Ryan Saunders, disconnected

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ryan saunders
Ryan Saunders is back on the market.

Ryan Saunders officially resigned from Kotis Properties at the end of the fall, he tells me, and his last day was Dec. 22, just a couple days before Christmas.

And now the man whose appellations have included “new urbanist,” “placemaker,” “event planner” and, most recently, “real estate agent” makes a pivot.

We’re on the couches at the back of Common Grounds, which for a hot minute in 2014 wore a mural by Charleston artist Patch Whisky. Whisky was in town because Saunders and the 512 Collective had brought him in to paint a mural in High Point, Saunders’ hometown and where he first got in the game.

He launched Create Your City there in 2010, perpetrating a series of guerilla-style stunts of urban activism — building a temporary parklet in an on-street parking space, for example — that culminated in a series of events in the Pit, basically a construction sinkhole in the center of the city that may be the coolest thing about High Point.

The Pit became something to fight over, and Saunders found himself on the outside.

“There’s this locking-arms thing that happens,” he says. “In Greensboro, too. It’s very difficult for young people to break through.”

He pivoted to Greensboro in 2014, moving his HopFest here after a single year in High Point and contributing to the arts landscape through murals and events, not enough to get the sort of traction he had hoped — still hopes — to achieve, but enough to catch the eye of Marty Kotis, who hired him on for his real estate division. There he shepherded the murals that began to fill the Tracks, an open property in downtown Greensboro, and tried to curate unique businesses for others.

With that sort of muscle, some of those locked arms were beginning to give.

And then Saunders turned 30, headed to Peru to celebrate and, on a jungle retreat, had a moment of insight that changed the trajectory of his life.

“I felt like I still had a lot to learn,” he says, “and that if I stayed with Marty for 10 or 15 years, I would be good at it….”

And here he pauses, his eyes set on… something else.

“I don’t know if I would have completed my journey,” he says.

And so he walked away from a multi-million-dollar real estate company, where he had just become the most senior member of the team, and the enormous resources of Kotis Properties, no hard feelings.

In a few weeks he’ll hit the road, headed to Austin to volunteer at SXSW and see if its cool factor might be an exportable good. Like his real estate license, it’s a continuation of his education.

“I still believe in the connection between music and art and culture and business and real estate,” he says.

And he says he still believes in Greensboro. He wants to start a new festival here, along the lines of SXSW. And he is seriously considering a run for mayor in 2021. Seriously.

“People here are so dead-set on avoiding failure they’re afraid to take chances,” he says. “The threat of failure should be a driver, not a deterrent.”

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