Lisa Grigsby: Owner, Planned2Give; Executive Director, FilmDayton; and Curator, Dayton Most Metro

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Lisa Grigsby used her experience in the restaurant business to succeed in the comedy club world. She leveraged that experience to launch an event planning business, market Dayton’s film opportunities, and publicize community events.

In the beginning…

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Lisa at a tap recital, age 4

When Lisa Grigsby was growing up around Washington, DC, she thought she was going to be a banker, “because I always liked playing with cash registers and money”. Her interest in finance continued after her family moved to Chicago. “My junior and senior years in high school, I had an accounting class that I absolutely adored”. She also served as her high school football team’s statistician. Working with numbers felt right to her, and she began college at the University of Oklahoma as an Accounting major.

Lisa chose the University of Oklahoma for two reasons: it had a football team and nice dorms.  Although Oklahoma was “kind of culture shock”, she found a place with the football team as a trainer doing stats and other tasks. “I was the first woman team trainer in the Big Eight at the time…and my coach was not real pleased”. After several days of sending her “through (the dressing room) thinking it would rattle me”, he realized she was unflappable. She relished the work and says, “I got to go to some great bowl games”.

At the same time, Lisa discovered that accounting bored her. She stayed in business, however, and earned her degree in Marketing.

What did Lisa do after she graduated from college?

After graduation, Lisa returned to Chicago and got a job as a lingerie buyer for a department store. The job was more inventory management than marketing and lacked challenge. “I would dread getting up in the morning and going to work”. She lasted for nine months and quit.

While she considered her next steps, Lisa got a waitressing job. To her surprise, she recognized “that I really loved that”.

How did waitressing influence Lisa’s career path?

Lisa knew she wanted to do more than wait tables. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) was opening a Shaw’s Crab House in a Chicago suburb, and Lisa applied for a job.

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Shaw’s Crab House, Schaumburg, Ill; photo by Midwestern Adventures, February 11, 2013 at Midwestern Adventures

When she interviewed with the general manager, she noticed a picture of Phillips Crab House on the wall. She was familiar with Phillips from summer vacations and commented on the photo. After chatting for 30 minutes, the general manager created a plan to prepare Lisa for management by exposing her to all aspects of the restaurant. She waitressed, worked the bar, and finally spent time in the kitchen, so she would be able to perform any task.

One day a man sat down at one of her tables and pulled out a cigarette. In the 1980s, smoking was still permitted in restaurants. Lisa immediately pulled out her lighter and lit his cigarette. He said, “I really love your attitude,” and handed her a $100 bill. Then he introduced himself. He was Rich Melman, one of the LEYE owners and, thereafter, one of Lisa’s mentors.

Lisa had additional mentors who taught her the restaurant business, but eventually she was ready to move beyond Shaw’s. She found a manager’s spot in different restaurant.

How did football push Lisa into the comedy club business?

Lisa wanted to see the University of Oklahoma play in the Orange Bowl, but, since she was no longer with the team, she needed a second job to afford the trip. She started telemarketing for a comedy club, The Funny Bone Comedy Club and Restaurant in Chicago. She worked from 10am to 2pm, calling people to say, “You just won Yuck for a Buck!” She got paid $0.15 per person who actually attended the show. After 2pm, she went to her restaurant job.

When Lisa decided that it was time to leave her restaurant job, she told the Funny Bone’s manager she needed a job and he offered her one. At that time, Lisa had never been to a comedy show, so she didn’t know what to expect. The manager said, “It’s got to be like running a restaurant… you just help seat people”.

In the 1980s comedy clubs were hot. The Funny Bone was located inside a hotel. The club handled ticket sales, the door and the talent, and the hotel ran the restaurant and bar. The manager was a comic.

After observing people often tipped her in order to sit up front, Lisa convinced the manager to offer VIP seating for $5.00 and pay her $1.00 for each one.  She also noticed the restaurant servers weren’t very attentive, so she met with the hotel’s food and beverage manager to let him know, “you’re missing sales and you’re leaving money on the table”. Each suggestion made her aware of the difference between the manager’s artistic brain and her business brain.

How did Lisa get started opening comedy clubs?

The Funny Bone’s corporate office noticed, “You guys are making a lot more money than you’ve ever made”. Consequently, the corporation’s representative came to visit. When he told Lisa they wanted to open another club, Lisa asked about their business and marketing plans. He said, “You’ve got a lot of questions; you want to do this?” He wrote Lisa a check for $50,000 and said, “Here’s your seed money; go find a place in Atlanta.”

Use FB signLisa identified the factors which helped the Chicago club draw an audience: the nearby presence of a TGI Fridays and close proximity to apartment complexes. She instructed a commercial realtor in Atlanta, “Find a spot that’s within a quarter mile of a TGI Fridays and it needs to be within a quarter mile of a highway”. The Atlanta club was successful and “I ended up opening 26 clubs around the country”.

Each time Lisa opened a new club, taking it from concept to operation, she chose the décor, contracted with vendors, hired staff and planned scheduling. She quickly “learned to take on more and more and not bother” the general office. Some clubs already had a manager, some wanted her to find a manager, and some said, “We’ve got this guy who’s not quite ready; see if you can get him in shape”.

Experience taught her to think quickly on her feet. “You have a show and you have a crowd full of people. The show starts at 8 o’clock and it’s 7 o’clock. (The limo company tells you the main act’s plane) is not going to land for another hour… all right what am I going to do?”

From football teams to comedy clubs, Lisa was used to working in male environments. “In the comedy club world, 90-95% comics are men” and it was her job to shepherd the them around town, including bars and strip clubs. “I had to take them to the radio in the morning… to promote the club…you’d knock on the door, they’d be hungover from being out drinking…I’d throw water on their face, get your clothes on!” “I just got used to working in that world”.

When did Lisa come to Dayton?

In 1991 Lisa had been working in comedy clubs for five years. She was in Covington, Kentucky teaching a new Funny Bone franchisee how to run the club, when she got a call seeking her recommendations for a manager for a comedy club in Dayton. Lisa asked, “Is it Wiley’s or Jokers?” The caller didn’t want to disclose that information, but Lisa pointed out, “Jokers has a full restaurant and bar and Wiley doesn’t, so they’re different skill sets”. She agreed to meet and signed a nondisclosure agreement in order to discuss the question further.

Jokers logoThe club in question was Jokers Comedy Cafe. Mike Bowling, creator of the Pound Puppy stuffed animals, had opened the club in 1985 and “had never made a penny”. Lisa agreed to come to Dayton for 90 days. “We’ll turn the club around and get the numbers all in line, then we’ll find a manager”. After about 60 days, Lisa reported the club’s numbers looked good and recommended they hire a manager. Instead, Bowling offered her the job for a year. Lisa declined, because “Dayton was probably the smallest city I’d been in” and she knew nothing about it.  “When I came here for 90 days, all I did was work that club”.

Bowling persisted. “At the time I had an apartment still in Cleveland, my winter clothes all in storage in St. Louis, expired plates on my car from Georgia and an expired driver’s license from Illinois, because all I was doing was going around from club to club”. Lisa decided that maybe it was time to settle in one place, “so I named what I thought was an outrageous amount of money and they said okay”. She agreed to stay for a year.

What led Lisa to work at Wiley’s Comedy Joint?

In 1992 Bowling sold the business to Tim Mehlman, a Cincinnati-based purchaser who had never owned a club. Lisa offered to stay for 90 days to teach him the business, and he agreed, but thereafter showed little interest. Consequently, Lisa continued to run the club. “At that point, I’d just gotten lazy…this is easy. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing”.

In 1993 all the paychecks bounced twice and Lisa handed in her notice. She agreed to stay on the condition that Mehlman remove himself as an authorized signer on the checking account, “so he couldn’t drain the club’s profits out of the account”. They continued to have disagreements, however, and a month later, Mehlman fired her without cause.

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Wiley’s Comedy Joint, 101 Pine St, Dayton, OH 45402

Lisa immediately called Dan “Wiley” Lafferty of Wiley’s Comedy Joint, the other comedy club in Dayton. Over lunch, she offered to work for him for $100/week. “Until I figure out what my next step is… I got time on my hands and nothing to do”. When they went back to the club, Wiley interrupted their conversation to help move an ice machine. In the process, he cut his finger badly enough for a trip to the hospital, leaving Lisa alone at the club. In the course of that afternoon, she accepted deliveries, answered the phone and made reservations. “So I ended up working for Wiley’s”.

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Wiley’s Comedy Joint – June 15, 2018

Since Lisa didn’t have a noncompete agreement with Jokers, she was free to call the agents handling the big name acts she’d booked at Jokers. She told them that if Jokers “doesn’t pay the deposit on this act, call me. I’ll honor that date at the club across town”. Three days later, the calls started coming in.

Gradually Lisa convinced Wiley to include urban comedy, which hadn’t been part of the repertoire. They “bring in a different crowd which means, hey, I have a larger audience to pull from”.

How did Lisa become the owner of Jokers Comedy Cafe?

In 1995 Mehlman defaulted on his balloon note, and Mike Bowling suddenly owned Jokers again.  He convinced Lisa to return to help him understand the club’s situation. Use Jokers RockAtell PromoThey learned that Mehlman hadn’t paid the sales tax, as well as owing numerous vendors. Lisa determined that Jokers owed around $65,000 in back sales taxes and even more to unpaid vendors. Bowling agreed that she would run Jokers for one year and at the end of the year, she would buy the business for the remaining amount of debt. A year later, Jokers was hers. Eventually, she bought the building, too.

In 1998 Lisa got involved in the Dayton community. It was summer and hot when a young woman came in to apply for a job wearing short shorts and a cropped top. When Lisa offered her something to drink, she asked for a beer. Lisa didn’t hire her. “That night it just kept bothering me. Why doesn’t she know any better? Who’s going to tell her?” The next day, Lisa searched for programs to train people for job readiness, and found a new program, Clothes That Work. She was their second volunteer.

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Clothes That Work Luncheon 2011 – Doris Ponitz, Lisa, Ginny Strausburg, Sue Zickefoose

Gradually Lisa realized that she liked Dayton. “You can do something in Dayton, have an idea, make it happen, watch it succeed and it doesn’t matter how deep your pockets are, because people here care and they will connect.”

When a prominent Dayton community leader, Doris Ponitz, suggested Lisa go through the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce’s yearlong Leadership Dayton program, Lisa balked. As a small business owner, it was expensive. She discovered, however, “it was a great eye opener to what Dayton has to offer, because I came here not really getting out of my little bubble, and I just worked in the club.” She gained an additional benefit. “It also made me have to trust my staff a little more, because I’d be away for a whole day, so they got to grow… That was a big growth experience for me”.

In the ten years Lisa owned Jokers, she successfully operated in an essentially male-dominated business, expanding the club’s offerings with specialty shows, open-mike nights and corporate events. She also developed a reputation for nurturing rising young comedians. (Dayton Daily News, August 13, 2006)

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Funny Bone Comedy Club & Restaurant Dayton at The Greene, Beavercreek, Ohio

In 2006 a tornado blew down the Jokers marquee and Miami Township wouldn’t allow Lisa to rebuild it. At the same time, The Funny Bone was about to open a 325-seat club at a new shopping and entertainment complex, The Greene. Lisa doubted Dayton was big enough for three comedy clubs, and she negotiated a merger of Jokers into the Funny Bone chain which included all of the Jokers staff. “I knew that this will either be great or a colossal failure, so I had a 6-month contract with them. I made it 9 months before they fired me”. Lisa fired an act she thought was “creepy and unethical”, but corporate management said, “you don’t run your own club anymore; this is our decision”.

What did Lisa do after she left the comedy business?

As Lisa was figuring out her next steps, she did some contract work for the Miami Valley Restaurant Association, Culture Works, the Aids Resource Center (ARC, now Equitas) and the Humane Society of Greater Dayton. ARC asked her several times to be their fulltime events planner. Once they negotiated a provision that Lisa could work her own hours (no mornings), Lisa agreed.

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Lisa at the Dayton Art Institute’s Art Ball

Lisa loved the challenge of staging events for ARC in unusual venues, such as the Roundhouse at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. “It doesn’t have much electrical. It doesn’t have bathrooms, so it was a challenge to figure out how to make it work, how to put it together”. She was used to working frugally and finding ways to bring events in below budget added to the challenge.

By 2014 the ARC had become more “corporate” as the organization expanded in both scope and geographical reach, eventually rebranding itself as Equitas Health. “It wasn’t where I wanted to be anymore. It had become too many layers of corporate for the entrepreneur in me”.

What did Lisa do next?

In 2008, sponsored by the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education, Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and some major corporations, Richard Florida came to Dayton to kick off DaytonCREATE, a yearlong effort to inventory the community’s assets and to assist the community with developing some practical ideas to persuade talented youth to stay in Dayton. (Dayton Daily News, April 6, 2008)  Lisa participated as a Catalyst (volunteer).

During the process, DaytonCREATE founded FilmDayton as a film festival and identified the need for a community calendar. Dayton Most Metro, a downtown message board, became the source for event information and positive news and reviews. Lisa got involved in both.

When Lisa left the Aids Resource Center in 2014, FilmDayton was out of money. Lisa volunteered to work for the summer to get it on firm ground.  Since then, she has continued as the Executive Director.

Previously, Dayton had partnered with Columbus and Cincinnati to petition the State of Ohio to adopt a tax incentive to foster a film industry in Ohio. The State created the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit (OMPTC), but it didn’t help Dayton much, because most movies were made in Cincinnati and Cleveland. In 2016 the Board of Trustees of FilmDayton decided to shift from a film festival to a film commission to market the area as a film production location. After Lisa earned her official certification as a film commissioner, FilmDayton relaunched as a film commission in April 2016.

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Premiere of The Way with Lisa, Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Ron Rollins, Karri O’Reilly, Shaunn Baker and Eva Buttacavoli

As the film commissioner, Lisa reaches out to movie directors to encourage them to film in Dayton. “In a perfect world, you fly them in and get a copy of the script and go okay here’s what your script would look like in our town. (Except) FilmDayton doesn’t have any money, so that’s really hard to do”. Lisa works with Film Cincinnati to encourage producers to employ people from Dayton and promote Dayton as a scene location. For example, Miles Ahead, a biopic about Miles Davis, was based in Cincinnati, but the director filmed scenes at the Refraze Recording Studios in Kettering and the Montgomery County jail.

In order to demonstrate the economic impact, Lisa persuaded “a couple of the County Commissioners to come do a (movie) set tour, so they could see what goes into the business of film,” including the cast of 12 or 15, around 100 extras, a crew of 75, the food, the parking, etc. Consequently, the County awarded FilmDayton a small contract to expand its work.

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Lisa pouring beer for Dayton Most Metro

In addition, Lisa developed Dayton Most Metro into an online magazine covering a variety of topics such as such as Arts & Entertainment, Dayton Music, Dayton Theatre, Active Living and Community. Dayton Dining is her favorite.

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Dayton Dining Facebook page

She started Dayton Dining as a newsletter to publicize Dayton restaurants and eventually added it to Dayton Most Metro. “I think I still have the heart of a restaurateur and I know how hard it was when you’re in the day-to-day”. Restaurant owners may intend to work on marketing, but then “the dishwasher didn’t show”.

Also in May 2014, Lisa “decided to take the summer to put together a business plan to launch Planned2Give”, an event planning business she created with Jeff Jackson. Before they could finalize the plan, however, Jeff started getting calls. Many nonprofits recognized it was cheaper to hire Planned2Give than to keep an event planner on staff. With Anthony Bourdain

What is Lisa doing now?

Currently Lisa works part-time as the Executive Director of FilmDayton and runs Planned2Give with Jeff.  She also manages Dayton Most Metro as a volunteer. It gives “me all these things to work on and I can work on all of them autonomously when I need to… Keeps me from doing the same old, same old”.

Lisa’s observations:

  • Take more chances
  • Figure out what success looks like for you, not for someone else
  • Meet people for the fun of it; don’t always have an ulterior motive
  • Don’t bitch; find a way to make it better
  • Get out of your comfort zone
  • Explore; there’s tons to do
  • Get involved
  • If what you want doesn’t exist, get out and start it
  • Find partners, trust them and don’t micromanage them
  • “Sometimes you have to do things just because, and not because it’s going to benefit you at that moment. You’re just building goodwill somewhere along the line”.

“The overriding thing to my whole life is I don’t panic…things are just going to happen as they’re supposed to. Or maybe they’re not the plan I had, but nobody knew that plan and however it comes out, it comes out…I never knew what comedy club I was going to open. I never had a plan to buy a comedy club. My fall back is always that I can still waitress… that gives you a lot of freedom. The worst that’s going to happen is they’ll fire me”.

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YWCA Dayton Women of Influence class of 2016

Lisa Wagner, Executive Director, Levitt Pavilion Dayton

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In the beginning…

Lisa Wagner enjoyed her childhood with her extended family in Allentown, Pa. “I spent my leisure time with my cousins and they were like siblings”. She had freedom to play and roam the city, but “there was a lot of accountability. I couldn’t get away with anything”.

Everything changed at the end of 7th grade when Lisa’s nuclear family moved away to Dayton so her father could take a job with NCR. Lisa played volleyball, basketball and softball in 8th grade, but when she started high school, “I became intimidated about not fitting in”. Nonetheless, “I seemed to be able to fluidly move between all these sub classes of The Breakfast Club”.

What did Lisa do after high school?

Lisa wanted to go to Ohio Northern University to study law, but her father insisted she attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio to major in business. Lisa had other ideas. “I hated business and wanted to teach secondary math and went into the education department”.

When Lisa’s parents subsequently divorced, Lisa needed financing for her education. At that time, she had a summer job with Key Bank and they offered her a full-time job in loan operations. The offer included tuition reimbursement, enabling Lisa to continue part-time education classes at Wright State University. Time, however, became an obstacle. “I kept getting promoted and taking on more responsibility at the bank and I didn’t know how to do both”.

Did Lisa stay in banking?

In 1989 Key Bank moved its loan operations to Cleveland. They offered to move her, too, but Lisa declined, because she and her husband decided to stay in Dayton to raise their children.

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Christopher’s Restaurant & Catering, Kettering, Ohio

While Lisa was at home with her two children, a church friend opened Christopher’s Restaurant & Catering. As the catering portion expanded, he asked Lisa to join him. Since extra money was attractive, Lisa agreed help with that portion of the business.

In order to ensure she could fulfill her arrangements with catering customers, Lisa enrolled in the culinary arts program at Sinclair Community College. “I would sell it and then I would cook it. I’d load it up in the car; I’d go out and we’d serve it and then bring it all back and we’d clean it up”.

Eventually, Christopher’s catering got so busy, Lisa didn’t have time for school. “Christopher’s was nights and weekends and that’s when the classes were”.

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Lisa learned the catering business requires a proactive mindset. “You always have to be anticipating worst case scenarios” in order to provide solutions on the spot. “I always had to know where the nearest grocery store was in case I forgot something”.

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Did Lisa stay in catering?

After ten years of catering, “my body really started to break down, so I took a break”. In 2002, however, “the economy caught up to our family in a real way”. It was time to go back to work.

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Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, Dayton, Ohio

In 2003 the Schuster Performing Arts Center was under construction. Lisa saw a posting for a job there in event operations. She applied, and due to her catering experience, was hired by the Victoria Theater Association (VTA), which owns and operates the Schuster Center.

How did Lisa’s life change as she settled in with VTA?

In addition to its theaters, the Schuster includes a full service restaurant and bar, Citilites. Prior to the 2003 opening, “I was very involved in hiring all the service staff – Citilites and the catering staff”.

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Citilites Restaurant at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, Dayton, Ohio

Once the Schuster Center opened, Lisa became “the execution element”, managing all the details for events held onsite, including the flow, layout and setup, decoration, service style, etc. “I went from kind of working very part-time to working almost 70 hours a week. And we did not have a kitchen in that building until September of 2003 and we probably did close to $1,000,000 worth of catering prior to that”.

How did Lisa move from event operations to ticketing?

VTA surprised Lisa when they asked her to become the Director of their ticketing operation, Ticket Center Stage, and address the issues between Ticket Center Stage and its licensees, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Opera, Dayton Ballet, and Human Race Theatre Company.

Lisa’s reaction was, “What? I’ve never sold a ticket in my life!” The VTA assured her, “you’re really good with customers and you manage people really well”.

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Schuster Performing Arts Center Box Office

Nonetheless, she had a steep learning curve. “I spent probably the first month shadowing ticket agents. I sat in the box offices and listened and then I got on the phone and learned how to sell tickets over the phone”.

Lisa observed that the culture within the department did not promote collaboration and needed to change. In order to do that, “I spent a lot of time working on team building; I spent a lot of time asking for input. No matter what level you were within this little organization, I valued what they had to say. I spent a lot of time in the trenches with them”.

As Lisa worked to purge the negative dynamic, she also quickly identified two superstars. These two young woman “were very out of the box thinkers”, willing to approach problems from fresh angles. Working with them led to some of Lisa’s favorite moments: “seeing people that I have developed blossom and really enjoy their success”.

How did Lisa’s responsibilities grow?

In 2009 the CEO and President of the VTA, Dione Kennedy left to head another organization. During the subsequent management reorganization, the interim CEO and the new CEO and President of the VTA, Ken Neufeld, decided it made sense to have a person with culinary experience oversee the food and beverage team. Consequently, VTA created the Vice President of Ticketing and Hospitality position, and asked Lisa to fill it. There is no equivalent position across the country, because in other preforming arts centers “the food and beverage team is not an internal team”.

Lisa and VTA leadership believed the food and beverage operation was a brand connection, making quality control imperative. Regardless of whether catering is provided internally or by outsiders, if it is botched up, “people see it as a reflection of your venue”.

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Schuster Performing Arts Center

Periodically, Lisa asked her boss, Ken Neufeld, President and CEO, for additional challenges. As a result, he eventually added the audience services experience team to her portfolio. Managing that team fit into her hospitality focus, since the team manages the lobbies during a show, supervises the volunteer ushers, and solves any customer problems which arise before a show begins. Lisa led the team to give “the very best experience to the patron from the moment they walked in the door. And that was fun”.

How did Lisa grow into her career?

Lisa met with Ken Neufeld on a regular basis for wide-ranging conversations. “I was allowed to ask anything about the organization, the Board, anything”. Additionally, Ken encouraged her to consider further education. First, Lisa enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania – Executive Program for Arts and Culture Strategy, which featured virtual programs on strategic leadership, finance, fundraising, governance, and marketing.

In 2015, Lisa participated in the National Arts Strategies Senior Management Institute.  One of the Institute sessions was a thought-provoking career visioning process, which explored, “This is what I do now. Is this what I’m passionate about? What would I want to do?”

Lisa realized that “being connected to impact was really important to me”, but that much of what she was currently doing was more operational and “one off from the impact”.

Why did Lisa leave the Victoria Theatre Association for the Levitt Pavilion Dayton?

Lisa loved working with the VTA, but when she attended a community meeting about the Levitt Pavilion project, it intrigued her. “It ignited something inside of me”.

Members of the Dayton community organized the Friends of the Levitt Pavilion to develop neglected green space in downtown Dayton into a community-gathering place with access to the performing arts for all. In 2017 the Friends of the Levitt Pavilion was awarded a grant from the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation to develop the Levitt Pavilion Dayton.

Lisa recognized that she had influenced VTA, but the concepts of impact and legacy sparked her. “I felt like this was a really great opportunity to be on the ground floor of this amazing community asset”.

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Artist rendering of the Levitt Pavilion Dayton

Consequently, she applied to be the new organization’s first Executive Director. “I was terrified of leaving a well-oiled machine, a $16 million organization to a start-up, but there was something really exciting about being part of the Levitt legacy”.

The Friends of the Levitt Pavilion, now serving as the Board of the new nonprofit organization, Levitt Pavilion Dayton, selected Lisa to become the first Executive Director.

The Levitt Pavilions’ premise is that free, high quality outdoor concerts will increase participation with the arts. “I know for a fact there are people that think they can’t afford an arts experience. If we give you a free concert, we’ve taken away that obstacle”. Beginning in the summer of 2018, Levitt Pavilion Dayton will present free concerts on the Pavilion’s lawn featuring high caliber and diverse local, national and international musicians.

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Artist rendering of the Levitt Pavilion Dayton stage

By increasing participation with the arts, the Levitt Pavilion Dayton will provide a place for residents “to come and connect. Not only connect to music, which I feel is one of the most beautiful universal languages in the world, but then also” to each other as they listen on the lawn. Lisa envisions “diverse socioeconomic generational people all sitting on the same lawn, experiencing a common experience” and sharing conversation. “’Hey, I forgot my mustard, would you pass me the mustard?’ All of a sudden I don’t care where you live, I don’t care what you do, you’re my neighbor now”.

How has Lisa’s work changed now that she’s leading the Levitt Pavilion Dayton?

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Levitt Pavilion Dayton job site; photo by Andy Snow

As the Executive Director, “I’m coming into a universe where now I have to be challenged in areas that I may not be as familiar with, such as a construction project or other nuances of a start up.

In order to open the Levitt Pavilion Dayton in time for the 2018 summer season, Lisa is working with the Board to build the new organization. Together they are engaging in big picture activities like strategic planning, mapping the organizational structure, hiring new staff members, programming and defining the customer experience, to ensure that everyone is invited, everyone feels welcomed and when the lawn is activated that audience members feel connected.

Lisa’s observations:

  • Be true to what feeds you
  • Be open to new experiences
  • Be open to new skill sets. “Don’t fear what you don’t know. Embrace it”
  • Recognize that “you’re not the smartest person in the room, that everyone around you offers you something that can either be put in your tool box for later or that can help develop you”
  • Network, network, network. “Make meaningful relationships, be honest, be humble, be authentic, be accountable”
  • Ask a lot of questions or for help. It’s better to admit you don’t know and do some research

Lisa believes her journey has prepared her for this new phase of her life. “Now I have the skill sets and I have the fundamental pieces of where I can do something, but it was the impact and the legacy piece and the passion of wanting to be part of a different conversation – it just felt like the timing was kind of all falling into place”.

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Levitt Pavilion Dayton, August 17, 2018 Band: Kyle Dillingham & Horseshoe Road

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Hamilton Dixon, Metalwork Sculptor

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Photo by Bill Franz, http://www.billfranz17.com

Hamilton Dixon combines his artistry and expertise in metalwork with his interest in old buildings to thrive as a full-time metalwork sculptor and entrepreneur.

In the beginning…

Growing up in Rome, Georgia, Hamilton Dixon “was a bit of a loner. We lived on a piece of property that wasn’t near many other houses, so I spent a lot of time charging around through the woods by myself with my dog, rigging up booby-traps for invisible bad guys”. His father collected cars, mainly Morgans.

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Vintage Morgan

“He ended up opening a car shop to buy cars, fix them up, and sell them”. Hamilton spent time there “learning to be mechanical and how to weld”.

How did Hamilton build his metalworking skills?

“I had some welding classes in high school and I really liked that”. Hamilton also had a friend in Jasper, Georgia who worked with metal in an old-style blacksmith shop. “He’d heat metal up in a forge and hammer it on an anvil and he was very particular about techniques. And that interested me a lot”.

Following high school, Hamilton joined a friend to work “offshore on an oilrig out in the Gulf of Mexico, just trying to find my way. I liked the welding and fabrication. It was grueling work. You’re on 12 hours and you’re off 12 hours. When you’re off, you aren’t doing anything but sleeping, because you’re just totally ruined”.

After about a year of working on the oilrig, Hamilton traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico to hone his metal working skills at Turley Forge Blacksmithing School .

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Then Hamilton returned to Rome, Georgia and began “tinkering around” in his father’s car shop. When his dad decided the car shop was no longer a viable enterprise, “I kept the building and started doing stuff on my own”.

How did Hamilton build his reputation as a metalwork sculptor?

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The Bench

“Somebody said, ‘Hey, they’re doing a streetscape project for Rome, Georgia. Do you have any good ideas for a bench?’” Hamilton immediately produced a sketch, which the project planners liked. After some negotiation, they ordered 60. Eventually, he made over 200 benches and sold them to other communities and some colleges. “So that kind of put me on the map with people”.

How did Hamilton transition to Dayton?

In 1990 Hamilton relocated to Dayton, Ohio to join friends. Following a search, he found inexpensive space for his shop in The Front Street Building in downtown Dayton.

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Front Street Building

“That was my headquarters. I knew everyone in Front Street and pretty soon I got a couple projects”.

During the Dayton Art Institute renovation in 1997, the planners asked Hamilton to submit a design for the rotunda handrail. After lengthy negotiations and revised drawings, the planners selected his design.

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Detail, Dayton Art Institute railing

“It was 130 feet of huge railing. That is a lot of forged steel”. Since he was on a tight schedule, “everyone who ever stopped by and hung out at my shop…helped do portions of that railing”.

“After I did that railing, I was getting calls to do all sorts of stuff for all sorts of people – interior railings and you name it. So that’s what I’ve done ever since”.

What is Hamilton’s process to go from a drawing to a finished piece?

Often people have seen one of Hamilton’s existing pieces and ask for something similar. “I’ve always been able to draw just free-hand drawings of a thing. That’s how I talk to a customer”. He sketches his idea, they discuss it, and then he does a more refined drawing. At that point, they generally reach an agreement and Hamilton begins production.

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Drawing on the work table

 “I’m at the person’s house, and I’ll draw on a piece of paper. When I come to the shop, I’ll do a drawing on the table. I figure out life size – how big is that from here to here, how much steel is that? I literally lay a flexible tape measure on that and I’ll just measure the length. All the steel I use starts out as straight bars of steel.”

The size, shape, and textures of the design determine Hamilton’s next steps. In order to bend and shape the metal, he fires the natural gas forge he built, which can be heated to 2,000 degrees. “A piece of steel can be heated up to bright red in about 15 minutes” and ready to shape.

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Anvil

For certain effects, Hamilton hammers metal manually on his anvil. “Basically I have to beat the crap out of it to achieve the textural element”.

For pieces requiring greater force, he uses a power hammer built in the 1940’s acquired from an old metal shop and foundry in Rome, Georgia. “I can hold steel with both hands and then operate this machine. I can hammer steel pretty quickly this way.”

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Forge

To create twisted shapes, “I rush from the forge with a piece of bright red steel” and clamp it in the vise. “I get a big crescent wrench and a big leverage bar. I’ll put a bunch of pressure on it and begin to twist it. Sometimes I hang on it with my entire body weight and other times, I can just twist it easily with one arm. The bigger the piece is, the more difficult it is, but the longer it will stay hot. The smaller it is, it will cool off so quickly that you have to rush”.

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Demonstrating twisting a steel bar

 “I learned a lot of that stuff from the guy in Jasper, Georgia. It’s the same technique as doing little stuff with little jewelry. There’s a million steps to working with metal”.

 How did Hamilton get started renovating old buildings?

Hamilton and his wife, Carli, were friends for a long time before they became a couple. Their first adventure renovating an old building together started when they were deciding where to live after the birth of their first child. They quickly realized Carli’s house was too small for a baby and Hamilton’s collections. They put her house up for sale and began renovating Hamilton’s 1876 house, which needed a lot of work. “There’s no electric and there’s no running water and there’s no kitchen”. Carli’s house sold quickly, however, and the buyers wanted immediate occupancy. “So we had to move into my house and put a temporary wall up in the downstairs and live in the front half of my house with a new baby”. Ultimately, they finished the house.

 When did Hamilton combine renovating old buildings with his metalwork?

Driving into Dayton, Hamilton frequently passed a block of old buildings for sale. “It was basically cordoned off and this building was boarded up”. When Hamilton wanted to move his shop out of The Front Street Building, he and Carli walked through the buildings and the “giant rooms” sparked their imagination.

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Old Atta Boy gas station

The sellers didn’t want to separate the three parcels – the 18,000 sq. ft. building (905 E. 3rd St), the Atta Boy gas station (817 E. 3rd St) and a smaller building (811 E. 3rd St), but Hamilton and Carli didn’t need all that space. They made an offer for the smaller building that was declined. After a year, “we got a nudge to go make them another offer. We worked some miracles financially and made them an offer for the whole parcel.” After a lot of negotiation, they struck a deal.

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Hamilton’s shop

In the first phase of renovation, Hamilton set up his shop in the smaller building, rebuilding the floor and adding three-phase power for his machines. In the next phase, they tackled the larger 1880’s era building. “It was full of abandoned donations for Hurricane Katrina victims. It was pitch-black dark in there; everything was boarded up”. Hamilton and Carli spent thousands of dollars to bring the building up to code and install utilities.

Then they rented space on the first floor to Shon Walters and the Zoot Theater Company. “So we were pulling in a little bit of rent”.

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905 E. Third St.

In time their tenants needed more space and moved out. By then Hamilton and Carli were ready to relocate her business, Bloombeads by freezeframe, from Clayton, Ohio. Since Carli’s business needed space both upstairs and downstairs for production and her showroom, they had to make additional renovations. “There was an old rickety stairway that went up into the ceiling and that was the only access to the upstairs. In order to have a legitimate upstairs, you had to have a code-meeting fire-rated stairwell”.

With help from family, friends and multiple contractors, Hamilton and Carli devoted the time and money necessary to clean out the building and redesign the area in the front. In 2013 they moved Bloombeads by freezeframe into the building.

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Entrance to Bloombeads by freezeframe and The Brightside

Now they are in the next phase of their vision, creation of The Brightside Music and Event Venue. They completed the bar area in the room behind Carli’s showroom and are finishing the big back room. To learn more about their renovation efforts, watch their video story.

The Brightside offers a venue for music, parties, art shows, wedding receptions, and other events. They have a liquor license, “so we can now have our own programming going on here. We’re hoping to get a few more people to invest to get this final room breathing again”.

Hamilton’s observations:

  • At first, to set the prices for the small pieces he started showing in small galleries, he looked at the prices charged by other artists for similar work. Once he sold a few pieces, he had a better feel for his base prices.
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    Functional sculpture, http://www.hamiltondixon.com

    Pricing big jobs was hard, though, because “I had no reference point”, but he discovered his “old friend down in Jasper, Georgia had good reference points for things like that; he helped me figure stuff out”. He also learned that asking customers the scope of their budget helps determine pricing.

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    Gates by Hamilton Dixon that will be repurposed to create a headboard
  • Hamilton and Carli work as a team. “Carli’s the brains behind the thing; she’s the one with the ability to juggle spreadsheets and employees,” while Hamilton provides a wide range of mechanical skills.
  • When Hamilton is overwhelmed, Carli will break the project down into tasks. “A lot of times I’m paralyzed when I come to this building. There’s everything that needs to be done”. Carli will say, “’let’s just do this part right here first; just work with me for 30 minutes’. And four hours later, you’re almost done with the whole thing”.
  • Hamilton advises, “Learn how to be self sufficient…learn how to do mechanical things, stuff you need instead of depending on someone else to do it for you”.
  • In conclusion, Hamilton said, “Try to just do the things you know are good and right”.
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Jewelry by Hamilton Dixon; http://www.hamiltondixon.com

You can learn more about Hamilton and view his sculptures and process at http://www.hamiltondixon.com/ You can find photos of Hamilton at work by Bill Franz at https://billfranz17.com/2015/08/09/hamilton-dixon-steel-sculptor/

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Welding; Photo by Bill Franz; http://www.billfranz17.com

For information, photos, and booking options for The Brightside Music & Event Venue go to: https://www.thebrightsidedayton.com/

In the Dayton area, Hamilton’s artistic metalwork can be found at the Dayton Art Institute Rotunda, University of Dayton Serenity Pines, the weather vane at Delco Park, the Kettering City Building, Hospice of Dayton entrance sculpture, and many other places.

Maria Gossard, Owner/Creative Director of Think Printing & Maria Gossard Designs

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Maria Gossard overcame significant health obstacles to develop her business featuring beautiful paper, stunning designs and artisanal printing done with close attention to the customer’s vision.

In the beginning…

Maria Gossard grew up surrounded by her extended family in Cyprus. Her English mother and Greek Cypriot father loved growing things and they raised much of their own food on their farm on the Mediterranean coast. “We worked hard and we played hard”.

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Cyprus

One of Maria’s aunts was an amazing seamstress. “She would allow me two scraps, so I could do dresses for my dolls”. After Maria learned how to sew, she decided, “I’m going to design clothes for me, not because I couldn’t go buy them, but because I found those more interesting. It was an art form”.

When did Maria come to the U.S.?

One of six children, Maria was conscious of the fact that American universities were half the price of English ones. Consequently, she enrolled at Bob Jones University in South Carolina as a biology major with the intention of pursuing her lifelong love of the ocean by becoming a marine biologist.

One night, friends invited her to go to the Art Department. Despite her limited exposure to art classes, “I just fell in love. I never knew that you could have a career in art”. Her “Greek grandfather was a carpenter. He was also a sculptor, but not for a living,” so she grew up thinking “art is what you do on the side”.

“I started doing research and talking to other art majors, ‘How are you going to make a living with this?’” After many conversations with her father, she switched her major to Art & Design. “I took off. It became effortless for me”.

Did Maria continue with Art & Design after she graduated?

After graduation, Maria secured a visa to remain in the U.S. for two years of practical training. She got a position as a “rendering artist with a leading design firm in Washington, D.C., which specialized in palatial residences throughout the Middle East”. Her goal was “to learn as much as I can, but I’m heading back”.

The job was very competitive with a cutthroat atmosphere; 60 to 80 hour weeks were the norm. “Reps visiting from top manufacturers would say, ‘we can cut the tension with a knife’. It was probably the toughest time of my life, but that’s where I learned; where my game was elevated”.

Did Maria remain in that environment?

A year before Maria intended to return to Cyprus, she met her husband, Paul. “He was my kismet”. LexisNexis recruited Paul to come to Dayton, Ohio. “The money was really good, but who lives in Dayton, Ohio? We agreed to try it out for a year. And that was 29 years ago”.

While Maria raised their four children, she freelanced as a designer specializing in interior and product design. “I would design products for the home and garden, then I would sell the ideas to other companies”. Her friend, the owner of Terra Cotta, a store in Columbus, saw some garden markers Maria made for her own garden and offered to sell them. Inspired by that success, “I went to a show with them and a big company said, ‘we’ll give you a $250,000 opening order’”. She quickly discovered “they dangle this carrot in front of you, then they justify stealing the product from you eventually after the first order, having the product mass-produced overseas, and putting you out of business”.

“In this big fish eat the smaller fish kind of world, I learned fast that anything new in the market is yours for one season”. Accordingly, Maria decided just to sell her ideas as prototypes. “That kind of kept me happy for a few years while the kids were growing up”.

 How did Maria get into the printing business?

Maria’s printer decided to retire and approached her to take over their downtown Dayton business-to-business operation, Think Printing. Maria and Paul decided to buy it. “We revamped it, modernized it, turned a 30% profit the first year and then, the big crash happened in 2008”.

Despite the economic downturn and changes in the business landscape, Maria pressed on. But, “after a few years, I got really sick with Lyme disease”.

How did Lyme affect Maria?

“I was misdiagnosed for 10 years, so I kept losing quality of life. Intuitively, I knew something was very wrong. I felt like I was dying from the inside. I couldn’t even get out of bed. I couldn’t walk from my bedroom to my kitchen. I forgot my purpose. The disease kind of rapes you of every energy and every positive thinking”.

“You go to a complete place of helplessness and hopelessness; helplessness is one thing, but hopelessness is a really dark place. But when your brain isn’t working anymore, you’re in this constant brain fog and your body aches, it’s beyond depression; it’s really, really dark. I could no longer participate in my life. I went from being a producer to being a survivor”.

Fortunately Maria’s office manager, Jeff Firestone, had already joined the business. He “became my right hand, very organized, very great work ethic, good with machinery. He actually was able to run it for me. He was amazing”.

Did Maria recover?

Finally Maria found doctors who diagnosed her Lyme disease; recovery took five years. “That time in my life was a time of fasting, praying, seeking just God’s healing. God had my complete attention. He actually showed me things in me that had to change, so it was a spiritual and physical healing”.

“I’m still recovering. Every now and then I’ll get this burst, ‘I’m actually thinking, I’m actually producing again!’ It’s going to be two years that I’m completely Lyme disease free. Big difference, because my brain started working again. Lyme disease changes your life. I’m to the point that I cannot take a day for granted; every day is a gift”.

Why did Maria move the print shop to Cross Pointe Shopping Centre in Centerville, Ohio?

Think Printing DMS was struggling due to the economy and competition from big online printing companies. When Maria’s son, Thomas, got married, “I realized how limited Dayton was in high-end specialized papers for invitations. There was no one in town doing engraving or letterpress. I thought ‘Okay, I’m going to take one more chance with the business before I decide to throw in the towel’”.

Shop3Relocating to Cross Pointe Shopping Centre in Centerville, Ohio allowed Maria to expand her market to individual consumers. “Immediately the reception and the climate and the whole direction was very strongly a positive ‘yes’”.

After a year in the new location, “we were just completely busting at the seams”. She hesitated to move, however, because she had a 5-year lease.

“I said, ‘Oh Lord, it would be so nice if I had a table to sit down with clients when they come in, especially brides, since we were doing more and more weddings, and space to showcase our work’”. A week later, the owners of Cross Pointe asked Maria to relocate since the daycare center next door needed more space.

How did this move affect Maria’s business?

Invitation2Maria officially launched Maria Gossard Designs in March 2016 with an expanded, trendsetting team. Jeff now works part-time, as he is back in school. Roger Owsley, a nationally recognized designer, leads the graphic division. Maria added an experienced silkscreen printer, Bobby Trimbach, to offer items such as golden edges silkscreened on invitations, and limited edition posters for bands and artists around the country.  A retired pressman, Mark Bundy, runs the recently acquired letterpress machines. “I’m proud of our fleet of Chandler & Price Co. manual letterpresses from the late 1800’s, 1909 and 1912”.

 How did Maria learn to operate a business?

When Maria was at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to continue or close, a client encouraged her to checkout Women in Business Networking. She did and decided to commit to their two-year Bridges to Success Mentoring Program, which required periodic training and monthly meetings with different mentors – CEOs or business owners.

“In that two-year process, I realized how much I still had to learn and how I had to grow as a person, because our success in the business world reflects our personal growth. And the 10 years that I had been so sick, I didn’t grow as a person. I shrank as a person”.

program & trimmingsShe invested in educational, entrepreneurial and leadership materials, and workshops with coaches like DaniJohnson.com. “I’m very involved with the mentoring program in the city and now I’m a mentor myself”.

What is Maria’s vision for the business?

Invitations set“Our dream is to bring to Dayton an elevated printing service that only exclusive neighborhoods in bigger cities have and help put our city on the map. It’s all about educating our community and serving them with products” so they don’t wish that they lived in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. “Instead they’ll say, ‘I got this done in Dayton, Ohio’”.

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Maria’s observations:

  • Ask: “Why do you want to do what you want to do? What’s the purpose? What is your goal? Who is your mentor? Do you understand all the ins and outs?”
  • Understand: “entrepreneurs burn their relationships faster than anyone else, because it’s very stressful”.
  • “You can’t be all things. When you start a business, you cannot be the lawyer; you cannot be the accountant; you cannot be the networker, the one that sells, and the producer. You need a team…nobody can do all those things well”.
  • Avoid thinking: “I want it to happen fast; and if it doesn’t happen fast, I’m a failure. Nothing good in life happened overnight”. Place cards
  • “Having a supportive family is very important, too, and being honest with them, up front. ‘I’m going on this journey and it could be painful at times, it will definitely be stressful at times; is that okay with you?’”
  • “Always having that teachable spirit. I have to remind myself, I might be able to learn from this person or, if it was criticism, what can we learn from this experience? How can we tackle it better next time?”
  • “At the end of the day, can I sleep tonight, because the way I handled all my relationships, my projects, my peers, my clients, was honorable? That to me has far more value than anything else”.

“God has given me the opportunity to tap into my entire life experience and utilize everything I’ve been learning to actually be able to say I am having the best time of my life”.

To learn more about Maria Gossard Designs go to the website at: mariagossarddesigns.com

You can also find Invitations, fine paper, printing and design by Maria Gossard Design on the wedding planning website, the knot, at https://www.theknot.com/marketplace/maria-gossard-designs-centerville-oh-1064055, and on ETSY at https://www.mariagossarddesigns.com/etsy/

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Maria Gossard Designs
175 E Alex Bell Rd #204
Centerville, OH 45459