By Linda Bausch
With the beginning of 2024 upon us, this seems an appropriate time to wish goodwill to Downtown Napa’s longest-serving advocate and leader. Craig Smith, Executive Director of Downtown Napa Association (DNA), ends a nearly three-decade span at the helm of the nonprofit organization which has been in existence since 1972. In 1996, Craig was brought on board as the first Executive Director of DNA. Craig probably had his hands full . . . as he told me in his usual dry-humor that, “I managed a staff of one—me. All these years later, same title, but the staff has doubled.”
How he got here...
Born in Ohio, Craig grew up in North Carolina, with both parents and a sister two years his junior. He attended UNC – Chapel Hill – he’s a Tar Heel! Currently, Craig, and Denise (his wife of 28 years) “live with a revolving passel of cats, three at present, Freddy, Missy and Bear.” I asked Craig, prior to his association with the DNA, how he imagined his future may have played out. Thirty years ago, Craig took a class that was intended to describe what being a psychotherapist is like as a profession. Instead, he learned what it would be like to be married to a psychotherapist. He met his lovely wife Denise (Layten) in this class. She did decide to become a therapist, Craig decided to pursue her. (She’s had a private practice, Brief Therapy Associates, for twenty-five years and, as Craig told me, “She doesn’t plan to retire any time soon.”)
Describing how he eventually came to the DNA position, “I had a checkered past. I was originally in retail and transferred to California with the Gap Stores. I then looked for myself for a few years before settling with the American Lung Association. At the ALA, I helped cities go smoke free. When the DNA hired me, they were looking for someone with retail and nonprofit experience (check and check) and who had helped cities pass ordinances (check again.) Who else even has that background? It was part-time, and my new wife was finishing an internship program. We figured it would give us a lot of time to play until the right job came along.”
DNA’s mission was then, and still is, to promote Napa’s downtown and downtown businesses. “First and foremost, we serve the merchants, and anything we do has to help them. However, if an event isn’t something that the community enthusiastically embraces, nobody will come. Some of the things the DNA does seem to benefit the community first, like the Christmas parade or Halloween trick or treating, (Craig is particularly fond of these two events, “I mean, if it’s got kids in it, it’s at the top of the list, right?”) or the candidates’ debates we’ve hosted at election time. But those things make downtown more viable for residents, and that’s critical. I can honestly say I love Napa and the people who live here and downtown. I hope we’ve been able to make this a better place for everybody. I’m pleased with how Downtown Napa has developed and the DNA with it. Little things, like the hanging flower baskets decorating the sidewalks make me proud.”
When I asked about the challenges he faced during his time with DNA, Craig said, “Well, we all faced floods, earthquakes, fires, and the pandemic. That should be enough, right?” As situations arose, Craig relied on many associates to guide him. “If it’s a merchant issue, I ask merchants. A city issue? I ask City of Napa staff. I’ve always relied on our board of directors. There have always been a few I’ve talked to over the years, but to protect the innocent, I’ll withhold names!
In the end, it seems as though the job was a perfect fit—for Craig Smith and for Downtown Napa. Immediate Past-President of the DNA board, Connie Anderson, commented that she valued Craig’s leadership, and strengths, as he is known to, “Listen to what was being said, come up with new ideas, and find solid solutions.”
Who’s up next...
DNA’s incoming Executive Director is Bill LaLiberte who ran the Oxbow Public Market for ten years. He spent eight years on the DNA board, two as president. Bill has known Craig for over 25 years, and the two have been working side-by-side in the office this past year. This valuable partnership has positioned Bill well to take the reins. Bill generously gave Craig credit for a job well done, “Downtown Napa looks as inviting and beautiful as it does today mainly due to Craig’s efforts on beautification.”
The flower baskets are impactful in their way, but more importantly, Craig and his foresight (whether intentional, or sheer luck), made a huge difference to the downtown economy in early 2020 and beyond. Bill said, “Before we were ‘locked down’ due to COVID-19, with Craig’s incentive, DNA made the decision to move away from event-based promotions to a marketing-based plan. Little did they know the benefit such a change in strategy would make. Downtown has only grown stronger since the pandemic.”
As any generous leader does, Craig left me with some words of wisdom to share with his long-time friend. He said, “I’d tell Bill take credit for everything that goes right, and blame me for anything that doesn’t!”
There’s more than meets the eye...
Mystery lies beneath Craig’s nonchalant, cool demeanor as he strolls down the streets of Napa during his day. In 2019, Craig impressed his friends and colleagues when he penned a novel titled, Lies That Bind. The fictional storyline, based in many a familiar Napa Valley/SF Bay Area setting, was a worthy winner of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association Best First Novel Award for Fiction. Craig is a prolific writer, regularly contributing to Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine, the Napa Register and more. His wit, concise, and informative style draws the reader’s interest, and in the case of his first novel—he keeps us turning the pages.
Curious about his how his writing career began, I asked what sparked the interest. Craig said he always considered himself a communicator, “I once told a woman I shared an office with that I was thinking about doing stand-up comedy. She said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were funny!’ That may be when I started to think about writing, instead.” I asked what the impetus for the storyline was for Lies That Bind. Craig replied, “I heard a true story about someone who stole money by forging his name on deeds of title, exactly like I described in my book. I asked (then) Police Chief Dan Monez if my plot line was realistic. He said it was, and then told me about an incident at his church here in Napa with a priest who tried to get money out of a parishioner. I immediately thought I could combine those two ‘crimes’ and have an even better story.”
Denise and Craig have spent a bit of time exploring the world, including a trip to Botswana on a two-week camping safari trip. “Africa is more beautiful than I imagined, with wide plains and beautiful open skies. Sunsets are amazing! And giraffes and elephants! Huge! The people there seemed very open and gentle. It was a great experience.” A bit closer to home, the two enjoy their time in Monterey, a favorite place to visit a couple of times each year. The travelers will have more adventure stories since their return, mid-December, from a month-long trip to the land down under.
What’s next for Craig Smith?
“When I originally decided to retire, I created a long to-do list. Then I started talking to people who were retired and asked them about their experience. One thing that I kept hearing was that while having an idea of what to do is important, it’s also important to get away from a strict ‘to-do’ list mentality, and let retirement come to me. I really can’t wait. When people ask me what I am going to do, I jokingly say, ‘eat chocolate and watch a lot of daytime TV.’ I can’t imagine doing either. Well, maybe the chocolate . . .” Craig finished our interview with this, “People have asked me if I would leave Napa when I retire. Denise’s response has been, ‘Well, if you DO move, I hope you don’t go too far – I’d love to stay in touch.’ Guess that means I won’t be leaving!”