Mount Vernon's chief town crier

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bob Niles has been selling entertainment for years.

Much of the time, he did it from Rockefeller Center as a high-powered executive with NBC. But these days his home base is Baltimore, and his mission more local. Niles' new job as executive director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District is to establish a brand for the neighborhood, to bring in more visitors and to get them to stay longer.

"It's an area that invites you to slow down and enrich your life by taking in what's around you," said Niles, 57. "It's a very special urban, cultural village. The challenge we have is to make more people aware of it."

The Mount Vernon Cultural District, which encompasses the area bounded by Eutaw Street, Mount Royal Avenue, the Jones Falls Expressway and Mulberry Street, is rich with cultural traditions that include the First Thursday concerts, the Book Festival, the Flower Mart and the Christmas lighting of the Washington Monument.

The district is home to major cultural attractions, including the Walters Art Museum, Maryland Historical Society, Center Stage, the Peabody Institute, where an estimated $300 million has been invested over the past 10 years.

Niles walks the 20 minutes from his turn-of-the-century rowhouse in Federal Hill to his office in the Downtown Partnership's headquarters.

From his North Charles Street office, Niles scurries around to various attractions in Mount Vernon throughout the day.

"I think the programming is solid," he said. "It's almost like this is an oasis where you can nourish yourself."

Niles opted for a new life in Baltimore after a 24-year career at NBC, where he held a variety of senior marketing positions, most recently as senior vice president of network development and digital media strategy. When NBC moved to phase out his department, Niles decided to change direction - and his workaholic lifestyle. It also afforded him the chance to spend time with his then teenage children.

As he and his wife of 3 1/2 years, freelance journalist Christina Cheakalos, brainstormed about where to relocate on the East Coast, Baltimore came up on a short list along with cities such asRaleigh, N.C., and Portland, Maine.

"We came down on a Friday afternoon and in about 10 minutes looked at each other and said, 'This feels great,"' Niles said.

The couple moved here in the fall of 2004, settling in Federal Hill so their Labradoodle Tom could frolic in the neighborhood parks.

"One of the reasons we moved to Baltimore was to simplify our lives," Cheakalos said. "We wanted to live in a place that had all the good things about a city and the problems that make it real."

Began in March

Niles was doing consulting, and keeping his eye on a Web site about nonprofits when the Mount Vernon job opened in January. At the same time, a friend of his wife's also flagged the position.

The two sides decided they were a match. Niles took the job - at about a quarter of his NBC salary - and started in March.

"On the marketing level, we felt we needed a plan," said Connie Caplan, president of the Mount Vernon Cultural District board. "Bob came from a broadcast background. He understood marketing. It seemed like a perfect fit."

"Bob was the one who suggested looking at ourselves as a cultural urban village," Caplan said. "I think that was a good way of casting ourselves."

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership and a member of the Mount Vernon Cultural District board, considers the city lucky to have Niles.

"He's a recent transplant, and I've found a lot of transplants really fall in love with the city and want to spread the word," he said. "As more residents are moving into Mount Vernon and the rest of downtown, it's important for us to keep those people. It's important for Bob to focus on how to keep those people interested in the cultural amenities of the district while also reaching out to tourists, students and business people."

For his part, Niles relishes that his new job allows him to indulge his passion for history, which he studied as an undergraduate, while tapping into his professional experience and his knack for getting people to work together.

Attract families

In the coming months, Niles hopes to develop a plan and metrics for measuring success as he works on upgrading the organization's Web site, devising ways to attract families with children, and ponders methods for shuttling people around the district's attractions.

Although his main role is to bring visitors in, it is possible that such an effort also could help attract residents to the area, he said. It has not been decided whether the branding effort would include some form of advertising campaign.

The nearby State Center project is one that Niles plans to watch closely. That complex of state-owned office buildings, which house about 3,500 workers, is to become a 25-acre hub of offices, shops, a hotel and mixed-income housing centered on the Metro and light-rail stops. Located at the edge of Mount Vernon, such a project could generate a lot of traffic through the cultural district, Niles said.

Niles' enthusiasm for Baltimore has earned him the moniker "Mr. Believe" among friends.

Nicholas P. Schiavone, a former colleague from NBC who is founder and president of a strategic business consulting firm in Rye, N.Y., that bears his name, has experienced "Mr. Believe" in action during many phone conversations with Niles.

"For a while I thought he was in the chamber of commerce or the travel bureau," Schiavone joked. "I thought he was getting a commission. Bob's affinity for Baltimore comes from the heart, it's not a cerebral thing. He's smart enough to understand it and to do something of service with it."

The men worked together at NBC selling the 1992 Olympics to companies such as Kodak, Visa and Coca-Cola by persuading them to wrap sponsorship messages around real stories about athletes that incorporated idealism and patriotism.

"Bob was the type of person who created conditions for creativity and growth," Schiavone said.

Niles takes on projects and makes them a mission, said Steve Friedman, vice president of CBS News Morning Programming, who has known him for 20 years.

"He comes up with ideas and sells them to the people he needs to sell them to," Friedman said. "He thinks Baltimore is the greatest city in the world now. I can tell it in his voice."

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum and a founder of the Mount Vernon Cultural District who served on the search committee that hired Niles, thinks that the former TV executive has a clear grasp of the organization's goals.

"I think he finds this whole process of engaging with the city personally energizing," Vikan said. "I think what's rewarding for him at this stage in his life is exactly what we need. This is not a place to drive around; this is a place to walk and a place to linger. I think he really gets it."

june.arney@baltsun.com

Bob Niles

Age:

57

Current job:

Executive director, Mount Vernon Cultural District

Born:

March 23, 1949, in Flint, Mich.

Education:

B.A. University of Virginia, 1971; M.B.A. Harvard University, 1977

First Job:

Age 13. Cleaned kennels for a veterinarian for 75 cents an hour in Fenton, Mich.

Career:

Press secretary for U.S. Rep. Donald W. Riegle Jr., a Michigan Democrat, May 1973 to June 1975. Joined NBC management training program in 1977. Within six months, he was manager of TV network financial analysis. From there, he worked as director of financial planning, director of TV network pricing, vice president of TV network sales marketing, vice president of NBC research, senior vice president of affiliate relations, senior vice president of network development and senior vice president of digital media strategies.

Family:

Married Christina Cheakalos, a freelance journalist, in 2003; two adult children from a previous marriage: Alexandra, 22, and Peter, 20.

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