Cornerstone's bookkeeper of knowledge

Greg Vaughn, chief operating officer and vice president of Business Development at Cornerstone Alliance, is entering semi-retirement after more than 25 years at Cornerstone.

BENTON HARBOR — Greg Vaughn is stepping away after more than 25 years in economic development.

Sort of.

As the chief operating officer and vice president of Business Development at Cornerstone Alliance, Vaughn is cutting back on the days he’ll be in the organization’s downtown Benton Harbor office and going into what he has deemed semi-retirement.

Vaughn is essentially the bookkeeper of knowledge when it comes to the history of businesses and shops that have come through the Twin Cities over the past three decades.

Jan. 1 marks Vaughn’s last day as a full-time employee with Cornerstone.

Vaughn sat down with Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Tony Wittkowski to talk about his impact in the community and the difficulty of stepping away from Cornerstone Alliance.

When did you come to the conclusion to semi-retire?

I’ve been thinking about it for five or six years. Not seriously. My wife retired a couple years ago so that accelerated the thoughts more. It didn’t put pressure on me, but I envied her leisure. Plus, it gave us time here at Cornerstone to fill the staffing so we could have people in place to take over some of the tasks I’ve been doing.

So you thought that grass looked nice from your wife’s retirement?

Yeah, that had a lot to do with it.

At the same time, are you a workaholic? Is that the reason for this transition rather than just a full retirement?

Everyone that I’ve known who has retired have just about come back to do something else. I used to joke about being a greeter at Walmart when I retired. As retirement came closer, I thought I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to sit at home all day, so I thought some type of part-time job makes sense for me. When Rob (Cleveland) suggested I do that here, it made even more sense.

What’s keeping you from fully retiring on Jan. 1?

The people. I’ve had the honor of working with some very good people. I will miss being in the middle of things too. Being in this position you hear a lot and you work with a large variety of personalities. That’s been very beneficial for me. I’ve learned from just about each and every one of them.

What do you think you won’t miss on the day-to-day grind?

I don’t know at this point. I can honestly say there have been very few bad days at my job. There have been some frustrating days, but I can’t say there have been many bad days. The most difficult thing to deal with has been the politics that are involved. All the communities have something going on now and again. It takes a while to learn how to navigate those issues that pop up.

How did you find yourself working with Cornerstone Alliance?

Jeff Noel. I ran into Jeff at a gathering when I was between jobs. It was the first time in my life that I was between jobs.

How old were you at the time?

Let’s see, I’m 66 and that was 25 years, so that would be when I was 41. Not long after running into Jeff I thought about working there. I shot Jeff a note and a few days later he said to come on in to talk.

What was your first position at Cornerstone?

I was director of Small Business Services at Cornerstone. I oversaw the SBA program.

Up until that point did you have another job in economic development?

Not particularly. I had a variety of jobs that teetered on that edge. I had worked in government, sales, I owned a small business. So I’ve done all the facets but economic development up to that point.

Once you got out of school, did you imagine yourself in this position?

Oh no. When I was hired here, I told my wife that if I’m here for a couple of years that would be good. I wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted to do. But the job kept growing and I enjoyed what I was doing.

That’s what was great about Cornerstone. You may have a single job, but it is a small enough organization that you are in every different element of economic development. One day you could be talking to a small business person and next you could be talking to a housing developer.

What are some of your career highlights from your time here?

I’ve been a part of so many different types of projects. Big and small. I can drive down almost any street in this community and see things I’ve been involved in. When I started at Cornerstone, I was one of the people who had a lot to do with helping jump-start what’s happened downtown in the arts district.

The majority of the buildings down there were abandoned. We were fortunate enough to get some funding from the Mendel family and put together a program to encourage people to invest in the buildings and refurbish them. Almost all of those buildings have Cornerstone’s fingerprints on them either through a grant or a loan. I feel good about that. It’s something you take for granted because you see it everyday.

Have they found a successor for your role here?

I don’t know yet. I think Rob is going to step back and take a look at the organization and determine what his real needs are.

Well, if they do find another Greg Vaughn, what advice would you leave for them?

Be true to yourself. Make a decision and don’t procrastinate. If it’s wrong then you correct it. I think you need to bring someone in who needs to be the conscious of the organization. I always tried to play that role. Some organizations tend to drift from the original mission and we’ve done some of that. I’ve always tried to remind myself this is why we’re doing this.

When it comes to retirement what would you like to do?

I would like to travel more. One thing about this job is I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve been everywhere from Miami to Anchorage, Alaska. Of the 50 states, I’ve been to at least 25 or 30 of them. They were for training or mandatory trips for various programs I was involved in. I want to go back to some of the places I visited and really get to know those places. I’ll see where my wife takes me.