaps are,” to learn about the staff’s goals. Despite her penchant for change, she isn’t one of those leaders who institutes them wholesale immediately upon arrival.
“My biggest goal is to come into this community with grace and humility,” she says. “I don’t want to come in and act like I know better than anyone there or I have these brilliant ideas that are going to change the world. I want to listen. I want to hear what other leaders in the community [have to say]…I want to be a part of the community and just work really hard, work really hard with the team that exists and the neighbors and the institutions and the stakeholders and do my very best to honor what is there — and maybe, along the way, offer some suggestions.”