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Vails, one of city's urban leaders, to leave Plaza District




Kristin Vails has a new job, photographed in the Plaza District where she served as director.  mh
  • Kristin Vails has a new job, photographed in the Plaza District where she served as director. mh

Kristen Vails, who has spent the last several years as one of Oklahoma City’s urban pioneers, is stepping down from her post as executive director of the Plaza District, a commercial hub on 16th Street that has become a model for neighborhood revitalization.

“I was just kind of getting to a point where the district is going so well and we have a great board and good staff, and I felt like it is able to go on without me,” Vails said.

Vails has accepted a position with Fowler Holding Co. where she will manage sponsorship and community projects.

Vails became director of the Plaza District Association in 2008 and has helped promote the neighborhood, attract dozens of restaurants and shops, and host the popular LIVE on the Plaza held each month and the annual Plaza District Festival.

“We had had just a few Live on the Plazas and I remember there was someone there with a stroller, a young family,” Vails remembered. “I had to run and grab my camera because I couldn’t believe there was a family down there. That was a real defining moment.”

The Plaza District, which celebrated its 16th anniversary last year, has become one of the city’s most pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares and is home to several popular establishments, including Empire Slice House, Saints Pub and The Mule. Once a thriving commercial district at the end of a trolley line in the 1920’s, the neighborhood slowly lost businesses and residents until it was known for crime and blight in the 1980’s.

While the Plaza District Association was formed several years before Vails arrived, she has been credited for its latest era of revitalization and placement on the map of cultural districts across the city.

“We all playfully called her the ‘Plaza mom’ because she was owning this thing so much as far as being the catalyst between everyone who was acting in the Plaza District,” said Kenny Deason, a board member and co-owner of the District House, a coffeehouse in the district. “All we ever saw her doing was hustling and working hard every single day.”

Empire Slice House

Empire Slice House

Deason said he hates to see Vails leave, but feels her work has set the neighborhood on a stable foundation.

“Kristen is leaving with the Plaza District in such a place where there is leadership that has been developed and she is leaving it with a very mature and vibrant and active board of directors in place,” Deason added.

As news of Vails’ departure spread this week, comments on social media highlighted the role she has played in not only transforming the neighborhood, but also serving as a leader in the city’s urban renaissance that is taking hold beyond downtown. Vails has also been involved in several place-making projects, such as Better Block OKC.

Over the past several years, the Plaza District has also emerged as a hub for creativity as art galleries have opened and the district hosted festivals highlighting local artists.

“To me, its the most organic of all the arts districts that we have [in Oklahoma City],” said Stephen Kovash, who operates a gallery a few blocks away from the district. “The Plaza seems to have a lot more opportunities for start up artists and the kids getting into the business. It’s also one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Oklahoma City.”

Balloons outside Photo Art Studio add even more local color to Plaza Fest, celebrating it's 16th birthday Saturday.

Balloons outside Photo Art Studio during the Plaza Festival.

Kovash, who also serves on the Plaza District board, said he viewed Vails as not just a leader, but someone who would get involved in any project that helped promote the district.

“She’s been a cheerleader and been instrumental in bringing a lot of the top shelve businesses that we have in there,” Kovash said. “I remember she was in DNA Galleries [before it opened] scraping paint and helping them launch. Now they are one of the most vibrant art gallery retail stores in the city.”

The Plaza District has also helped promote urban development in other parts of the city through its Urban Pioneer Awards, which last year honored Midtown Renaissance for its revitalization work across the city.

While Vails gets a lot of credit for the Plaza District's success, she said a vibrant community is made up of many different people and she is excited about the district's future.

“I think [the Plaza District] is a great model for other areas and it’s taken so many pieces to make it work and I tell that to so many other [neighborhood] managers,” Vails said.

Vails final day with the Plaza District is March 31. She will start with Fowler in April.

“You could not overstate her role in this neighborhood,” Deason said. “We all hate to see her go, but like she said, the Plaza District is in such a strong place right now and will continue to grow.”

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