On September 1, 2019, we celebrate Dennis Markatos-Soriano's 10th anniversary as executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance.
Chuck Flink and Dave Read remember working to hire the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s next executive director in the summer of 2009. Karen Votava, the founding director, was retiring after 18 years. The hiring committee had pared their list to eight, all strong candidates. Dennis Markatos-Soriano was the youngest and least experienced of the eight by far, but he blew the hiring committee away.
“Other people talked about a job. Dennis talked about a passion,” remembers Flink, then chair of the Alliance’s Board of Trustees. “He has a presence about him, and he has a vision.”
Read, who chaired the hiring committee and succeeded Flink as the next board chair, agrees: “Dennis is impressively optimistic in every situation. He sees the big picture.”
With the same energy, optimism, and vision that his hiring committee witnessed, Markatos-Soriano has guided the nonprofit through a decade of strong growth. He inherited a nonprofit that was “fiscally not very sound,” as Flink says, due to the Great Recession. “Dennis’ youth and energy were just what we needed.” The Greenway’s annual budget has grown from just over $400K in 2009 to $1.15M in 2019. The staff has more than tripled from four to 13, with six regional coordinators working from Maine to Florida to accelerate Greenway growth in their regions. And the number of protected miles has almost doubled to nearly 1,000 in 10 years.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Read says.
As anyone who works with him will tell you, Markatos-Soriano is a numbers person. He’s quick to recall figures and to calculate percentages. Among his most significant accomplishments at the Greenway has been nearly tripling the Alliance’s budget in 10 years by landing more and increasingly larger corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, and individual donor gifts. The larger budget has allowed the Alliance to hire more staff, which has led to increased awareness, engagement, and miles in the pipeline. “Under Dennis’ leadership, the organization has grown from a fledgling nonprofit with an annual budget of less than $400k and no cash reserves to one with an annual operating budget of over $1 million with a healthy balance sheet,” says Bob Spiegelman, chair of the Board of Trustees since 2016.
But Markatos-Soriano’s strengths aren’t just in numbers and dollars. “He is well liked by donors,” says Read. He has befriended supporters and volunteers of every political stripe and walk of life, from Passamaquoddy tribal leaders in rural Maine to financiers in New York City and city planners in coastal Florida.
Key initiatives during Markatos-Soriano’s tenure include:
moving the Greenway office closer to the center of our route in 2011 — from the Northeast to Durham, North Carolina;
working with trustees and staff to create and execute a five-year strategic plan to guide the organization’s work from 2015-2020;
overseeing the launch of an updated website and new mapping tool;
conceiving and planning a two-month East Coast River Relay, the series of 57 events from Calais to Miami in 2017 to celebrate the Greenway’s 25th birthday;
leading a campaign, together with Deputy Director Niles Barnes, to encourage partners to apply for U.S. DOT BUILD grants, an effort that included hosting our largest-to-date webinar and generating 11 grant applications from seven states.
"The Alliance is most fortunate to have found someone with Dennis’ passion and abilities to lead it for the past decade," says Votava, his predecessor. "His record in fundraising and staff building and management are testament to his strengths."
"Dennis became executive director at a pivotal time for the safe biking and walking movement, and for the Alliance," says Niles Barnes, deputy director, who has worked at the Alliance for six years. "Leadership takes many forms. I appreciate how Dennis brings his full and authentic self to the work of achieving the mission and vision of the East Coast Greenway. He has extraordinary relationship-building skills that he’s applied to building and maintaining key partnerships to support the growth of the Greenway. His always-positive and sincere communication inspires better collaboration among staff and partners even under difficult circumstances."
“In the complex world of nonprofit service, it is an exceptional experience for an executive director to reach 10 years of leadership and still have ‘fire in the belly,’ but Dennis is still fired-up about the East Coast Greenway Alliance mission,” says Atiba Mbiwan, a member of the Greenway’s Advisory Board. “His ability to grow the organization by supporting staff and board members is quite an achievement in a decade that began with the great recession and for a nonprofit enterprise that spans the entire East Coast.”
Together with his wife, Kristine, Markatos-Soriano is raising three children a half hour or so from the rural North Carolina woods where he played as a young boy. He balances his work days with early morning pick-up basketball, online chess competition, and helping with his kids’ activities.
"Working to develop a tangible project that moves us toward a healthy, sustainable, and equitable future is a dream job," says Markatos-Soriano. "I love the nature and cultures we connect —whether it's picking blueberries in rural Maine or playing basketball on New York City courts, key lime pie or lobster rolls, fragile salamanders or mighty oaks." He thanks the advocates working in the Greenway's 450 communities and 15 states to establish "what will soon be the most popular park in America. Thanks especially to our visionary founders, including Karen Votava and Pat King; our board members who give generously of their time; our impressive staff; and the philanthropists who have given us the strength to grow our impact this past decade. Here's to continued momentum!"
Flink isn’t surprised that Markatos-Soriano is still at the helm 10 years down the road.
“You get the right leader, they capitalize on opportunities,” Flink says. “And what is bigger than this project, if you’re passionate about these kinds of things?”
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