Pop Quiz with the DBA’s Karen Sander: Executive director works to boost the city’s vitality

You might not know Kären Sander by name, but she is quietly helping shape Boise’s Downtown — from its culture to its look.

As the head of the Downtown Boise Association, Sander works closely with the city and redevelopment agencies to create a bridge between those entities and business owners and the community. She meets with the mayor and the leaders of Capital City Development Corp. and the Ada County Highway District, sits on city-led task forces and organizes discussions about parking, housing, homelessness and more.

“If it’s got something to do with the urban environment, we’re there,” Sander says. “My job is just making sure we’re at the table and that our voice is heard.”

Sander and her two-person staff at the DBA also produce events that have come to define the Downtown lifestyle: Alive After Five, First Thursday, the Twilight Criterium and others that boost the local economy and draw people Downtown.

You’ll find Sander, whose first name is pronounced Car-en, at the center of it all.

“This is my dream job,” Sander says. “I do a bit of everything, so it fits my personality. And so far it’s been fun, interesting and challenging.”

Sander grew up in South Africa. A sporting event producer, she came here with a group from her country for jet boat races, fell in love with Idaho and decided to stay. She worked for the Women’s Fitness Celebration (now called FitOne) before taking over the DBA job in 2004.

The DBA is a business improvement district founded in 1987 by the city and a group of business owners when Boise’s Downtown was in crisis.

“They knew they needed to do something,” she says. “Buildings were being demolished, and others were boarded up. The mall was being built so there was an exodus of business out of the core. It was not a pretty sight down here. It’s come a long way.”

The DBA is primarily funded by property assessments, similar to a homeowners association, in the district that stretches from 5th to 13th streets and from State to Myrtle streets. Grants, partnerships and event revenue also play into the equation. The DBA cleans the sidewalks, arranges for trash removal, tends the more than 150 planters throughout Downtown and hangs the banners and holiday decorations — among other maintenance tasks.

With all the construction, will Alive After Five be back in The Grove?

Yes. The fountain will be on. The construction fencing will move back about 20 feet, so it will be a bit tighter than in the past but that will change as the construction progresses. We’re reconfiguring how the booth spaces will be and moving the stage back a bit. We’re being flexible and thinking outside the box, so expect some surprises.

What is the biggest issue right now?

Keeping up with planning for the future and working to make sure that the needs and wants of the community are being met and that we’re staying true to who we are as a city. We want to be ourselves. We want to be unique. We often get experts coming to talk with us, and they say, “Portland la, la, la ...” or “Seattle la, la, la.” We want to take the best of what works in other cities and best practices, but at the end of the day, we want to be Boise.

What’s been your biggest ‘yes’?

Definitely the traffic boxes. All the pieces fell into place on that one. (Sander discovered the idea at a conference in Calgary.) When you come with an idea like that, you’re able to get the art side to buy in, but then you get ACHD to get on board, the funding partners. When I’m driving around the city and I see one, I get a big ol’ smile on my face. I had a part in that.

What’s been your biggest ‘no’?

I don’t think it ever is a “no.” I think it’s timing. The process moves slow and patience is something I’ve had to develop. Whether it’s creating a new ordinance for valets or getting electronic meters on the street, you might start with “no” but you eventually can get to yes. It’s just a matter of working within a bureaucracy where things move slower, especially the more people you have involved.

What is on your wish list for Boise?

Not to lose sight of the “small town” ambiance but embrace growth that benefits the city as a whole.

What still surprises you about Boise?

How accessible leadership and the process of government is. That the “person on the street” has a say in how to shape the city. We are so lucky to have a system that incorporates the public in the process of planning the city from parks to libraries, etc. This is not the case in many other places.

Where do you most like to take out-of-town guests?

I know, I know, but I do love to show off Downtown Boise. Having a city center like ours is pretty unique. I also love to show off our unique cultural assets, especially the Basque Block and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

If you weren’t doing your job, what would you be doing?

I wanted to be a pilot, a photographer, study geography, be a game ranger and explore the world — maybe work for National Geographic! Whew — other than that, taking up tennis again. Lovely!

Who or what inspires you?

My stepfather, Mike Frost, was a kind man, full of integrity, well-educated and thoughtful. He also expected a lot from me — that drives me to be more and do more every day. And also being someone that my son will always be proud of inspires me.

In all of history, with whom would you most like to dine?

At a buffet roundtable with Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Golda Meir, Winston Churchill and Colin Powell. Oh, and Barack Obama should be there, too — because I think the conversation would be fascinating!

What is your motto to live by?

“Lelik is niks nie, maar dom is alles.” (It’s Afrikaans.) Loosely translated, it means “ugly is nothing (what you look like does not matter), stupid is everything (being smart and well educated is what counts). Words from Mike Frost!

What is on your bedside reading table?

I just finished “Love, Life & Elephants” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Daphne Sheldrick and “All the Light We Cannot See” (Scribner) by (Boisean) Anthony Doerr. I’m still working through “The Invention of Wings” (Viking) by Sue Monk Kidd. I probably have another 10 books sitting in waiting.

What is in your Mp3 player?

Hmmm, I don’t have an Mp3 — my husband is the musician and has the playlists! My music choices are eclectic — I like jazz classics, folk, country and some rock ’n’ roll. Even a few ’80s classics and 1970s disco for good measure.

What is the secret to your success?

Define success. Not sure I am there yet. There is always room for improvement no matter where you are on the ladder to somewhere.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Chocolate! Oh, and really good wine.