“I fell in love with this job while I was serving in an interim role…so I threw my name in the hat and became the President of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. I didn’t know that at the time I chose public service, but I knew it was where my heart belonged.”
Conversations with HJM: Shelonda Stokes
Born and raised in Baltimore, Shelonda Stokes, the President of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPOB), has always known that she was meant for a career that would allow her to give back and help her community. Stokes faced many hardships growing up and has seen Baltimore from every angle. It is no surprise then that we see where her passion for making Downtown Baltimore a safer, cleaner, and more welcoming place comes from.
Stokes graduated from Morgan State University with a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. After college, she started working at Hewlett-Packard for a few years, gaining management, marketing, communication, and consulting skills that eventually allowed her to create her own marketing company in 2001, “greiBo media.” As its President and CEO, Stokes assisted businesses in adopting mixed media to get a competitive edge in their industry.
While in a leadership program, Stokes met her predecessor Kirby Fowler who connected her with the DPOB Board of Directors. “I wanted to see what they were doing to engage returning citizens, how they’re keeping Downtown clean and safe, and what they were doing in areas of economic development and marketing. So, when Kirby asked me to join the Board and help them figure out how to tell Baltimore’s story a little bit better, without any hesitation, I said ‘absolutely.’” Thereafter, she became the first Black Board Chair of DPOB in November 2019.
When Fowler left his position as the President & Executive Director of DPOB, Stokes took on the responsibility of searching for his replacement and creating a search committee. However, in 2020, when the COVID-19 Pandemic sidetracked the search process, Stokes stepped in and got to work as the Interim President, bringing and putting together all of her past experiences with engineering, marketing, and economic development to fill the position. Stokes stated how she “quickly fell in love with this job…so I threw my name in the hat and became the President!” In June 2020, Stokes became the first Black President of DPOB and has played an essential role in making an impactful difference in Baltimore. Since then, Stokes has presided over a range of projects—most notably, she points to the Black Owned and Operated Store Front Tenancy program as one of the biggest wins for Baltimore, a project established to aid the long-term prosperity of innovative Black-owned businesses in Downtown Baltimore.
Shelonda Stokes recently found time in her busy schedule to speak with me about how she got to where she is now, game-changing projects in store for Downtown, and inspirational advice for future female leaders.
What drove you to want to start a career in the public sphere? Can you give an overall rundown of what you did before that led up to you becoming the President of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore?
It’s interesting because I don’t even know that I necessarily chose this career path. I feel like it chose me along the way. I am from Baltimore, born and raised, and could not love this city anymore. I lived in probably almost every neighborhood of the City. I grew up very modest and we were poor, so I wanted to go into a career field where I could be successful and where I could give back and help. As an engineer by degree, I started first with Hewlett-Packard and worked there for a while. Then after a while of working for companies that would hire me as an engineer out of college, I met my business partner, and we started a media company, greiBo. I started with this desire to give back, so with the media company, it allowed me to define our narrative. So, we grew greiBo for a little more than 20 years.
I ended up going into a leadership program where I met my predecessor, Kirby Fowler, who was in my class and ended up getting connected with the Downtown Partnerships Board. I wanted to see what they were doing to engage returning citizens, how they were keeping downtown clean and safe, and what they were doing in the areas of economic development and marketing. So, when Kirby asked me to come and join the Board and help them figure out how to tell Baltimore’s story a little bit better, without any hesitation, I said, “Absolutely.” In my time on the Board, I believe we made some tremendous advancements for Downtown. We were also doing that at a time when I felt our city was winning and kind of going in that positive trajectory.
I then ended up becoming the Chair of the Board. So, in November of 2019, I became the first Black Board Chair of Downtown Partnership. When we learned that Kirby was leaving, everything started to transition really quickly. In January, we found ourselves in this position where we needed to search for a President. We put together a search committee and then, of course, COVID happened! And we were all confused on how we can hire someone or interview someone over Zoom, you know? So, I ended up coming in as the Interim President. I still had my media company, but I was the Chair of the Board, so we thought it was probably best for me to come in and at least hold the reins as we found a new person, especially since we didn’t know how long the whole COVID situation was going to last. I fell in love with this job while I was serving in an interim role. Everyone was fearful of what was happening with COVID and the effect that it was having on Downtown, as businesses were closing, and everything was on lockdown. In that time, I felt like I could put together all of my past experiences with engineering, marketing, and economic development and bring them together for this role. So, I threw my name in the hat and became the President! I don’t know that I chose public service or even knew that that’s what it was, but I knew it was where my heart belonged.
In your time as President, can you tell me about one of the projects that you see as a big win for Baltimore, and something that you can say is one of your proudest achievements so far?
If I have to choose just one, then I will probably say it’s our BOOST program. BOOST stands for “Black Owned and Operated Store Front Tenancy”. It’s one of my proudest initiatives, because it touches on so many factors. With the pandemic, it expedited the amount of black and brown vacancies that were in this area. You had places that closed, places that had already previously closed, so you’re left with all of these vacancies which do not look good from an investment or safety perspective. What BOOST did, is it worked with those property owners to help them create affordable opportunities for black and brown businesses to come into Downtown. It not only helped fill the vacancies, but helped diversify the mix of businesses we had Downtown. I think it also helped position us from an economic development perspective for success. We seeded those businesses with $50,000 and got them connected to other grants, initiatives, and programs. It’s so exciting to see this program flourishing and watching it all unfold.
Can you talk about any sorts of notable projects or new developments that you and your team are working on now?
I think one of the most exciting projects is our area of Special Sign Control. For years, we’ve known that there have been different proponents and opponents of bringing digital billboards and signs into Downtown. One of our recent wins is that we have approval for 11 large format billboards in the central business district of Downtown, which is so exciting. It took a while because we wanted to make sure that we were doing the right thing for the City. We made sure we looked at comparable cities to get some of the best practices. What’s different, and what will feel good about these billboards is that we were able to negotiate a service agreement with the media companies, where they are awarding Downtown Partnership up to 20% of time for content. Another nice feature of these billboards is that when there’s emergency messaging, we can communicate via these signs. What we also were able to get through the service agreement is getting 5% of the revenue. The revenue is typically between the building owner and the media company, but with that 5%, we were able to have 1% stay with Downtown Partnership to help run the program, and the other 4% go into the neighborhoods in our four arts and entertainment districts. We are splitting up that percentage, so each of the districts will get 1% of the revenue shares. So, from a small business side, or a civic side, we can promote messaging and information. From the building owner’s side, it gives them a way to generate additional revenue. From the arts and entertainment side, there are things that we can do, such as designating a time that we can take over the boards and do something like an art show, and feature some of our local and national artists. So, it’s really looking at how we leverage all of our assets to tell a great Baltimore story.
I know that there has been a big investment recently in the Baltimore Arena. Can you give me some insight on that and tell me what that investment says about Baltimore and how the City is evolving?
The investment of OVG [Oak View Group] and the Baltimore Arena is game-changing for us. Part of what we were lobbying for in the beginning was making sure that we could keep the Arena in its current location. The team collectively had to work together to make sure that they could expand and give us something that was state of the art, without creating a hole or vacuum in the center of Downtown. From what I saw, the renderings inside and outside and how they plan to activate the open space show the integration into our city. They’re investing about $150 million, so for that type of an investment, you know that they are looking to really commit and double down on Baltimore. I think that also shows other investors who are interested in the connected area. You know we have Lexington Market, and footsteps away, we have the Superblock that’s coming online. So, with all of these things together, I think it really creates that energy and momentum that our city needs and is yearning for. I am truly excited about that. Not only from what it will do to the exterior of the building, but we’ve also learned that they are increasing the number of shows that will be here. This is already a high-performing arena, so I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like with the additional investment.
Do you have any advice for future female leaders?
There are probably three main things that I subscribe to. The first is when I ended up taking a course in effective communication for women early on. It was game-changing for me because one of the things that I did…and it was kind of reflected in the book, is that I may know what I want, but I don’t quite say it. It can be something as simple as “what do you want for your birthday?” and you respond with “oh, I don’t really care.” Women typically are more reserved in their desires, so the first thing I would say is, say what you want and go after what you like and want to do. The second thing I would say is to really be intentional about execution matters. I do this thing called 100 “No’s.” In a month, I want to get to 100 No’s. The reason I want to do that is because, if I’m not getting “No,” that means I’m probably not asking enough. You need to focus on getting out there and asking so much that you start to even look forward to the “No” because that means that you can check something off of your list. The last thing I want to mention is “work-life balance.” Typically, you sacrifice something at different points. It’s very hard to have that equal balance that you may want to have. I think about where I was in my career, and yes, I would make it to every game for my child, but I couldn’t be at home every day when they came home. So, you learn to sacrifice some things. I think it’s recognized that in our lives, there’s this sort of roller coaster of things that we have to do, so our priorities will shift. What’s important to remember is that balance doesn’t have to necessarily mean that it has to be equal; it just means that for that period of time, you have to make sure that you are fully aware of what you are focused on and knowing that these other things may have to take a backseat for a moment.
By: Valerie Skvirsky, Government Relations Associate