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The driving purpose behind Matt Brown’s 27-year career – in jobs ranging from law clerk to chief gaming officer – is his desire to create a more playful and humane world.
That’s what Brown said makes him well-suited for his new role as CEO of Centro San Antonio, the downtown advocacy and planning nonprofit.
Brown took on the leadership role in June, more than a year after an embezzlement scandal by a staff accountant was brought to light and then-CEO Pat DiGiovanni resigned. The City of San Antonio has since made changes to its 10-year contract with the organization intended to address shortcomings that led to the 2017 fraud incident.
Founded in 1982 by downtown property owners, Centro promotes and enhances the city’s core by keeping it clean, safe, and welcoming. Its most recent annual budget to provide these services was over $5 million, an amount funded by the Public Improvement District, established to provide improvements within the area and funded through assessments paid by downtown property owners.
The nonprofit is perhaps best known for the annual events it organizes in city parks and streets and the yellow shirts its hundreds of ambassadors who help tourists and locals navigate the .83 square miles of the city’s center.
Nearly four months into his new job, Brown spoke with the Rivard Report about growing up in Los Angeles, a professional life spent making learning fun, and how the mission of Centro aligns with his own professional vision.
Brown’s most recent job was a two-year stint as director of the Office of Economic Development in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was selected from a pool of 140 applicants “for his private-sector skillset combined with his public sector experience,” Centro board Chair Trish DeBerry said at the time.
The move at this point in his career is all part of a continuum, said the 53-year-old Brown, that began when he decided that although he would complete his degree at Villanova Law School, he wouldn’t practice law.
“Professionally, I’m committed to creating a more playful and a more humane world,” he said. “So the choices I’ve made have all been driven by that. That’s why someone like me would have a career … in different industries. That could look erratic until you actually see the underlying through-line.”
The son of a Hollywood actor who starred in Western films and soap operas, Brown was eager to leave behind the smog and traffic of Los Angeles when he started at Georgetown University. He set out to “go learn and explore and experience something new in the world,” he said, but his parents urged him to pursue medicine or law.
While in law school, Brown met his wife, Sarah, during a trip to New Orleans, and together they later moved to Santa Fe. He briefly went to work for Judge Oliver Seth of the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, the person he admires most, and developed a lasting friendship with fellow law clerk Brad Barron, now president and CEO at NuStar Energy.
Brown went on to co-found a children’s consumer product company and later joined LeapFrog, Scholastic, and other educational gaming entities, where he helped develop learning technology. When he took over as president of the Scholastic division of Klutz, revenues were down, and employee morale was low.
“But we worked very hard … to create a culture and a company that moved from grim to enthusiastic, delighted, and energized and full of hope and promise,” he said. “And that is one of the great achievements in my career because that was about empowering everyone on my team to be their full selves so they can bring their talent, their passion, their energy to its max. When everyone is fulfilling themselves … we can kill it in the marketplace.”
Brown incorporated his vision into Centro’s stated mission – to foster initiatives that make downtown a gathering place, a beautiful place, and San Antonio’s true center; he added “a playful place.”
“When we say playful, we’re really talking about an environment where people in different walks of life, whether they’re families or children or entrepreneurs or your businesses, are increasingly able to be curious, to be creative, start new companies, experiment, experience what I call unexpected moments of delight,” he said.
Brown also sees ways Centro can work to make the city a more humane place. While the nonprofit already hires and trains Haven For Hope clients graduates to serve in its ambassador program, and soon plans to hire two more outreach specialists to work with the shelter, Brown said Centro should also create more pedestrian-scale experiences for everyone.
“Once you do that, then people come and then they connect and then they know each other and then they make friends or they fall in love or they just appreciate each other,” he said.
Real estate investor Mitch McManus, a Centro board member, said the timing of Brown’s arrival in San Antonio couldn’t be better.
“I’ve not ever been this excited about Centro,” he said. “He’s got innovative ideas, he’s energetic, and he’s grabbed the bull by the horns. And Trish DeBerry – she’s a leader deluxe. Between the two of them, it’s quite exciting.”
But it’s not all about play – Brown sees plenty of room for improvement. San Antonio’s Decade of Downtown may have accomplished a lot for the city, but it’s incomplete, he said, and other cities are growing far more rapidly.
“If San Antonio wants to compete effectively for both retaining our young people and attracting more and therefore attracting the businesses that support entrepreneurship that helps build wealth and prosperity for the broad community, [then] we need to see the investments in efforts of downtown continue,” he said.
But he recognizes growth must be balanced with preserving what makes it “someplace versus anyplace,” Brown said. San Antonio has done well to capitalize on its cultural assets, such as the River Walk and San Pedro Creek, he said. The city also has a unique opportunity to develop downtown-adjacent neighborhoods in a way that strengthens them while supporting housing needs at the same time.
While Brown and his wife have been settling into their new home in a downtown apartment – a daughter is attending college in Boston – he has been getting to know the city and meeting new people. “I’ve never felt more welcomed anywhere,” he said. “It’s a notable attribute of the culture here.”
Brown also appreciates the thriving coffee scene in San Antonio, and like most, he is already collecting favorites among the city’s culinary offerings – brisket tacos at Garcia’s, cocktails at the Jet-Setter, craft beer by Ranger Creek, the First Friday Artwalk, and Second Saturday. His eyes light up when he talks about the theater venues here.
“I am amazed that we have the Majestic, the Aztec, the Empire, and the Alameda,” he said. “Especially for a kid who grew up in the Hollywood world, I’m so happy they’re here.”
But he finds the most joy in San Antonio when he visits the Pearl. “I think my absolute favorite thing is hearing kids just laugh their heads off running around that splash pad,” he said. “It’s just the center of life, right?”