In a first conversation with The Bridge, Montpelier Alive’s new executive director, Ashley Witzenberger, talked about a range of downtown issues and was, by turns, thoughtful and inventive—often intense—in thinking through ways to make Montpelier’s downtown more business smart, more business friendly, and even livelier and more attractive than it is today.
As June gives way to July, coming right up is Montpelier’s traditional July 3 Independence celebration. In pulling together the parade, the floats, the music, the food vendors and the fireworks display, as well as enlisting the aid of parade marshals and volunteers, and putting an effective Zero Waste campaign in place, Ashley has leaned on a July 3 Organizing Committee.
Talking about that committee—and it’s a committee that includes Christine Hartman (Parade Coordinator), Jessica Ball (Volunteer Coordinator), Lin Syz (Program Coordinator) and Pinky & Loraine Clark (Vendor Coordinators)—Ashley said, “I have an incredible committee. It’s a well-oiled machine. They’re veterans at everything they do. And they have a deep love for Montpelier.”
Ashley, who is originally from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, moved to Montpelier from Manhattan six years ago and has had an impressive career in marketing, branding, public relations and events planning.
One of the highlights from Ashley’s time in Manhattan was her work in public relations and celebrity dressing for red carpet events for the famous wedding dress and evening gown designer Vera Wang.
“She was my idol before I worked for her,” Ashley said. “Her taste level was amazing to me.”
Vera Wang’s design brilliance made a deep impression on Ashley. Her wedding dresses stood out in sharp contrast to the sometimes almost forgettable dresses that were worse than ordinary, almost on the “cheap and cheesy side.”
But Wang’s dresses were not inexpensive. Said Ashley, “To come into the corporate office and meet with us—these dresses started at $25,000. But Vera Wang also had a store, and dresses there started at $2,500. And now Wang’s dresses are at places like Kohl’s for the average person.”
Ashley’s life has certainly not been all glamour and glitter. About six years ago things changed dramatically when she was told by her grandmother, who Ashley describes as her “best friend,” that her grandmother’s husband/her grandfather had been diagnosed with an advanced case of Alzheimer’s Disease. Ashley decided to move to Vermont to help.
Her first job in Vermont was working for the Alzheimer’s Association as an events organizer.
“It was my first job here and it was wonderful,” Ashley said.
“I love a party. I love things that are celebratory,” she said. And partly because she had worked for Vera Wang, Ashley (to use her words) “got bit by the wedding bug.” Eventually she started W Creative Services, her own business run out of her East Montpelier home, and this business that is still up and running today focuses on wedding and event planning.
This past January, Ashley was hired by Montpelier Alive to plan Montpelier’s mid-winter Frostival festival. Then she applied to run Montpelier’s July 3 Independence Day Celebration and was soon at work with the very effective July 3 Organizing Committee. As part of her work with the committee, she participated in a review of last year’s July 3 event. Based on that review and negotiations that followed, there will be two major changes for this year’s July 3 event. The first change is that the fireworks display this year, traditionally launched from National Life, will be launched from the upper deck of National Life’s parking garage structure. Launching from the parking deck puts the display 500 feet higher and will mean an increase of 600 shots into the air—a bigger and better fireworks display this year compared to last.
The other change is that the parade route will once again follow State Street, past the State House, but will end at Bailey Avenue, an improvement over last year’s end-of-parade location on Taylor Street.
In those first few years after moving from Manhattan to the Montpelier area, Ashley worked for a time in Shelburne and she also worked in New Hampshire. Afterwards she would drive back home through Montpelier. She recalled, “I would drive through here at night and I didn’t think of it as home.”
Manhattan, a world-class urban center with its driving energy, had been home for Ashley and surely Montpelier was not Manhattan. But despite the sharp differences between the bright lights and throbbing pulse of Manhattan, this small-town Vermont capital city has taken hold of Ashley’s imagination.
“I think we have amazing talent here, amazing artists,” Ashley said. “I think our restaurants are stellar and we have special shops and boutiques. We have a balance here between a real community feel and the grandeur and elegance of the State House. And the vibrancy and energy of Montpelier’s downtown—it’s palpable.” To be part of it,” she went on, “I’m proud. And now Montpelier is home for me.”
And when I asked Ashley to explain the idea of branding to me, she said, “I think branding is very important for everyone: for stores, for restaurants and our city. You should know who you are, what you represent and your target audience. We need a cohesive way of showing off our downtown, saying who we are, what we do, what we do best and where we stand out from the rest.”
In the days that followed that first meeting with Ashley, when I was downtown, I kept seeing her talking with someone on the street or huddled in a conversation with a shop owner or merchant. And in a follow-up email note to me, Ashley asked me to put out an invitation to anyone who cares about downtown or is involved in downtown to be in touch with her with their ideas. “Listening—this is an important goal of mine,” she said.