Michael Ault '92 (Communication Studies) and Christine Ault '92 (Communication Studies)
Published by Sacramento State's Office of Public Affairs
You aren't likely to find their names in the headlines, but they have had some of the greatest impacts on Sacramento of any couple over the past two decades.
Since graduating from Sacramento State in 1992, Michael and Christine Ault have helped usher in a new era in Sacramento through their extensive work on the capital region's economic, physical and cultural development.
Christine is an independent communications consultant who has worked in myriad capacities shaping and marketing the city's economic identity; Michael is executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership (DSP), a nonprofit that has been crafting the city's downtown since 1995.
Together, through their distinct yet interconnected careers, the Aults continue to advance a greater vision for Sacramento, a vision that at last is coming to fruition after starting so many years ago when the couple first met at Sacramento State.
A shared vision for a new era
On a late October morning in 2014, Michael Ault surveys downtown Sacramento from the DSP's Ninth Street offices.
"Sacramento has a challenge," he says. "The evolution of this city … is making sure that what we are developing in the way of a true urban center is a location that the younger professionals and even students are saying, 'You know, I want to be a part of this, I want to stay here, I'm proud of this city.' "
Just a few blocks southwest, a major component in meeting that challenge is underway as front end loaders tear away the last vestiges of Downtown Plaza. In the vast chasm between J and L streets, construction workers are beginning to lay the groundwork of the new Entertainment and Sports Complex, the centerpiece of a flurry of development for which Ault and the DSP are largely responsible.
Twenty years ago, Michael took over the DSP and began ushering in a renaissance in downtown Sacramento. Today, the downtown arena, an intercity streetcar line, the farm-to-fork movement, and the push for a Major League Soccer (MLS) team are just a few of the pieces of the greater downtown mosaic of culture, business, recreation, and innovation.
But the realization of this new vision goes beyond buildings; it comprises the very identity of the city by asking who, not what, Sacramento wants to be, a question Christine has been trying to answer for years.
Christine is a veritable Jill-of-all-trades when it comes to marketing and economic development: She, too, started out at the DSP and since has worked for The Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento Metro Chamber, and has served as an advisor for the economic development group Valley Vision and project manager of its landmark jobs initiative, NextEconomy.
"Culture and infrastructure really do drive the appeal of a city," Christine says. "But there's also this part about having a relationship: You can build it, you can have the infrastructure, but having a relationship with its citizens is another component of it.
"All these things might seem to be independent activities - the rail yard or the MLS team - but they're really not. This has been all a whole platform in motion for years, and now that the time is right, the seeds have been sewn, the foundation is built for these things to actually take hold."
Roots of change
Though both California natives, neither Michael nor Christine is originally from Sacramento: Christine grew up in Foster City and attended San Mateo High School before heading north to attend Sacramento State; Michael grew up in the East Bay and spent two years abroad in business school before returning stateside.
When he headed to Northern California to finish his communication studies degree at Sacramento State, Michael says, he fell in love with the city and the University.
“ This has been all a whole platform in motion for years, and now that the time is right, the seeds have been sewn, the foundation is built for these things to actually take hold. ”
- Christine Ault
"Sac State really gave me a chance to develop roots here," he says.
During that time, he saw in the city's downtown the potential to become a more vibrant, unique and prosperous place. As he looked for internships, Michael made up in his mind that he would make that happen.
Christine did not go to college straight out of high school; when she did pursue higher education, she chose Sacramento State because it had one of the state's top communications programs. The Communication Studies Department gave Michael and Christine the opportunity to engage directly with the community. They met Professors Lee Nichols and Joe Serna Jr., the late Sacramento mayor, who they say inspired the two of them to affect change beyond the campus.
Communications Professor Gerri Smith was in her first year teaching at Sacramento State in 1992, and it was in one of her very first classes that Michael and Christine met, during the pair's final semester before graduation.
"They just got my attention right off the bat," says Smith, who still lectures and also works in Academic Affairs. "They were very engaging with me, they were always fun to have in class, and the next thing you know, they were going to move in together and become roommates."
Michael and Christine became close friends in the class before moving in together, initially out of convenience. In 1992, the year they both graduated with communications degrees, Michael and Christine both landed internships with the Downtown District.
It was in this early incarnation of what would become the Downtown Sacramento Partnership that the two began the groundwork for a new downtown Sacramento. It also was during this time that it became clear the two were more than friends and colleagues.
"(The Downtown District) was a really tight-knit family," says Smith, who remained close with the Aults and even performed some community service work with the Downtown District. "So they spent a lot of time at work and at play together. The next thing you know, there's a wedding planned and an invitation."
Michael and Christine were married in April 1995.
Christine left the Downtown District for a public relations firm soon after, joined The Sacramento Bee in 1998, then moved on the Sacramento Metro Chamber in 2002 before becoming an independent communications consultant in 2008.
Though they no longer worked in the same building, Michael and Christine's work remained connected for the next decade and a half.
A rising tide
The official district of downtown Sacramento takes up less than one square mile, roughly 66 blocks, along the Sacramento River, but it is arguably the most important real estate in the city.
“ When we ultimately look back on what downtown is and how things are viewed, we'll know that we had a really big part in creating something that will have benefit for future generations. ”
- Michael Ault
The district encompasses historic Old Sacramento, City Hall, the Convention Center, and some of the region's best restaurants and nightlife; it is the workplace of some 72,000 workers and home to nearly 18,000 residents.
But for years, downtown suffered from a poor reputation and languished in underdevelopment. Formative years at the DSP were spent focusing on basic quality-of-life issues, including the "Clean and Safe" programs meant to clean up the grid and reduce crime.
"Downtown didn't look good, didn't feel good, much of it didn't smell good," Michael says, "and we weren't going to be successful in recruiting new businesses or driving new economic capital to come downtown and invest."
That all slowly began to change.
Christine says that before, Sacramento was lucky to have a business looking to set up shop in downtown; today, "all of that groundwork has led to an appealing scenario where now (the DSP) can craft how they want downtown to look and where they want the amenities to be."
Some of the most challenging groundwork to which Christine refers involved getting the different parties involved in the district - development, economic, and community interests - on the same page.
Old Sacramento's view of success, for example, varied from that of the district around the Convention Center or the Capitol, and Michael says the most crucial piece of the puzzle was first getting these different groups to work toward a common vision of where the city was going, and what businesses and storefronts would go where.
"Downtown should be unique, it should be urban, it should be funky, a little edgy, so what are we doing to make this a different experience than you can simply get in your neighborhood strip center or mall?" Michael says.
The arena, set to open in 2016, helped keep a professional sports team in town and revitalized an area that was occupied by the dying behemoth that was the Downtown Plaza. But it is a start of, rather than an end to, the development cycle.
In the past decade, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in Sacramento's urban core, and a propagation of new businesses has helped give the area a much-needed facelift.
The DSP is also responsible for numerous events throughout the year, including Dine Downtown, Beer Week, Concerts in the Park, farmers markets, and the Sacramento Music Festival, that generate millions of dollars and are attended by hundreds of thousands of people.
Christine, too, found that aligning different interests behind a unified cause was both the biggest challenge and greatest asset moving forward in her work with regional economic development group Valley Vision.
"People are used to playing in their own sandbox," Christine says. But when the recession of the late 2000s rocked the region, businesses across the board were in similar dire straits.
The recession paved the way for a new way of thinking and for Valley Vision's jobs initiative called NextEconomy, unveiled in 2013. Christine was integral in pulling together different groups to support the sweeping project, which will bolster the region's transformation by potentially adding tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the region's economy through 2017.
Similarly, NextEconomy's "Brandathon" event, of which Christine is project manager, pulled together hundreds of the region's best minds to identify once and for all Sacramento's unique strengths and attributes in an effort to "brand" the city to be better marketed to the rest of the world for future investments, a strategy set to pay off as more outside businesses look to set up shop in the city's new burgeoning downtown core.
"When we took an assessment of the entire landscape of economic development, there were hundreds of players," Christine says. "There are all the cities and counties; there are half a dozen regional-scale economic development agencies; there are a dozen smaller-scale (organizations) with influence like the Downtown Partnership; and everybody's doing their own thing.
"So the concept there was, let's not prescribe what needs to be done, but let's understand where our opportunities are and build … goals everybody can work towards."
Because of Michael and Christine's respective areas of expertise, Sacramento is in the midst of a transformation that will render it nearly unrecognizable from even a generation before.
Since their graduations, Michael and Christine have worked through five mayors and 15 to 20 county supervisors, and have seen countless colleagues come and go. Many who started at the Downtown District all those years ago are now key players in different roles with whom the couple still work.
And as Sacramento has grown before the Aults' eyes, so has their family: The couple have two children who are growing up immersed in the work and passion of their parents.
The two say balancing a family and a city is the biggest challenge of all, but it imparts the greatest reward.
"The short answer is it's not easy," Christine says. "We just figure it out."
"We've heard from too many people that while it's exhausting now, you'll miss some of these times when they're gone," Michael says. "Sometimes it means dinner in the car on the way somewhere. … But we chose to make that a priority, and if we were going to be parents and go through that, we knew that it would have an impact and cause the reality of less sleep and potentially more stress. But ultimately it will be worth it."
It is family, ultimately, that drives the Aults' work in Sacramento: the inherent value of leaving a lasting legacy for their kids, who will be proud of and want to stay in their city, which will have grown up with them.
Despite not being Sacramento natives, both Michael and Christine were drawn to the city and its University. At Sacramento State, the couple's skills and passions were nurtured and allowed to flourish, and the opportunities they had to make a real impact on their community allowed them to get in on the ground floor of a new era in Sacramento.
Today, the Aults are inseparable from the city's identity.
"For two people that didn't know Sacramento, that weren't born and raised in Sacramento," Michael says, "we've become Sacramentans in the amount of time that we've spent here… "
" … and in the work we've done," Christine finishes.
"When we ultimately look back on what downtown is and how things are viewed," Michael says, "we'll know that we had a really big part in creating something that will have benefit for future generations."
Article written by John Blomster, Sacramento State's Office of Public Affairs, published April 2015.