In this exclusive Q&A with Riki Tagliapietra, the new President of Downtown Kenosha, Inc. We grab a mocha at Riki’s old stomping grounds Harborside Common Grounds, as we talk everything Downtown Kenosha.
Can you tell our readers what DKI is?
That’s an intense first question. To put it simply, Downtown Kenosha, Inc., is a non-profit organization by business owners of Downtown Kenosha, with the goal of bettering the community for downtown businesses and residents.
How did you first get involved with DKI?
I originally got involved as a restaurant owner. They knew I was dedicated to downtown and wasn’t going anywhere, so they got their hooks into me!
What were your previous roles with DKI?
I started as a board member and I have since worked my way up through the executive team.I have served in most roles of the organization during my time, last year I was the Vice President, and now taking on the role as President – it should be an interesting year.
You used to own a business downtown, The Nook, as well as managing businesses with the Grease and Honey group, what made you leave the hospitality industry?
Things just kind of lined up for me to take a little hiatus from the restaurant business. I don’t intend to be gone forever. I just needed a change. I think 2020 taught everybody that life can be in flux at all times. I saw an opportunity to make a difference for many businesses instead of just one. Additionally, my new role as DKI president requires more time investment and restaurant work can be quite demanding. Most importantly, I am able to spend more time with my family and attend more of my daughter’s activities.
How have your experiences brought you to this point in your life?
I think it all falls back to that very first moment I stepped into a business in Downtown Kenosha and fell in love with the community. I knew Downtown Kenosha was the place for me, I was immediately embedded. I started my own restaurant and learned a lot from that and I still strive to provide a positive influence on our neighborhood.
In your short time on the job, what do you enjoy most about your responsibilities as DKI President?
I think ‘enjoy’ is an odd term for this. But, I am prepared for a very interesting year which will hopefully see us return to normalcy and continue to grow. I know we will face some challenging steps, it will not be an easy year by any means, but I sincerely feel that in the end we will come together and prevail in Downtown Kenosha. We can’t ever forget how we came together last year after the unrest, and how we joined together to face adversity. It can be way too simple to fall back into an us-versus-them or an everyone-for-themselves mentality. I think it will be very important this year to work together to make Downtown succeed.
What is the difference between the DKI & BID boards?
I am so glad you asked this question, because so few really know. Honestly, I think some of the people involved on both sides aren’t exactly sure themselves. But to their credit, it is a bit complicated.
The BID (Business Improvement District) board was started by Downtown businesses as a voluntary incremental tax and was put back into the groups that are involved. These tax dollars are reinvested back into these businesses. It stands alone without taking any tax dollars from anywhere else in the community – just the businesses that participate.
Unfortunately, as a tax-funded organization, the BID cannot be registered as a non-profit, to recieve governmental support. So, DKI (Downtown Kenosha, Inc) was started as an official non-profit, and therefore it qualifies for grant money and business resources from the state as a Main Street organization.
Up until a few years ago, all the money generated by BID was transferred over to DKI to spend. That has changed in recent years with BID becoming more involved in where this money is going. We are happy to see more checks and balances going on now between business owners and what DKI is doing.
In addition to that, DKI is a self-funded organization which operates more as the ‘action arm’ of Downtown. We fund independently through events and other projects in the community.
How is the relationship between BID and the DKI board?
It hasn’t always been this way, but I am excited to finally see BID and DKI work together and form an important bond as we move into the future. I am now seeing people who have been critical of these organizations now getting involved – and that’s what I want to see. We don’t want boards full of people nodding their heads ‘yes’ to everything, we want people to ask questions and demand answers. I am excited to have these hard conversations with them every month – that is one of the first steps to progress.
Where do you see DKI in five years time?
2020 has taught us that we can plan for the future, but that doesn’t ensure any guarantees. I can set some lofty goals for five years down the line, but I am more focused on what we can do this year.
My goal this year is to try to bring DKI back to a business first organization. We have shifted over the years towards donations and lending to help with disaster relief – which I do feel is important. But the thing that I see as exciting for the future is getting back to the real face time interactions with the community on a daily basis – with the business owners. My goal this year is to get that back on track.
What are your thoughts on the future of Downtown and Uptown working together?
I think it’s going to be really good. Uptown has just started the UKI organization which I feel is way overdue and more necessary now than ever before. There will be great changes coming to Uptown – that is inevitable – and it is important that the community has a voice in the changes that are coming.
Being both DKI President and working for a local media company, do you believe transparency is important to avoid any conflicts of interest?
Absolutely. When I was looking at a position with Kenosha.com, I brought it up to the DKI board immediately. I was preparing for my presidential role, but didn’t want one opportunity to help Kenosha to affect another. The board voted unanimously for me to remain in position and take over as board president. Now I am hoping that my media association can become just another position to be leverage to further the goals of DKI.
What is your public relations experience?
Zero. I make it a point to say what I really think all the time. If you have interacted with me, you know where I stand on issues. Whether you like me or hate me, you know I will walk into a room with integrity and honesty.
After all that has happened, how can you help bring back business to Downtown?
Well, it’s going to sound odd at first, but I think we need to capitalize on the negative things that have happened last year. Before 2020, we were having trouble reaching people west of Sheridan Road. Now, awareness of the Downtown Kenosha area has reached a national, if not global, level. My point is that people in Kenosha who haven’t paid attention to Downtown in a long time are paying attention now.
It is a critical moment right now to show them what we are all about in a positive light, or lose them again for another ten years. We need to take that negativity and turn it into something positive.
What is the difference between your role of President and Alexandria Binati’s role as Director?
As Executive Director, Alex is a paid staff member who works for the DKI board. As a member and President of the board, I am a volunteer. The board meets and discusses and decides what Alex’s role is as the Executive Director. Just as DKI is the ‘action-arm’ of BID, Alex is the ‘action-arm’ of DKI. Although many of our volunteer board members are available for discussion with the public, Alex is the face of the organization. She will be there, in her office, in Downtown Kenosha, on a full-time basis and available for any questions the community may have. We need a person who is able to make this their profession and dedicate themselves 100%. The other board members have their own careers to focus on. She is our ‘boots-on-ground’ voice.
How can people get involved downtown?
Rachael Hernandez who has recently taken on the Secretary role with DKI has always been an amazing first point of contact and organizer of volunteer opportunities. The first step would be to join our Facebook group – Downtown Kenosha Inc. Volunteers and share your talents with us.
What are your biggest accomplishments?
I am proud to have been there to help the Grease and Honey group and other Downtown organizations through what was indelibly the hardest year ever for small businesses in 2020.
Give me one word that describes you the best?
What are some of your favorite hobbies or activities?
I am a bike rider, I don’t like to say cyclist, because that makes it sound like I’m good at it. I am always part of the tail end of any race I have participated in. But I am very happy there.
My daughter plays hockey, so that is my life throughout the winter months.
I have also been experimenting with selling my own homemade pasta! No matter what, it looks like I can never get the restauranteur out of me! Making pasta is something that my family have been doing as long as I remember. So, we have turned it into a home operation – my dining room has been transformed into a pasta factory. You can visit cutstonefoods.com for more details on that.
That’s my life right now – hockey, bikes, and pasta!
What do you personally love about Downtown Kenosha?
I find it hard to find something I don’t love about Downtown Kenosha – perhaps it’s the bickering.
But what I really love about Downtown is its unrealized potential, even on top of all the beautiful things we have. When I look at the area, and I have since before I started working at Common Grounds in high school, Kenosha is the only city I have been to in the world on a beautiful body of water like this which has built away from it, not on it.
Kenosha continues to this day to build farther and farther away from our greatest natural resource. That is very confusing to me. But it has provided this really cool opportunity, which may not have existed otherwise, and that is that businesses owned by our community are creating 99% of our Downtown Kenosha experiences.
I love that even when people bicker about meaningless stuff, it is still a family. When the chips are down, we come together. It is a survive together or die alone mentality and that is my favorite thing about Downtown Kenosha.
Learn more about DKI at downtownkenosha.org
To order some of Riki’s homemade pasta visit www.cutstonefoods.com
Q&A by Donny Stancato
Edited by Jason Hedman
Photos by Samantha Vaughn of Bird of Paradox Studio
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