Public service is a common theme in Julie Townsend’s life. She jokes that whether she’s at work or not, she’s always working. And, in her position as Executive Director of the LDDA (Lakeland Downtown Development Authority), that’s exactly the dedication that is needed to truly be an advocate for downtown Lakeland businesses.
Originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, Julie and her husband moved to Lakeland in 1999. She has worked in and around downtown Lakeland in one capacity or another since 2001, first getting involved on the Downtown Lakeland Partnership events committee, eventually becoming a board member. She later worked at the Lakeland Ledger as an advertising representative.
Eventually, she began working for Lakeland Downtown Partnership before being hired with the LDDA in 2014, where she now serves as the Executive Director.
“Being in the community of downtown was always appealing to me. I think small businesses are the backbone of this country so helping them, working with them, understanding what their needs are and trying to get them to work together cooperatively, was just something I had a passion for,” said Julie.
Julie explained that the LDDA is a special taxing authority. In a special taxing district, there is a geographic boundary, properties within that boundary pay an additional millage on top of the normal property taxes that they are already assessed by the county, city, school board, etc. The LDDA is a line item on those properties’ tax bill. “Those dollars that we assess are what fund the LDDA organization and then we reinvest those dollars back into the district in various ways. We do marketing, we work with the city on identifying maintenance issues, advocate for certain types of programs that will help enhance the economic development of the district.”
Her job specifically is to be an advocate for downtown businesses and property owners and to recruit new businesses to downtown. She works closely with traffic operations on parking issues, always trying to develop programs and policies that will enhance the public’s ability to park downtown, “To encourage people to come downtown and shop, eat, and do business.”
In line with that effort to encourage people to discover their downtown, the LDDA started the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market 15 years ago. According to the Executive Director, “The reason it was started was as part of that marketing responsibility of ‘how do we improve the economic activity downtown?’”
The LDDA reasoned that if they gave people a reason to come downtown other than the shops and restaurants, then they would inevitably patron those same shops, restaurants, and businesses.
Julie said, “Over the last 15 years, between the Farmers Market and First Friday, those two events have really changed the dynamics of what people think about downtown. They came for First Friday, they came to the Farmer’s Market, and then they realized downtown has really changed.”
What makes Lakeland such a great place to live and do business? Julie attributes it to the size, saying it’s big enough that is feels like you live in a city with all the amenities from parks, restaurants, art organizations, an orchestra, and community theatre. It’s not so big though that the community feel is lost. “I think Lakeland has everything that people need,” she added.
While she loves all of Lakeland, she thinks downtown is the best, saying, “I think our downtown reflects a greater community, in terms of just of a diverse group of different types of businesses, female owners, different cultures you can experience downtown. It’s a good reflection of the community as a whole.”
Julie is married to husband Billy Townsend, a member of the Polk County School Board. She is a mother of three – Corinne who is married and lives in Colorado, Collin who is engaged to be married and lives here, and Ian who attends Lakeland Senior High. Oh, and her two pups Desi and Barley!
When she’s not advocating for downtown businesses, Julie is often running her son back and forth to basketball games. “My son is heavily into basketball so I spend most of my time being a basketball mom.” Between that and spending time with her dogs, Julie serves as the Neighborhood Association President for her neighborhood association.
The LDDA Executive Director has a vision for the future of downtown Lakeland. She would like to see more buildings go up both business and residential, creating density for the area. “I think anytime you go to a place, you want to be able to spend many hours there, if you so choose. So, the more things there are to do, the more reasons people will have to come to downtown and spend more time and discover all the various businesses.”