DesMarais retiring after 13 years at helm of Waterfront Alliance
For her birthday, a granddaughter gave Mary DesMarais a “My Grandma is …” card. The 7-year-old granddaughter wrote out answers to questions about what her grandmother does and doesn’t like.
In the “doesn’t like” category: Working, because “that means she can’t see me.”
“That was affirmation,” DesMarais said. “It is time” to retire.
DesMarais, the longtime executive director of the Gig Harbor Downtown Waterfront Alliance, is retiring at the end of January. She’s been on the job at the alliance since 2009, about a year after the organization was founded.
“It was just time for my family, for me to be more involved there,” DesMarais said. “I have six grandchildren and we want to do things with them.”
Main Street organization
The Waterfront Alliance is the force behind a number of downtown fixture events, from the Waterfront Farmer’s Market to Girls Night Out. And DesMarais is one of the driving forces behind the alliance.
The alliance is a Main Street organization. DesMarais said the movement has its roots in the 1980s, when many businesses abandoned downtowns in favor of suburban malls.
The Main Street movement was created to help revitalize and promote downtown commercial districts.
Under DesMarais’ leadership, the Downtown Waterfront Alliance maintained state and national Main Street certifications and won 14 statewide Excellence on Main Awards through the state organization.
The approach has been successful locally and nationally.
“I see it working all over the country,” DesMarais said. “Sadly, now the malls are starting to die. It’s a shift, people are starting to support the local businesses.”
Background in economic development
Before starting at the alliance in 2009, DesMarais worked for 22 years at the Kitsap Economic Development Alliance in neighboring Kitsap County. She was the organization’s first hire, as operations manager.
Her college degree is in sociology, so it isn’t like she set out to work the bulk of her career in economic development. But she said she has enjoyed it.
“In economic development and Main Street both, it’s just such a variety of things that you get involved in,” DesMarais said. “It’s never the same thing every day. You never really knew what you were going to get.”
Alliance during COVID
Perhaps the biggest challenge of DesMarais’ alliance career came when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the businesses her organization exists to support.
The alliance shifted into high gear, promoting services like curbside pickup and online ordering. It provided information on grant programs and boosted member businesses on social media.
“Our jobs kind of changed in March of 2020, as it did for everyone,” DesMarais said. “You felt helpless. Because everything was out of our hands. We heard the stories like, ‘We might lose our house,’ ‘We might lose our business.’ People in tears.”
She listed helping downtown businesses during the pandemic — and during the roundabout construction project that posed a further challenge just as COVID-19 restrictions eased — as one of her proudest achievements with the alliance.
Another is bolstering a farmer’s market that averages 2,000 people to downtown on summer Thursdays. And leading an outfit with a stellar reputation in the Washington Main Street umbrella organization.
“I’m very, very proud of the staff that we have,” DesMarais said. “And we have just a huge number of volunteers, they’re the backbone of the organization” along with its board.
Transition in January
Carianne Ekberg, a small business owner and lifelong Gig Harbor resident, will replace DesMarais as executive director on Feb. 1. The two are working together during a January transition period.
“The Alliance Board is confident in Carrianne’s ability to lead the Downtown Waterfront Alliance from the amazing organization that it is today to an even better organization that continues to support the growth and preservation of our beautiful downtown,” according to a statement from the alliance’s board of directors.
Ekberg has big shoes to fill. “Mary has been the heart and soul of the organization,” Board President Chuck Cuzzetto said in the statement.
She promised to still be around. A Port Orchard resident, DesMarais plans to stay active in the Gig Harbor community. When she’s not visiting grandkids, that is.
“I will not be a stranger to Gig Harbor,” she said.