Gay SF business leader works to revive city's downtown core

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 14, 2022
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Ryan McNeill, who's with Advance SF for a year, sits on a bench in the plaza in front of 555 California Street where Bank of America is located. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Ryan McNeill, who's with Advance SF for a year, sits on a bench in the plaza in front of 555 California Street where Bank of America is located. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Ryan McNeill, a gay senior executive with Bank of America, is assisting with reinvigorating San Francisco's downtown area as it adjusts to new working patterns brought about by the ongoing COVID pandemic. He has taken a leave of absence from the financial company via its Leader on Loan program in order to devote his time toward the effort.

He will spend the next year as part of the team at Advance SF, formerly known as the Committee on Jobs but rebranded last December. It acts as a think tank and advocacy organization for downtown business interests and local employers, and engages with city officials on various policy matters.

"I was so passionate about the organization and the mission, given I have lived in San Francisco for 13 years and I am working downtown, that I really want to be part of the revitalization of the economic core and really help in any way possible to think about what is possible for downtown, for the economic core in a post-pandemic environment," McNeill, 37, told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent video interview.

A fifth generation Californian who grew up in Southern California, McNeill resides in San Francisco's NoPa, or North of the Panhandle, neighborhood near Golden Gate Park. He first joined BofA in 2014 as a vice president and became a senior vice president with the bank in 2019, according to his LinkedIn profile.

McNeill early on became a member of the bank's local LGBTQ affinity group for employees, which he had co-chaired the last two years. He is now into his third year on the board of Frameline, San Francisco's LGBTQ international film festival.

At Advance SF he serves as interim director of special projects. Wade Rose, the nonprofit's president, told the B.A.R. the organization is "excited to welcome Ryan on board" to its team.

"His skill set and expertise will be valuable in ASF's efforts to renew the Economic Core and in its mission to make the city a thriving place for everyone," stated Rose. "Thank you to Bank of America for allowing Ryan to join ASF, where we are striving for a vibrant and more inclusive economy and a renewed sense that San Francisco is headed in the right direction."

SF's economic core

The revival efforts are focused on what is being called San Francisco's Economic Core. The designated area encompasses Downtown, South of Market, Union Square, Civic Center, Yerba Buena, and Mission Bay. According to the mayor's office, 42% of the city's small businesses are located in the area and it produced 47% of the city's sales tax revenue prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our Economic Core fuels the sales tax, hotel tax, parking tax, and business taxes that fund programs and vital services that support the health and well-being of our city and our neighborhoods," noted Mayor London Breed in a July 5 Medium post. "If we want to continue to make progress on homelessness, have police officers and firefighters responding to calls in all neighborhoods, provide vital support for children and families, and all the other priorities we all care about, we need a thriving Economic Core."

Last month, the city's Office of Economic Workforce Development allocated $3.4 million toward economic recovery initiatives aimed at drawing workers, residents, and visitors back into the Economic Core. The funding is meant to support a range of activities in both public parks and plazas and vacant ground floor spaces in the area.

"The activities under this procurement are a vital step in the revitalization of our Economic Core and complements our role in supporting and strengthening small, local, and underrepresented businesses, entrepreneurs, and cultural groups," stated Kate Sofis, the office's executive director.

Tuesday, September 13, gay District 8 San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman requested that City Controller Ben Rosenfield and gay Treasurer José Cisneros complete by April 1 an analysis of how the city's "uneven downtown economic recovery" will impact its business tax revenue base. He also asked in a letter sent to the two officials that they recommend what can be done "to ensure revenue resilience" in the city's future budget years.

"Business taxes are the city's second-largest individual source of revenue, and any disruption to this revenue base could have a profound impact on future budgets," stated Mandelman. "We need to consider before it is too late what a potentially radically different downtown will mean for San Francisco's financial future."

Pre-pandemic, the sextet of neighborhoods accounted for more than 70% of the city's gross domestic product, according to Advance SF. Today, due to the health crisis, that part of the city continues to see a glut of business vacancies and the remaining small businesses struggling to survive.

It is estimated that just a quarter of workers who had been going to their offices prior to the start of the COVID pandemic in March 2020 have returned. As of the spring, San Francisco ranked 62nd among major downtowns in U.S. cities in terms of their recovery from the health crisis according to a list created by academics and researchers with ties to UC Berkeley.

"I really do feel there is so much untapped potential downtown," said McNeill, who had lived in downtown Manhattan before moving to the Bay Area in 2010.

His apartment building in New York City he moved into in 2007 had been an athletic club prior to the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. The collapse of the World Trade Center buildings caused major damage and the club was repurposed for residential.

Meanwhile, from his office window at J.P. Morgan, where he served as an analyst then as a sales and trading associate, McNeill had a vantage point to see the building of the new Freedom Tower on the site where the Twin Towers had stood. It is a template for rethinking an urban environment from which McNeill is drawing lessons.

Having seen the neighborhood "reinvent itself after a terrible, terrible event just makes me think, 'OK. New York was able to rethink what the future of downtown looked like. We can do something here similar, given some of the constraints and changing work norms we are seeing here out of employers,'" he said. "Many tech employees are able to do their work remotely and do not need to go to work everyday, so what is the next iteration for what downtown looks like?"

He started in his yearlong externship with Advance SF on August 1 and is assisting with its efforts to preserve San Francisco as a headquarter city for major employers and a top travel and tourism destination. Along with workers, he is also helping to ensure the city's downtown area is also seen as hospitable for residents.

"It was a no-brainer," McNeill said about the opportunity. "It was hard to leave my current job because I really enjoyed it. But again, I am so passionate about San Francisco it was something I couldn't say no to."

While on loan to Advance SF, McNeill will be working downtown Tuesday to Thursday at 150 Post Street out of the offices of public affairs firm BergDavis, which is assisting the nonprofit with its messaging campaigns. For the last year McNeill had been going to his BofA office at least three times a week and more recently five days a week. The bank is based out of 555 California Street.

"Yes, I am in the Trump building," acknowledged McNeill, as the former president owns a stake in the 52-story skyscraper. "Personally, I love coming downtown and working in the office ... there is so much to be gained by sitting with your colleagues talking through your problems."

As for BofA's own policy for working at home or the office, CEO Brian Moynihan announced this month at a banking conference in New York that the company was working on a revamped office-return policy it planned to unveil by late October or early November.

"We'll have more flexibility than we did, on paper, before," said Moynihan, reported Reuters last week. But, he added, "We'll have more formality to the flexibility."

Betty Riess, a bank spokesperson based in San Francisco, told the B.A.R. last month that the company is "a work from office culture where our employees thrive on partnerships and collaboration. While we do not have an official hybrid policy, we have always had flexibility as part of our work culture."

At home alone with his 1-year-old Golden Retriever Fozzie Bear, whom he adopted during the pandemic, McNeill missed interacting not only with his work colleagues but also the employees at the businesses he frequented downtown. Talking to the people at his favorite salad shop, coffeehouse barista, and barber, McNeill said he heard how much of a hardship those businesses have faced due to so many of their customers no longer commuting daily to their offices.

"You want to support these local businesses," he said. "Talking to them and hearing their stories, you learn how the work-from-home structure is really hurting these businesses."

Now, he is on the frontlines trying to figure out how to attract more office employees, tourists, and everyday residents of San Francisco to venture back downtown on a regular basis in order to boost the bottom lines of both the city's coffers and that of small business owners.

"I want to do anything I can to support them," he said of his favorite local haunts near his office. "It sounds silly, but these are my friends I have gotten to know over the years."

His message to LGBTQ residents of the city is that downtown "is open for business" and the various stores, eateries, and bars need their patronage.

"If people aren't supporting these local businesses — businesses we all know and love and supported for many years — they may not exist," he warned. "If they can bring friends to support these local businesses, it can go a long way toward fortifying the economic development of the city's core."

When he finishes his assignment, McNeill will return to BofA but may end up in a different position with the company as a result of the new skills he will have developed at Advance SF.

"I am very thankful BofA has this program in place to be able to give back to the communities we live in and support," he said.

To learn more about Advance SF, visit its website.

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