Assuming there is one

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 12, 2003

What is the solution, how do we keep downtown from going belly up? We keep hearing about the Prentis House, the railroad station, Riddick’s Folly, and now the Hilton Inn. Yet more and more businesses move out, or start up, on the outskirts. Downtown has yet to be defined but most agree it’s that small area north of the twin skyscrapers. If you include as far north as Duman’s it’s a sizeable business area but the original downtown business owners are disinclined to reach even to the river where the grandest attempt to save downtown, the Hilton, might be located.

Along East Washington, in the two blocks east of Main there once were 61 businesses. True, most were small in scale but many folks made a living there. Well, the city tore down a block of buildings for a parking lot, and many others went under, victims of the big boys, Lowes, and Wal-Mart. Only seven businesses remain in that two blocks and one of them is Carter Furniture, a stalwart for over 50 years. The rest were eaten alive and could not compete. The only thing currently going on in that stretch is the march of the fancy lamp posts, ending at the new Police precinct. There is a rumor that $700,000 each year is allocated to improve the blocks beyond. But what to do with the empty buildings and empty lots?

About two years ago Andy Damiani and I suggested that a Farmer’s Market be developed in the area of the &uot;Fairgrounds&uot; and the city talk the railroad people out of that unused railroad station and make it the hub of the market. No one in city government admitted it might be a good idea but there is a rumor, just that, that angelic Mary McCoury, Downtown Coordinator, is investigating the cold storage units in a nearby empty building. That hints at a possible interest in a Farmer’s Market.

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Others think that if the city, or a developer, constructed new buildings in those E. Wash two blocks, it would fill back up with small businesses, entrepreneurs, selling products not available in the big stores. Might even be artist galleries, pottery, etc. Others believe there is a better chance, now that the police precinct is there, for small apartments for the yuppies to live inexpensively. Either would need a place to park.

The restored Suffolk High School offers possibilities to bring folks downtown to take part in the varied venues that will be available there. And this could lead to people shopping nearby, if there is something they would want to buy or see. Nighttime could present a problem for some unless it can be assured it is a safe area after dark. I’ve heard that the street behind the High School would also be an excellent place for medium and upscale apartments or individual homes. That, and plenty of lighted area could make it the nicest part of Suffolk.

I understand that people flock to Smithfield and I wonder why. One trip was sufficient for me. True, the old restored homes are plentiful and beautiful. There are a few quaint stores and places to dine. Suffolk has one citizen that could make Suffolk excel, leave Smith-field in the dust; given his way. I know him as Deme; he did a marvelous job on the Gardner store and recently purchased the Luke House. He turns near decay into a thing of beauty, and there is plenty of opportunity for him to keep on going. I suggested he buy the car wash and then thought better of it. That place and the lady with the hot dog stand (Amedeo Obici got started that way) are two thriving businesses on Main. Can’t interfere with success. Like in &uot;Field of Dreams,&uot; restore them and people will come. They won’t know why but they will come.

One thing that might help downtown right now would be if every business maintained regular hours, say nine to five, six days. Some apparently open when the owner decides to get up, and closes so they can pick up the kids at 2:30. And, of course, it might help if owners learned to park somewhere besides in front of their place of business. Oh, well, there is always 24 hour Wal-Mart. Who was it that said, &uot;If you were on the corner at E. Washington and fired a cannon up Main Street, you wouldn’t hit a soul, night or day.&uot; Some decisions must be made and quickly.

Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist.