Heartstrings and Guitar Strings
How leading with the heart can strengthen the community connections that define great centers.
For NewMark Merrill, leading with the heart is more than just an aspirational ideal—it’s a cultural and operational blueprint for creating spaces and places that feel welcoming and reflect the true spirit of community that elevates the best retail centers. Creating an environment that allows visitors to feel that sense of connection and promoting that community feeling is partly about design, experiences and programming but mostly about people.
In some cases, it’s about genuinely remarkable people.
There is no better example of that kind of person than Dena Creaser, a security guard at Fort Collins Marketplace in NewMark Merrill’s Mountain States Division where Danaria McCoy is Vice President of Operations and Marketing.
“Dena’s unique approach to security and genuine compassion and kindness immediately caught our attention,” says Danaria. “Fort Collins is especially busy, but Dena balanced our need for secure enforcement with respectful, humanity-focused action with ease. In fact, she went above and beyond security duties and created something extraordinary which was, and remains, inspiring.”
Dena’s daily walks around the center regularly bring her in contact with people at a low point in their lives. Some are unhoused, while some are struggling in other ways. But Dena still takes the time to talk to everyone, getting to know them honestly. Her friendly smile and engaging personality help anyone connect with her easily.
She started sketching some of those people and experiences that were part of the tapestry of her daily work. Eventually, what started for Dena as a kind of art therapy to help her process some difficult experiences would evolve into a moving chronicle of small moments and big-hearted interactions. She put her drawings and observations together in a poignant and powerful collection of beautifully rendered portraits of people and experiences. That collection, Out of the Shadows: Drawings from My Daily Walk, is a stunning artistic achievement. But more than that, it’s a stirring testament to the value of our shared humanity.
For NewMark Merrill President Sandy Sigal, Dena’s example is both an affirmation and an inspiration.
“We want all NewMark Merrill employees and vendors to feel empowered to pursue their passions and to forge those connections. It’s a priority for us to value the whole person. In a world that likes labels and stereotypes and putting people in buckets, just listening and getting to know someone is powerful. Everyone has a story. And when you’re seeing someone in what might be the worst moment of their life, and you still take the time to hear them—or just to see them—that’s meaningful.”
That kind of compassion and vulnerability can have a ripple effect.
“We shared Dena’s sketches with several of our team members, and they started sharing their experiences. This remarkable collection from one remarkable person caused a kind of cascade. When people feel seen and valued, they open up,” Sandy added.
Leading with the heart. Listening and connecting with the community. Striving for empathy and personal connection. These actions combine to form a mindset that values people’s humanity and sees shopping centers as microcosms of society.
But for Dena, it’s simpler than that.
“People know they are in a safe and friendly space. That matters to them, and it matters to me. They matter to me.”
She shows them how much they matter daily, not just with a kind word and a friendly smile but with thoughtful gestures that literally strike a chord. A former music teacher herself, Dena understands the connective power of music. So, when she saw that some of the people she encountered on her daily walks had trouble keeping their instruments in good working order, she decided to do something about it: carrying guitar strings with her in her pockets and handing them out as needed.
“Who Dena is and what Dena’s done is exceptional,” says Sandy. “Not everyone has the same talents or opportunities. But anyone can wave, smile, say hi or take the time to chat and check in.”
Dena is a security guard who enforces the rules without confrontation—leading with compassion, empathy, and humanity instead.
Says Sandy: “You can approach security work like everyone is a problem or like everyone is a person.”
It’s obvious which route Dena has chosen; her example proves that true security begins with authentic empathy and common decency.
“I respect everyone,” explains Dena. “And once people know that and you’ve earned a reputation for being thoughtful and fair, the job gets much easier.”
“You can build great spaces and design great programs that unite communities,” says Sandy.
“And if people feel comfortable and welcomed in a center—that goes a long way toward creating those meaningful community connections. But I don’t care how many murals you have or moments you create; if you don’t have great people, it won’t work. Too much of this business follows the if you build it, they will come mindset. But you can’t neglect people or the power of community connections. And when you have someone like Dena who takes it to the next level, you can achieve something extraordinary.”
“I walk around,” says Dena. “I say hello. I wave. I let people know that they have a friend. Everyone gets that from me. It’s not complicated, but it’s real. And those small things can have an outsized impact.”
“That’s the opportunity we have as stewards of a neighborhood,” says Sandy. “Everyone has an obligation—or at least an opportunity—to take a moment and make that simple gesture that makes people feel welcome.”