Editor’s note: In this blog series, District Marketing Mojo, Verdin President and CEO Mary Verdin interviews a leader in the world of marketing and communications for special districts and business improvement districts each month. Check back here regularly for new interviews.
Downtown SLO: Innovative, Welcoming & Inclusive
Nestled along California’s Central Coast, halfway between LA and San Francisco, is San Luis Obispo, often referred to as “SLO” (pronounced “slow”). With a population of 47,000 and serving as the County seat, it is a college town that houses Cal Poly State University, and has a pulsating heart in its downtown area. This is Downtown SLO, a vibrant 27-block stretch filled with small-town charm, scenic beauty and a community spirit that is palpable.
Bettina Swigger has been a transformative force behind this thriving hub over the past five years. As the CEO of Downtown SLO from 2018 to 2023, Bettina’s vision and leadership have infused the district with energy, inclusiveness and creativity. Originally hailing from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bettina’s journey from her musical and literary pursuits at Colorado College to her role leading a team in the cultural elevation of San Luis Obispo, including during the pandemic, is awe-inspiring. With roots in arts, music, and community-building, she brings a multifaceted perspective to her role.
An Unconventional Blend of History & Innovation
Walking through the tree-lined streets alongside San Luis Creek, Downtown SLO offers a blend of the old and new. With a rich mix of locally-owned shops and national brands, restaurants, hotels, public art and mixed-use developments, it’s a friendly place that is anchored by history and gathering spaces. The cornerstone of this is Mission Plaza, adjacent to the historic 250-year old San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Church, which brings the community together through music, festivals, holiday pop-ups and more. One of SLO’s favorite attractions is its nationally renowned Farmers’ Market, an event that has grown and evolved over the years.
The Farmers’ Market: More Than Just Produce
Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2023, San Luis Obispo’s Farmers’ Market is no ordinary market. The first in the country to close down a major downtown street to cars and bring in local farmers, businesses and makers to take over the streets selling their wares, SLO has led this trend within the Farm to Table movement. Every Thursday night, it draws in a crowd ranging from 5,000 to 15,000 of locals and visitors, transforming the downtown area into a hub of activity and commerce. During COVID, the market was closed for 18 months and, under Bettina’s leadership, when it returned, it transformed into a potent small-business incubator, by giving many local entrepreneurs the platform to thrive and grow. As a result, several small businesses have opened brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants, many of them owned and operated by women and BIPOC. The market also distributes more than a thousand dollars each week in EBT/food benefits to those who are food insecure, giving them access to fresh, healthy food.
An Evolving Vision for Downtown SLO
San Luis Obispo has grown its public art presence tremendously in the past few years. This evolution is still in its early steps, but one can already imagine a Downtown SLO vibrant with public art, where murals tell stories and sculptures offer immersive experiences. The newly designated Cultural Corridor on the west end of downtown currently offers history with the Mission and History Center, art and imaginative experiences with the SLO Museum of Art and SLO Children’s Museum, and soon will bring the performing arts into the corridor with SLO Repertory Theatre. Amidst all the artistic visions and aspirations, Downtown SLO remains committed to deeper societal issues, including equity and inclusion, and with a keen focus on addressing homelessness and supporting the unhoused.
A Place Where Memories Are Made
For many locals, Downtown SLO isn’t just a place – it’s an emotion. From comments like “Everything your team does makes me so proud to live in this town” to simpler acknowledgments about hard work, Bettina’s influence in creating experiences and fostering cultural vitality is evident. Her roots in music, community and leadership are woven into the fabric of Downtown SLO, ensuring it remains a place where memories are made and cherished long into the future.
Don’t Miss Out! What’s Coming to Downtown SLO?
As we jump into the holidays, Downtown SLO has big plans to make the season magical. The holiday season kicks off with the opening of Santa’s House and the Holiday Plaza on Nov. 24, with dazzling photo opps, thousands of lights and perfectly Instagrammable moments. The 46th Annual Holiday Parade will take place Dec. 1, with the theme of “Out of This World,” with more than 80 festive floats.
More About Bettina Swigger
Bettina Swigger, who served as the CEO of Downtown SLO from 2018 through 2023, has passionately steered the organization toward promoting a thriving downtown area in San Luis Obispo. She is committed to fostering community engagement, creative placemaking, and ensuring equity and inclusion. Prior to this, Bettina was the Executive Director of Festival Mozaic from 2011-2018, also in San Luis Obispo County. She has been named a Top 50 Women in Business by the Pacific Coast Business Times and Top 20 under 40 by the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bettina is an alumna of Colorado College and is deeply rooted in the arts, from co-founding an underground music collective to playing the viola in various ensembles to self-publishing a book of poetry. After her substantial contributions to the arts and downtown development in San Luis Obispo, she has taken up the mantle as the CEO of The Downtown Boulder Partnership, furthering her mission of promoting downtown vitality.