UCD Employee Spotlight: Margaret Starke

A picture of Margaret Starke with copy reading "UCD Employee Spotlight: Margaret Starke"
Jun 06, 2022 3 months ago

Local businesses selling items to hundreds of visitors along Baltimore Avenue while a band plays brass versions of 90s hits. Families sitting under the stars in Clark Park while a favorite movie is projected on a huge screen. Three courses of delicious offerings from a new restaurant you’ve been dying to try. Ballet dancers performing before the iconic 30th Street Station.

If you’ve attended a UCD signature event like the Dollar Stroll or Movies in Clark Park, enjoyed a pop-up performance at one of our public spaces, or had lunch from a food truck at The Porch at 30th Street Station, you have one woman to thank. She’s the permit puller, the weather watcher, the florals finder, the details diva: she’s Margaret Starke, our Senior Manager for Events and Community Partnerships, and none of our events happens without months of planning and hard work from Margaret.

“I grew up in a household where my parents were always working in service of others,” Margaret explains during a break from planning the June 16th Dollar Stroll. Her mother, a local librarian, volunteered regularly, including at the Cornerstone Christian Academy at 58th and Kingsessing. “If you were sick, you didn’t get to just stay home. You were going with Mom to volunteer at the library or help out with the music program at Cornerstone.” As a child, Margaret and her two sisters joined their church on mission trips to South Carolina to serve at homeless shelters, volunteered at orphanages in Mexico, and worked with Habitat for Humanity.

Margaret got an early taste of event logistics as a college freshman when her older sister Liz was planning her wedding. Margaret helped with decisions like bridesmaids’ dresses, shoe selections, and floral arrangements. Margaret discovered she loved executing events, so much so that she changed her major to business and management.

In college, she interned for three different event planning businesses and, with a group of friends who lived in a shared house, raised awareness of people in the surrounding community who relied on the local food kitchens and pantries. Margaret and her housemates volunteered at soup kitchens and ran a big basketball tournament fundraiser to raise money to support kitchens and pantries. “That’s when I realized how many logistics go into that type of event planning when you’re inviting the public to join you. We’d need to fill out applications to use certain sites on campus, gain approvals to use the money we raised, and then execute every part of the event from registration through the day of the event.”

After college, Margaret accepted an office manager position at a high-end event planning company focused on social events, weddings, and bat mitzvahs. But things about working in the for-profit event planning world didn’t mesh with Margaret and her values. “It was really hard to reconcile the amount of waste and the over-the-top nature of these types of events,” she explains. “I wanted to make a difference.”

Her next stop was working in the admission and advancement office at a small, independent school in Haverford. Margaret soon found herself planning internal events for students and the parent-teacher organization, and public-facing events and fairs for the community. Her work at the school caught the attention of a parent named Lori Klein-Brennan, who Margaret learned did marketing and event planning in University City. They had a good relationship, and Margaret asked if they could have coffee.

During the meeting, Lori shared information about her work as the Marketing Director at University City District—programming at The Porch at 30th Street Station, signature events like Dining Days and the Dollar Stroll, and the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, among much more, all geared toward supporting local businesses, artists, or residents. Margaret liked what she heard, and since Lori knew of Margaret’s talents because of events they’d collaborated on at the school, she offered Margaret an opportunity to join UCD as a part-time marketing and events assistant. Margaret accepted and joined the staff in April of 2014, within a month of sitting down for coffee with Lori.

Margaret arrived with her favorite organization tools—binders, notebooks, highlighters, Pentel RSVP ballpoint pens—and hit the ground running. She visited Baltimore Avenue businesses to sign them up to participate in the Dollar Stroll, coordinated with musicians for the 40th Street Summer Series, and collected sign-ups, menus, and gift cards for University City Dining Days.

Her biggest responsibility, though, was to program The Porch at 30th Street Station, UCD’s flagship public space. That first summer we welcomed multiple food trucks each day, we booked smaller weekly performers, and we hosted free miniature golf, fitness classes, craft fests, beer gardens, and larger events like performances from Tangle Movement Arts, the Bearded Ladies, and collaborations with XPN like outdoor Free at Noon performances.

In that first summer, tens of thousands of people attended UCD events, which ran smoothly thanks largely to Margaret’s work, and in her second year, she helped get our Movies in Clark Park series off the ground and expanded other signature events. She built a network of local performers, arts and culture groups, and local businesses. “The awesome thing about the work I do is that no idea is too big or too small,” she says. “We quite literally give a stage to local performers and art groups, everything from BalletX down to a single musician with a guitar."

Margaret describes feeling “refreshed” by working on events that were meant to activate spaces, promote local businesses, or simply bring fun and enjoyment to residents and local employees. Margaret developed personal relationships with business owners, performers, and small non-profits. These weren’t just business names on storefronts. She got to know the families running small businesses, to see the owners’ children doing their homework in the back booths at restaurants. “This type of work kicked off my love for community engagement,” she says.

In the years since, Margaret has fine-tuned her own systems and processes for running events while deepening and strengthening her relationships within the community. She programmed our Trolley Portal Gardens once it opened, helped develop official processes so that community food and merchandise vendors could get proper permitting and licensing to participate in the Dollar Stroll, and routinely serves as a connector between other organizations within University City looking to do similar programming. At our events, you’ll find Margaret coordinating with vendors and performers, interfacing with visitors, and problem-solving issues in real-time so things run smoothly. 

And then, Margaret’s work came to a screeching halt in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to stop getting together. Suddenly all our signature events and public space activations were put on pause, as were other parts of UCD’s work. “What the pandemic pushed us to do was to get back to that foundational work of benefiting the community and local businesses,” she says. We moved events like the Dollar Stroll and Dining Days to virtual versions and tried everything we could to find ways to support local businesses. Margaret was part of a team to develop gift card promotions, to develop West Philly Favorites, curated packs of items from local establishments, to share grant and funding opportunities to our partners, to set up a restaurant job fair for businesses struggling to hire staff, and much more.

Because of the work Margaret had done over the years to establish herself as a representative of UCD, she was a trusted source of help to business owners, vendors, and performers at a time when many were overwhelmed by the challenges of an uncertain world. “When businesses ran into crises, they were calling to ask what UCD could do for them. It felt really important to be able to help.”

In 2021, slimmed-down versions of popular events like the Dollar Stroll, programming at The Porch, and Dining Days returned, and we are currently gearing up for a full event season in 2022, starting with the first Dollar Stroll of the year on June 16th. For the Dollar Stroll to happen requires long hours from Margaret—securing permits, working with the Health Department, hiring performers, finding sponsors, collecting sign-ups, developing the map, and a hundred more small tasks for her to check off in her planner. And what's it all for? 

“There’s always this moment at each Dollar Stroll,” Margaret says. It usually happens about two hours into the Stroll, when her phone has quit ringing, the Health Department has all the approvals they need, and when everyone is where they should be and the event is humming along. She’ll find herself able to take a breath and maybe try a bite from a restaurant or dancing along to a band she’s hired. She’ll look around at the hundreds of people enjoying themselves and our wonderful community, and she’ll smile and simply say to herself, “This is awesome.”

We hope you agree.