Back in January, when the novel coronavirus still seemed a distant, theoretical danger to most Americans, Historic Kennett Square (HKS) welcomed Bo Wright as its new executive director.
“Our search committee interviewed many qualified candidates across the region and the nation, and we’re delighted to have found Bo,” HKS Board President Tom Sausen said in a press release announcing Wright’s appointment. “Bo brings experience, a fresh vision, and a unique and thoughtful perspective to this key position in our organization and in our community.”
His first day on the job, Wright began to tackle a 90-day plan formulated by the HKS Board. His first orders of business included getting to know people throughout the community and taking steps towards implementing a new strategic plan for HKS. This plan focuses on guiding the next phases of economic growth and community development in Kennett in addition to building community through hosting traditional HKS events like Third Thursdays and finding ways to celebrate and bring the whole diverse community together. In other words—planning for prosperity and large-scale events. Less than 90 days later, just as this fresh vision and mission was taking shape under Wright’s leadership, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world.
What was a tall order quickly evolved into a taller one. Wright was able to draw on some of his experience—in public policy and philanthropy as well as with community revitalization and urban planning across the country—to continue working toward this vision for HKS from some different angles. But it’s perhaps his deep love for towns and cities and walkable urban places, as well as his desire to move from the more abstract level of policy to “get his hands dirty” working in the life of a community, that have best equipped him to navigate a course through this crisis.
The circumstances have also led him to get to know and appreciate the Kennett community very quickly. “The community of Kennett Square has been remarkably resilient during these unprecedented times, and I think that comes down to the individuals, families, and businesses that make up our community. People have been incredibly generous with their time and resources. And our small businesses have done an amazing job of adapting,” he says.
Wright grew up in North Georgia and went to college in New Orleans. “On days I didn’t have classes, I loved walking around and exploring New Orleans,” he says, “and I’ve loved exploring towns and cities ever since.” It wasn’t until he began following an organization called Strong Towns, though, that he began to synthesize this affinity for cities and towns and a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, urban places.
“Strong Towns, and the thinking of the organization’s founder Chuck Marohn, sort of changed the way I see the world,” Wright says. “Marohn has been listed as one of the top ten urbanists of all time, and his insights on towns and cities and the underlying finances of our development pattern shaped the way I see the built environment.” Several years after he first learned about Strong Towns, Wright had an opportunity to work with Marohn in the position of Development Director for Strong Towns. “My role with Strong Towns allowed me to meet and spend time with mayors, urban planners, and some of the best real estate developers revitalizing places,” he says.
Wright and his wife Dannie, whom he met when they were both Fellows at a post-graduate public policy program, moved from Louisville, Kentucky to Downingtown so Dannie could pursue her love for horticulture—first at Winterthur and now at Longwood Gardens. “We absolutely love the beauty of this area,” Wright says. “It’s the perfect mix of beautiful rural landscapes and interesting, historical towns and cities.” Wright travelled around the country with Strong Towns, and the position at HKS interested him because he was eager to contextualize and put into practice the kinds of ideas and strategies he’d witnessed at work in different towns and cities.
Because he sees the great potential of Kennett Square, Wright’s also looking forward to bringing influential leaders and thinkers to share their ideas and experiences with people here. “Joe Minicozzi from Urban3, for example—who I believe was in Kennett Square several years ago, brought in by S.A.V.E. and the Dansko Foundation—is fantastic at helping communities to understand the economic impact of development. He uses maps to demonstrate, simply and clearly, the economic value of both walkable neighborhoods and preserved open space for farming and other activities.”
One of the challenges for HKS, Wright says, is helping people understand the central but often behind-the-scenes roles the organization plays in the community. “When Historic Kennett Square began, over 20 years ago now, it was called the Kennett Square Revitalization Task Force. That name described its mission perfectly.” Over the years, the organization fulfilled that mission so well, working in partnership with other nonprofit and municipal entities and leaders to completely revitalize the town, that it outgrew the name, broadened its role, and adopted the name Historic Kennett Square. “People often confuse us with the Borough—and our logos, which both feature the turret of the same historic State Street building, are quite similar—but HKS is a nonprofit that’s separate from the Borough of Kennett Square,” Wright says. “We work closely with the Borough to make Kennett a more vibrant and welcoming place. And today we also house the Office of Economic Development for the Borough and Kennett Township. The goals of both our Main Street Manager and our Economic Development Director are to support local businesses and drive smart growth in order to create a beautiful community where everyone can belong and prosper.”
The COVID crisis has given us valuable perspective and enabled us to see the world through new eyes. “We recognize where we were fragile and where we were resilient,” he says. “For example, we recognize the need to support local food. We recognize how valuable our small businesses are to the community. And social distancing requirements have made us realize the value of community and neighborliness.”
In one of their last in-person meetings before the shutdown in March, Wright says, the HKS staff formulated the following vision: “We long to see Kennett Square become the most beautiful town in America, where people from different backgrounds, generations, and walks of life can afford to live and contribute to the community, where new architecture complements old, where creativity flourishes, and where everyone can belong and prosper.”
“From the vantage point of September 2020 we know the realization of that might look slightly different from what we first envisioned,” Wright says, “but we remain focused on working towards that still-achievable vision for our community.”
On weekends, Wright says, “Both Dannie and I enjoy restoring things. Right now that means a lot of house projects and trying to restore a property with a lot of invasive plant species and trees. It’s very satisfying, though maybe not always enjoyable.” As Kennett looks forward to brighter days ahead and to its own restoration from the ravages of COVID-19, it seems HKS has the right person to lead the way.