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Midtown’s new leader talks of neighborhood unity, business creation, 13th Street changes

It’s been nearly two months since Julio Portillo was hired as executive director of MidTown Inc. in Columbus, but his love for the city goes back nearly two decades.

That’s when the native of San Salvador, El Salvador, at the urging of his father, who was assigned to Fort Benning years earlier, left his native land to pursue a college degree at Columbus State University.

As often happens in life, one big moment led to another, with Portillo earning his marketing degree in 2005, followed by a master’s in public administration, then his marriage eight years ago to a local girl, Maggie, with the couple now having two young children, Edee, 2, and Jude, just 8 weeks old.

Through it all, including 12 years as a transportation planner with the Columbus-based River Valley Regional Commission, Portillo has called the Midtown area his home.

“I love it. I’m a Midtown resident,” Portillo said Thursday in an interview at his 1236 Wildwood Ave. office just off Wynnton Road. “I’ve been in Columbus for 18 years now … I have a great love, not just for Midtown, but for Columbus. I call it my city now.”

At age 37, he is only the third executive director in the 13-year history of MidTown Inc., a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 to advocate for the 6-square-mile area in the city’s core east of a downtown area referred to as Uptown. MidTown’s work includes improving and strengthening its neighborhoods and commercial areas.

Portillo succeeds Anne King, who retired from the position to relocate with her husband, Tom, to Greenville, S.C. Before becoming mayor of Columbus in 2010, Teresa Tomlinson led the organization that fosters more than 12 percent of the city’s population of nearly 198,000 residents and 10 percent of its tax base despite being only 3 percent of the community’s land area, according to MidTown statistics.

In the interview, Portillo talked about his affection, hopes and ambitions for the Midtown area, which includes the popular Lakebottom Park, the Columbus Museum, the main Columbus Public Library and the global headquarters of homegrown Fortune 500 insurance company Aflac. This interview is edited for length and clarity.

Q. Are there more people from Latin America with connections to Fort Benning who have lived in Columbus later on?

A. I’ve known a few through the years who’ve stayed at least through college. We left (El Salvador) right when a peace treaty was being signed. There was a civil war in my country. When I got here to Fort Benning, it was the first I even knew you could walk to school. Back home, you wouldn’t walk to school or ride your bike, not at a great risk.

Q. Some people today think the streets of Columbus can be rough.

A. That has changed (in El Salvador). That was during wartime in my country … It’s been bittersweet leaving home. I still have family. My parents are still there, so I still visit. But I don’t take for granted the sense of safety that we have here, the fact that I can still walk out of my front door and take my daughter on a bike ride, and push my newborn in a stroller, things that growing up in my country I couldn’t do. So I ended up calling Columbus home, and I’m in it for the long run.

Q. So what do you think about your job thus far?

A. I love being here. It gives me a way to focus on my six square miles and how we can grow and develop properly, how we can encourage businesses to set up camp here. I come from a regional perspective. My prior job was covering 16 counties and 35 cities, so it’s very nice just to have a little change of pace.

Q. What are the geographical boundaries of MidTown?

A. The boundaries are from Warm Springs Road, which becomes Talbotton Road, all the way to 10th Avenue, and from 10th Avenue to MLK, and from MLK to Lindsey Creek Bypass (Interstate 185).

Q. Why was this job important to you? Why did you want the job?

A. I am a city urban planner. That’s what I’ve been doing professionally for the last 12 years. I had the great privilege to work with Anne King pretty much her entire tenure here at MidTown Inc., so I was part of the Minimum Grid project when they were applying for it. So it’s a good chance for me to come back and work in my community and give back to my community where I live, I play, I work. I really enjoyed the regional perspective and seeing the impact our work had on rural areas. But it’s now nice to come back to an urban setting.

Q. Is there more pressure on you now or less?

A. I would say it’s different pressure, but it’s a good pressure. One of the things I like here at MidTown is we have a fantastic board of directors. They have definitely made it easy for me to transition to this new job. Having their support, their knowledge, it’s a very important point for me. It was a big plus when I was making a decision to take the job. It’s knowing that I have a good and active board with the same love and passion for Midtown.

Q. What do you like or enjoy personally about the Midtown area?

A. I live just a hop, skip and a jump from the Fall Line Trace portion of the Dragonfly Trail. Bicycling is my thing. I love bicycling, among other things (to include sailing). So from my house it takes me maybe three minutes to get on the trail and I can go either way, northeast towards Psalmond Road or I can go south to downtown and join the (Chattahoochee) RiverWalk portion of the trail. I’ve always loved that the trail goes right through the heart of Midtown. That’s a plus for what I like to do. It’s exercise and recreation.

I had a friend from Argentina, we went to college together and he visited three or four years ago. He could not believe what had happened to that trail, the transformation that it had. Furthermore, when we started riding through the trail, there were so many things in the neighborhood that we didn’t see were there — houses, businesses, apartment complexes, direct access to Columbus State University. So that’s one of my favorite things. I really enjoy that trail. My wife and I do a little weekend walk with our two kids there.

Q. How would you describe Midtown to someone who knows nothing about it?

A. I would describe Midtown as a little microcosm of what a big city is. I would tell them it’s a small area that you can pretty much enjoy a little taste of everything we have to offer citywide. For instance, I can tell them in one day you can visit a variety of parks, you can visit a museum, you can visit a state-of-the-art public library, there’s dining options.

We were talking (recently) about this modern hip movement of farm to table and craft beers, and we have Wicked Hen with farm to table options, and we have Speakeasy, Country’s Barbecue, and people love Dinglewood Pharmacy and its scrambled dogs … But not only that, in this small area we have the neighborhoods. Our neighborhoods are historic in character and they’re beautiful neighborhoods. They’re walkable. They’re friendly.

Q. Why did you choose a career in planning?

A. Actually, planning found me. My graduate degree is in public administration, so I always had an interest in government and how government works, and public service. So 12 years ago, the River Valley Regional Commission gave me an opportunity to come work for them as a planner … and I just fell in love with the work. One of good things about planning is you see things from beginning to end. In the rural areas I was working, we were able to see projects from beginning to end. You could see the concept, the vision and then the finalizing of projects in a rural area where there’s tremendous impact.

I was fortunate enough that when I started working in planning, just by pure coincidence, I ended up in bicycle and pedestrian planning. I didn’t even ride a bike before. So that really got my attention. I could do planning outside. I started looking at trails and providing bicycle facilities. I started thinking more in terms that it’s not just about getting on a road bike and going to do 100 miles every week. But it’s also about transportation options, and I started being a commuter myself. I started commuting to work and really enjoying it. It was invigorating to ride four miles from my house to my old office downtown.

Q. Bicycle and walking trails are a nationwide trend?

A. It is. Connectivity is starting to be a big topic in all of our communities. Most cities you visit in America, if not all, they all have a downtown, they have a Midtown. It’s always how can we connect both. So we are right at the center of that with our Minimum Grid project that’s in place right now and really shows how easily, safely and fun (the trails) can be connected to both Midtown and Uptown.

Q. Describe the Minimum Grid project?

A. The Minimum Grid project was funded through the Knight Cities Foundation fund. What the project was about was how do we connect Midtown to Uptown? How do we make this walk-safe, this bike ride-safe? How do we make it enticing for you in the morning, such as: I live in Midtown and I want to walk to Market Days and get my vegetables and come back. So that prompted getting this project up and running. It’s providing the infrastructure for making that walk safe, or putting the bicycle infrastructure in for riding your bike safely, while at the same time having adequate facilities for vehicles and transit to perform their duties.

Q. That leads us to the 13th Street corridor project.

A. Hopefully, this spring DOT will start a complete streets conversion, which means it will be a road that will provide bicycle facilities, provide better pedestrian facilities and vehicle movement. And that’s going to show how easy and fun it can be to walk from Midtown to Uptown. So all of a sudden, this project will shift your mindset (to) I don’t have to get in the car to go get my vegetables. Why not?You’ll have shade, there will be landscaping, it will be safe. Bicycle lanes will be buffered. Your sidewalk will be raised. So it will lend itself to personal growth: I can start walking. I can see my community from a different lens rather than from behind a wheel.

I think it will also spur economic development along the corridor. I think it will attract businesses who want to settle there (and) see the potential of what their businesses could look like in the center of this beautiful project.

Q. The project is definitely moving forward?

A. It’s all being done by Georgia DOT … It will be removing one lane to provide for better sidewalks and bicycling, and also for parking. Now, there’s no parking on 13th street. All of those businesses with storefronts don’t have any parking out front. There’s 40 or so parking spaces that are going to be added to that now.

Q. There was some public grumbling when the DOT did the test last year for the project?

A. There was. Look, change is difficult. We can’t all say that, hey, change is fantastic all the time. And some of us adapt to it differently than others. I guess the important thing here is to see that we live in a time and in a city where your voice can be heard. You can speak out and say I support this, or I don’t and here’s why.

So I think whether you were in favor of it or not, it sparked a conversation, and I think people perhaps have never heard of complete streets or noticed the importance of having ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance sidewalks with ADA-accessible ramps, or the importance of moving vehicles, transit and people at the same time safely. Whether you supported it or not, I think it started that conversation.

Q. What’s the time schedule for this conversion?

A. It looks right now that the project might start in the spring of 2019.

Q. How long will it take?

A. I’m not 100 percent sure … A couple of months I would say. It won’t be years.

Q. What are challenges that the Midtown area faces now?

A. I think some of the challenges are with this 13th Street corridor. We’re going to have the facilities in place. Then it’s how do we attract the businesses? How do we (get) businesses to believe in the impact that this development can have?

Q. Everyone typically loves more businesses?

A. Everybody does. And businesses like traffic. As a business owner, I would like to stare out my front window and just see that traffic, to see cars moving, cars parking, people walking through, people walking with their dogs. (As a consumer) you’re bound to look and you’re probably going to stop in one of those stores.

So I think that’s going to be one of the challenges is it’s going to take some true (business) champions. We already have a few that see the end result of this and see that, you know what, I want this, I want to be at the center of this. It’s a very unique type of project.

Q. The Wynnton and Macon Road corridor also is a work in progress?

A. It is, and we are approaching completion as well. I can’t give you a specific date, but I know it is hopefully sometime by spring, if not early summer, of next year when it will be completed. That is a project that is going to give Wynnton a facelift. Even now, with construction being under way, there’s a tremendous amount of users.

Again, it’s going to be along a stretch now on Wynnton Road that will have handicapped accessibility. All of the sidewalks are going to be ADA compliant. Not to mention there’s going to be beautiful landscaping. So now you get that shade. The more we’ve been developing this project, we have noticed (that) shade is a big factor when you want to walk somewhere. It makes it nice. So Wynnton Road is taking longer than we hoped, but it’s almost there and I think it will have a tremendous impact not only on the (residential) community, but also on the businesses.

Q. Are there other areas of Midtown you want to see changed or improved?

A. I think as I start getting deep into the job we will find areas we can definitely continue to improve. One of the things that I have set forth as a priority of mine for my first year here is to go back to all of our neighborhoods. I want to make sure that I meet with all of my neighborhood leaders and just remind them that we’re here, remind them that they are a part of Midtown. We want to empower them and remind them that we’re all in this together and we are here to help.

That’s one of my priorities is to go back to the neighborhood level, because that’s where change happens. Showing your community what they have, showing your neighborhoods, look, this is where you live (and) you’re at the center of great things happening. What can we do to help? How can we give you the proper tools for you to take love and ownership for where you live and help us develop it together?