Downtown Boston has lost its biggest cheerleader.
Rosemarie Sansone died Monday, less than a week after retiring from her job as CEO of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District and celebrating her 77th birthday.
Few people in Boston understood the intersection of city government and the business community better than Sansone, or what could be accomplished when both groups work together. The success of the downtown BID is a testament to that: In an interview in January, Sansone told the Globe that then-mayor Tom Menino urged her to join what was called the Downtown Crossing Partnership about 14 years ago, when he was eager to rejuvenate the neighborhood. She worked to establish the city’s first business improvement district, in which property owners pay for programs and services specific to a particular area; the partnership essentially morphed into the Downtown Boston BID as a result in 2010.
Over time, Sansone said, she took the group’s annual budget from around $200,000 to $7 million, serving an area that includes Downtown Crossing, the Financial District, and the Theater District. The biggest expense is the BID’s ambassadors program, which provides services ranging from helping visitors with directions to removing graffiti. The BID also acts as an advocate for downtown-friendly policies and infrastructure. (The group’s board is starting the search for a new chief executive.)
“She tried to bring life to downtown at times when other people were writing it off,” said Larry DiCara, a real estate lawyer who has been friends with Sansone since they served on the City Council together four decades ago. “She played such a vital role in the city.”
DiCara said he was told she was ill, but Sansone, made no mention of it when asked about her reasons for retirement by the Globe in January.
Sansone, who lived in Lexington, got her start in politics in behind-the-scenes roles. Eventually, she became one of the first women to be elected to the Boston City Council, in 1977. She served for four years and later joined then-mayor Ray Flynn’s administration, in a top business development role focused in part on attracting tourists and conventions to the city.
“She really left no stone unturned in terms of ways to connect the city, and its neighborhoods, to our cultural institutions and opportunities to think about ... public art,” said Richard Dimino, chief executive of the A Better City business group, reflecting on the time he served with Sansone in the Flynn administration. “There’s a reason why people followed Rosemarie. She was a great leader in so many ways.”
She also worked at Suffolk University for 13 years as director of public affairs, from 1994 through 2007, a period during which the school expanded its presence in the downtown area.
“Rosemarie Sansone had a great love for Suffolk University and its students,” Suffolk president Marisa Kelly said in a statement. “During her time at Suffolk, she played an instrumental role in sharing the stories of this institution and our essential mission.”
Pam Messenger, who chairs the downtown BID’s board of directors, said Sansone was a natural choice to run the business group and to bring the new improvement district to fruition, in part because she “threw herself into everything [she did], 100 percent.”
Business leaders hailed the work Sansone did to bring back the downtown from its doldrums. Those efforts took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, as foot traffic dropped to one-third of its normal level. But Messenger said Sansone has positioned both the BID and downtown to thrive as the city recovers, and more workers return to offices on a regular basis.
“She supported and celebrated every kind of use in the downtown, from the office towers to big retail to small retail to the pushcarts to the colleges ... and the nonprofits, and the Freedom Trail,” Messenger added. “We’re definitely not done, but she laid a tremendous foundation and we will always owe her a great debt of gratitude for that.”
Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chief executive Jim Rooney said in a statement that Sansone was the perfect choice to lead the BID when downtown Boston was at a crossroads. “The new developments and vibrancy, including a downtown supermarket, that happened on her watch are part of Sansone’s rich legacy,” Rooney said.
When asked in January by the Globe about the best part of her job, she pointed to all the people in the downtown community who are striving to make it succeed.
“Meeting so many people who are committed and engaged and care about the downtown area ... it has been an extraordinary experience, working with such wonderful people,” Sansone said. “We’re all rowing in the same direction.”