Alumna applies urban planning skills to preserving, enhancing, and promoting the vibrancy and distinctiveness of her Kentucky hometown
by Mary Denny
It began in early childhood when she only drew pictures of houses and was fascinated by a Sesame Street episode about a bottle of milk traveling from a cow on a farm to a bodega in New York. No surprise then that Louisville, Kentucky, native Rebecca Matheny would find her way to Trinity to study urban planning with the “brilliant, amazing, and dynamic” professors Woody Sanders and Earl Lewis, whose collective wisdom and insights positively influence her decisions today as executive director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership (LDP).
While absorbing the critical thinking and strategy skills needed to navigate within urban bureaucracies and effect positive change, Rebecca was active in campus activities—soccer, Trinitonian, student government—and mentored by then-Dean of Students Coleen Grissom. “I saw her make some very tough decisions, but when she called, she called it. It was invaluable to watch her in action,” she recalls with admiration. For his part, Sanders understood that for Rebecca to be successful she needed to be directly involved in what she was doing, a participant, not an observer. His advice early on was “go to work.”
Heeding Sanders’ advice, Rebecca headed to Boston and a job with HUD, but “as I learned at Trinity, if couldn’t make a difference, I wasn’t happy.” She enrolled at Tufts, doing master’s level work in urban and environmental policy, and joined the Cambridge Housing Authority—“the most highly effective local agency I’d ever encountered”— where, happily, she did make a difference, spearheading a Public Housing Deregulation Demonstration Program from application through implementation. The job required a lot of time in Washington D.C., working with policy and decision makers, and was “a very rewarding experience.”
In 2003, Rebecca returned home to Louisville and continued her affordable housing efforts at a local housing authority before being hired as a part-time project manager at the Louisville Downtown Development Corporation, (now the LDP) where she oversaw a number of transformative projects like the Second Street Bridge reinvention in advance of the KFC YUM Center Arena opening in 2010.
Three weeks into the tenure of a new executive director, he and the deputy were seriously injured in a stairwell collapse. Rebecca stepped in as full time interim executive director, aided only by one inexperienced team member and reporting to a somewhat intimidating Board she didn’t know very well. To keep the organization relevant and focused, she did two things that she says are, for her, life lessons. First, she asked for help from people who could give it. ”If people help you once,” she explains, “they are much more likely to help you again.” Second, she truly trusted and involved the remaining team with very transparent information so they not only felt but also actually were included in the decisions made during the crisis and its aftermath. Although the executive director eventually returned, he left the organization in 2013, and Rebecca again served as interim leader. In 2014, she was permanently appointed head of the organization.
Now three years into her role, Rebecca points proudly to the facts that Louisville is currently experiencing a 47 percent increase in downtown hotel rooms, a 27 percent increase in residential units, and a 20 percent increase in attractions, including new, active Bourbon-related ones. After all, “we are the home of Bourbonism,” she laughs. Her efforts were recognized in 2015 with the Tower Award from the Presentation Academy, which honors women leaders in their field.
In a job where she is constantly learning and sees issues ranging from the logistics of hosting “the world” for Muhammad Ali’s funeral week to a brick sewer collapse where the Friday Hop Trolley has fallen in, this deeply committed mother of two is thriving. She serves on a number of community boards including the Greater Louisville YMCA, the Health Enterprises Network, and Friends of the Waterfront, and recently joined Rotary.
Rebecca says she is happiest in one of two extremes—off the grid—she loves hiking and misses Texas’ wild spaces—or in the midst of a vibrant city core. “I love being nowhere or being somewhere certain. A sense of authentic place really drives and rewards me,” she says.
Sense of place is Rebecca’s ultimate professional goal. She wants to make Louisville feel—much like San Antonio—like nowhere else you could be. She loves her work and says if she wasn’t involved in LDP, she would return to the affordable housing field. “Making cities healthy, vibrant, and positive places for everyone isn’t just my vocation but my avocation.”
You may contact Rebecca at Rmatheny [at] louisvilledowntown.org