VIProfile: Sarah Callender

Focused on Survival of Historic Downtown Murfreesboro

By Lee Rennick

“There is a special vibe downtown,” said Sarah Callender, Executive Director Main Street. “I believe it is because of the diverse businesses that make up the downtown district. It is a place you want to take your out-of-town guests to walk around, eat at a locally owned restaurant, shop at a quaint store to buy something you can’t get at a big box business and take in all the visuals… the murals, old buildings and the beautiful courthouse.”

Callender became the fourth Executive Director of Main Street Murfreesboro in Fall of 2019, and 2020 was her first full year in the position. She had the whole year planned for 2020 before COVID-19 became a realty in Murfreesboro. This included having JazzFest scheduled, all the Friday Night Live concerts booked and a new Saturday Market manager hired.

“With the board’s support, I decided to cancel JazzFest first and then made the decision about each Friday Night Live concert prior to each event,” said Callender, “holding out hope that things would get better. We decided to continue with the Saturday Market after learning how other farmer’s markets in Middle Tennessee were moving forward. It was important to the farmer’s and businesses downtown that the Saturday Market continue, so we did everything we could to keep it safe for the vendors and the public. We were able to hold Taste of Rutherford, our one fundraiser, thanks to…the City of Murfreesboro allowing us to use Cannonsburgh Village instead of someone’s home.”

Helping the small local businesses survive in the downtown area became Callender’s focus as the pandemic raged on, continuing on the mission set down 35 years ago when the non-profit was founded. Main Street’s mission is to maintain, enhance and promote the downtown as the heart of the community. Over the years, Main Street has been a leader in the revitalization of the historic downtown. The organization has been instrumental in “burying utilities, repairing sidewalks, creating cross-walks, landscaping, beautification and street lighting,” according to their website, as well as organizing free events such as JazzFest, Friday Night Live concerts, Saturday Market and the Christmas tree lighting.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, businesses had to cancel their shopping events and close their doors to the public. However, many quickly found new ways to sell their items online or by delivery. “I am so proud of how these businesses who depended on customers walking in their stores found ways to promote themselves and stay open,” said Callender. “Our community really supported the downtown and the idea of shop local during the quarantine.”

Working with the City of Murfreesboro, the organization was able to have businesses on the Square offer curbside, 15-minute parking once they were able to reopen. Then Callender worked to tell the story of downtown businesses through newsletters and social media posts with the help of WGNS sharing them, bringing the public’s attention to the fact that the small business owners were their neighbors and friends who had families and needed their help more than ever.

The Saturday Farmer’s Market helped bring people back downtown starting in June. On average, 500 people came each Saturday and many visited the boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants downtown when they came.

“We had a new map printed of the downtown businesses to help promote our old and established businesses and a lot of our new businesses,” explained Callender. “Despite COVID, there were still several new businesses that opened in 2020.” While there were stores forced to shut their doors, most were able to survive. It was especially hard, and still is, for the businesses who opened in 2020 right before COVID-19 hit. The ones who were more established weathered the storm better.

“Murfreesboro’s downtown has been referred to as a ‘dining and entertainment district’ because of the many locally owned restaurants, coffee shops and entertainment businesses,” said Callender. “I believe this has helped the overall downtown thrive as it drives people downtown consistently. When you think of downtown, you think of locally owned! There are so many first-time entrepreneurs who start out with their business dream becoming a reality in a historic downtown space. I love that about our downtown!”

While Callender is not originally from Murfreesboro, she has found a real heart for the city. She originally moved to Murfreesboro in 1998 when she got married after graduating from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. She and her husband are both originally from West Tennessee, but came so her husband could finish his degree in the Aerospace at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).

 “After moving away for four years, we came back when my husband got a professor position in the Aerospace Department at MTSU, and we have been here the past 16 years…All three [of our] kids went to Campus School and Central [Magnet]. Before having children, I worked as the first female District Executive in Rutherford County for the Boy Scouts of America. I stayed at home with my children when they were little and began working in Development at Special  Kids when my youngest turned five. I worked there for six years until starting at Main Street as the Executive Director in the fall of 2019.”

For 2021, JazzFest is scheduled for May 1, the Farmer’s Market will once again be extended into October with the additional of local artisans, and Friday Night Lights are planned to move ahead from June until September, too. Taste of Rutherford will once again take place at Cannonsburgh Village.

This year, she plans on keeping the traditional, free downtown events alive, but focusing more on economic development by marketing the small businesses and working more with the small business owners to help support them with future grants and partnerships through the City of Murfreesboro and the State of Tennessee to improve infrastructure and make changes that will keep downtown growing and keeping up with the needs of the business owners. “I want everyone to think of downtown when they hear Buy Local,” said Callender.

The best part of this job this last year has been meeting hundreds of community leaders and partners that want to help Callender keep downtown a thriving sense of place. The encouragement and advice she has receive has kept her excited and wanting to move forward. There is still so much to do downtown, she feels, and she is grateful for having a talented board of volunteers willing to help her, as she admits she cannot do it alone.

“When you move to Murfreesboro it is such a large, growing city, but it has strong roots, and it is nice to come downtown and respectfully remember where it started. Small business owners from long ago put their money and family’s time into making this city something special for us now,” added Callender. “The downtown just has a feel of something special that makes you know you belong to this city!”

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