O-Town Interview: Lisa Cuatt aims to beautify Thornton Park

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Lisa Cuatt’s love for her job can be seen when she talks about it. Cuatt spoke to us in her Thornton Park office July 12. (Photo by S.T. Cardinal)

#Downtownforgrownups is the hashtag of Thornton Park, and Lisa Cuatt has helped the Thornton Park District (TPD) cater to that audience as executive director of TPD. Originally from upstate New York, Cuatt found a love for art when she visited New York City for a family vacation. She has brought that love of art into her work, making strides to beautify the area of Thornton Park by helping artists, businesses and the city collaborate to install murals around the district, which is just east of Lake Eola Park.

What does a day in the life of a Main Street director look like?

There’s a lot that go into Main Streets, and, when people say, “So, what do you do?” it’s like every day is different. One day I’m sitting and talking to you, the next day I’m cleaning trash off the street; others, I’m pulling 18a forms, or I’m working with a business owner who’s fighting with another business owner. There’s a lot that goes into it. I don’t know if there’s any kind of main job description. I think you kind of have to be a jack of all trades.

How do you unwind after a long day in Thornton Park? Do you stay in Thornton Park ever, or do you have a secret getaway?

I’m a big exercise buff.

Lisa Cuatt shows off the new planters that were installed on Washington Street this July. Cuatt’s love for gardening and art has followed her to her day job as executive director of the Thornton Park Main Street District. (Photo by S.T. Cardinal)

I like walking and running. I have three out of four of my kids at home and one of their friends, so I have four kids at home, and I love to cook when I go home, and they love that I love to cook. But I hang out in Thornton Park a lot, too.

You know what I really love to do to unwind? Cook and garden. I’m a huge gardener. My backyard is like a little utopia. I have fountains, and I got plants, and I got butterflies. People are like, “It doesn’t look like Florida here.” I have a lot of herbs; I have tomatoes; I have basil; I have rosemary, parsley. We have an orange tree. I think it’s very therapeutic because you’re working. There’s something about getting your hands in the dirt and then seeing the results. It’s just very therapeutic, and my mother has the most amazing green thumb. Growing up, people used to stop and pull over to the side of the road to look at our garden — true story.

Two of your interests are gardening and art, and that seems to have followed you into your profession. Talk about what it’s like to see art and plants beautifying the area where you work. What’s that like?

It’s pretty fabulous. Gosh, now it sounds kind of self-serving, but that’s what our design team does because the look of a city makes such a difference. We go to a different city every year for the Main Street conference. We were just in Seattle, and they just have planters and art. I mean, when you go to these other Main Street areas, it’s creative placemaking. It’s getting that vibe, that local fair that makes it unique. We have people that come, now, just to take pictures in the Thornton Park Central Garage because they heard there’s this cool art install there. So, say you have a friend in town, and they ask, “Do you have any cool art murals?” And you might suggest we go to Thornton Park and take a look at their murals. It drives foot traffic.

So, you grew up in upstate New York. Talk about how you ended up in Orlando and how New York shaped you.

I moved down here — I was married at the time — about 30 years ago. Ironically, I wasn’t very fond of Orlando at first. It was just, like, a lot of chain restaurants. I lived over out towards the MetroWest area, and it just didn’t seem to have a flavor, if that makes sense. But I love Orlando. I’m very proud to say I live in Orlando. I think we have an amazing mayor. I think our city staff is amazing, and there’s such a great collaboration between Main Streets and city staff.

I love to see the journey of how Downtown Orlando has progressed from where it was and where it is now. I love how we have all these murals popping up and how there’s an I-4 Ultimate art endowment. City staff is really getting into, “How can we become this fun, funky city that uses creative placemaking?”

Talk about your parents and how they’ve influenced you in your life and career.

My father passed away a couple years ago. They lived in Jensen Beach. I think, once you lose a parent, that really changes your perspective. And without sounding too corny, you start looking at your life and thinking, “What have I done with my life? What do I wanna leave behind?” My father and I used to have a lot of those talks as he was dying. I used to go down every weekend to help take care of him. And, again, this sounds so corny, but I feel like, with this job and volunteering with other boards, that — I don’t know if it’s ego — but I feel like I’m enriching my surroundings. And at the end of the day, what have I done with my life? Was it always about me, me, me? Or is it about what you can give back? And I feel like that’s what I’m doing, and I feel like it’s been great for my girls because that’s the attitude that they have also.

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