Red River Cultural District looks to book its next leader and expand business

Julia Reihs / KUT

KUT 90.5 | By Jerry Quijano / Published July 26, 2022 at 4:57 PM CDT

The nonprofit formed to support music venues around Red River Street is looking for a new executive director after Cody Cowan announced he will leave the job next month.

Nicole Klepadlo has been named interim executive director of the Red River Cultural District during the search for a permanent replacement.

During his seven years at the helm of the RRCD, Cowan helped to extend weekend noise curfews for outdoor venues and ensure a portion of Austin’s hotel occupancy tax went to support live music.

Chad Swiatecki covered Cowan’s pending departure and reactions from venue owners for the Austin Monitor. Along with hiring a replacement, he says, the RRCD would like to see events like the upcoming Hot Summer Nights and Free Week festivals, which showcase the district during the slower times, become quarterly celebrations.

This conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.

KUT: In your latest article you laid out some of the achievements that have come under Cowan’s leadership. Can you remind us of some of that work?

Swiatecki: I think the earliest and biggest one was successfully working with neighborhood groups in the area around the Red River Cultural District to get some later noise curfews on the weekends for the outdoor music venues such as Mohawk, Stubb’s, Cheer Up Charlies. That allowed them to have their shows go a little bit later, get some more money in the cash register from drink revenue, that sort of thing. That took a couple of years behind the scenes trying to get that done.

He was also part of the far-reaching group that helped free up some of the city’s hotel occupancy tax revenue to direct toward live music efforts. That effort is still kind of getting toward the finish line — or the starting line, however you look at it. But again, another important thing that takes quite a bit of time.

Also, there have been some infrastructure and public works projects that have gone on throughout the district. You know, nothing ever moves quickly in city government, but those have been some things that he and others involved in that group, music venue owners, have helped have managed to get done.

This news broke on Monday and you’ve spoken to Cowan since then. What is his next move? And what does he see as some big issues facing the cultural district?

He is departing to become the chief operating officer for the National Independent Venue Association, which is a lobbying and trade group for small music and comedy clubs around the country. It was formed shortly after the start of the pandemic, primarily to start lobbying the federal government for aid that led to the Save Our Stages Act and several billion dollars of aid distributed across the country.

Now he’s coming in to take over as their first COO and leading the group into what they call the 2.0 version of what comes next. So he’ll still be in Austin, but will have some important work nationally.

With regard to what’s still on the table to be done, biggies are moving ahead with the Live Music Fund, continuing to work on the hospitality and comfort issues in the Red River Cultural District, public safety, things like that. And there’s the ARCH resource center for the homeless right there that creates issues and worries for some people, if not direct issues. But then there’s also the larger issue of working around what happens with rising property values and rents for these music venues and trying to keep them stable.

And you know, one person, one organization can’t necessarily fight larger macroeconomic forces but you work within the confines and the resources of City Hall and state government to carve out some footholds to keep everything stable.

The group has selected an interim leader to take the reins next month. Can you tell us about who they chose?

Nicole Klepadlo previously worked for the city’s economic development department and was in charge of, among other things, what was called Soul-y Austin, which was an effort that kind of rallied and helped organize merchant associations in neighborhoods and communities around the city. So those little pockets where you have kind of a very similar kind of simpatico businesses that can gain more by working together.

During this time of transition, what are you hearing from Red River venue owners?

Obviously, there’s praise for what’s been accomplished. The fact that the cultural district organization was first formed in 2015, so it’s not even 10 years old. But they’re going to have to think a little bit bigger and continue to work on lobbying and rallying people together, but also having some business development and thinking larger about business opportunities. The indie music venues that are generally DIY operations may have to become a little bit more sophisticated in terms of how they raise revenue and build their businesses.

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