Many worked hard to make day possible

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 2, 2003

Special to the Suffolk News-Herald

Editor’s note: Below are excerpts from Mayor E. Dana Dickens’ comments at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Hilton Garden Inn and Suffolk Conference Center Thursday, Oct. 30.

This a Suffolk kind of day, blue skies, warm temperatures, smiling and satisfied faces celebrating the addition of another jewel in the crown we call Suffolk.

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It’s a great time to be in Suffolk! On behalf of our City Council:

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, Charles Brown, Calvin Jones, Linda Johnson, Curtis Milteer and Bobby Ralph,

I welcome you to what I believe will prove to be another milestone in Suffolk’s history.

Today, we break ground on the third major piece of the City’s plan to revitalize its downtown and bring its waterfront back to the prominence it once had as center of commerce in Suffolk.

Today, our dream of attracting a major hotel and conference facility to the downtown waterfront moves from the drawing board to reality.

Today, the Renaissance of downtown takes a giant leap forward with the creation of new jobs and capital investment on this site.

And tomorrow, the citizens of Suffolk will reap the benefits of this investment through tax revenue generated as new business; jobs, shopping and entertainment opportunities again will

flourish on this site.

It truly is a great time to be in Suffolk.

In the early 1990’s the City of Suffolk’s downtown economy had stagnated. Private investment had dried up and real estate values were in a downward spiral.

The City’s fund balance was hovering just above $650,000. City Council and the City administration realized dramatic, new initiatives would be necessary to change downtown from a revenue user to the revenue generator it could and should be.

In 1998, City Council elevated downtown revitalization and its downtown initiatives plan to priority status. And, at every annual planning session since, we have reconfirmed our commitment to that plan.

The three cornerstone initiatives under the plan were the renovation of the Professional Building on Main Street, the transformation of the Old Suffolk High School into a Cultural Arts Center, and the addition of a major hotel and conference facility at Constant’s Wharf.

With today’s groundbreaking of the Hilton Garden Inn and Suffolk Conference Center, we are assured that all three central pieces of our downtown initiatives plan will become reality.

And let’s not forget the 8 acre public park, boardwalk and marina that is part of this project.

The $4 million renovation of the Professional Building is nearly complete and will become the new home for the Suffolk School Administration in early 2004.

Plans for the conversion of the Old Suffolk High School into a state-of-the-art cultural center has generated significant private contributions totaling over $3.8 million.

This $14 million historic property transformation will soon become the hub for cultural activities in the downtown area.

And, with today’s groundbreaking on the new Hilton Garden Inn and Suffolk Conference Center we can say the three legs of our plan will soon be in place.

Is the plan to revitalize our downtown working?

Absolutely!

As the momentum of our plan continues to build, we can point to several indicators of our success.

Real estate values in the downtown area are on the rise again.

In 1996, all downtown properties collectively were valued at $249.5 million.

The value for these properties in 2003 is an impressive $306 million.

And, the City’s fund balance has grown from its anemic $650,000 in 1990 to $17.5 million today.

One principle of the Downtown Initiatives Plan was that: initial public investment would attract private investments, the fuel of economic engines.

We can already point to numerous examples that clearly demonstrate this principle is right on target.

The Godwin Courthouse was sited downtown and nearly $3 million has been invested in streetscape and drainage improvements.

City investment was used to leverage private funds to transform an abandoned historic train station into a museum and downtown landmark, and saved the Prentis House from the wrecking ball to become the new Suffolk Visitors Center.

These public investments, coupled with the efforts of many volunteers, have already generated millions in new private investment in the corridor that includes the Main Street Center, the Washington Street Center and the Professional Building. The City recently opened the East Washington Street Police Precinct that will serve as the anchor for the more comprehensive Fairgrounds Redevelopment Plan.

The flight from downtown of existing business has halted and new businesses have opened throughout downtown including the Gardner’s Store, Caf Moose, Main Street Antiques, and Heirlooms of Tomorrow.

Baron’s Pub and Kelly’s will soon open restaurants that will draw residents and visitors back downtown for dining and entertainment.

Yes, the plan is working!

I would be remiss not to tell you that City Council has held steadfast in support of revitalization of downtown and this project.

I compliment Council for establishing meaningful priorities, setting an action plan and then working the plan.

You should be proud of your accomplishments.

There are several partners that were central in building this success.

Most notably today is Stormont Noble Development for recognizing the great potential in locating a hotel and conference facility in downtown Suffolk.

They have committed a private investment of $9 million into the development of this property.

A special thanks to Dick Stormont and his team for their vision and persistence, it was a long time coming Dick but it is worth every bit of effort you and your team put into it.

I also want to recognize our partners in Richmond, particularly our legislative delegation that provided Suffolk with a State sales tax rebate so that 2% of all sales tax receipts generated by the hotel and conference facility will be returned to the City.

Our project was only the third sales tax rebate project approved in the Commonwealth.

The Virginia General Assembly also provided $750,000 in funding support for the bulkhead and boardwalk project, the first time Suffolk has received direct funding for a project from the General Assembly I am told.

Tom Woodward deserves recognition for his help shepherding these through the General Assembly.

TowneBank under the leadership of Ward Robinett has been a significant partner in the private financing for the project and I want to recognize Ward and TowneBank for their commitment to their community and to Suffolk’s vision.

John Harrell and the Industrial Development Authority quickly saw the value and importance of this project and were relentless in their efforts to bring this Hotel and Conference Center to Constance Wharf.

And finally, I would like to recognize the City administration. Under the capable leadership of City Manager Steve Herbert, a team of strong and dedicated staff members have &uot;worked the plan&uot;.

And &uot;worked the plan&uot; successfully. Key players include Elizabeth McCoury, Gerry Jones, Eric Nielsen and employees from the Departments of Public Utilities, Traffic Engineering, Public Works and others too numerous to mention today by name.

Probably the most difficult and daunting task in finalizing this project was lead by our very capable and tenacious Finance Director, Christine Ledford, who spent months crafting and negotiating a financing package.

I ask that she stand and be recognized.

I thank you all for your attendance today and I look forward to greeting you in about 15 months when we can officially cut the ribbon on the new Hilton Garden Inn and Suffolk Conference Center.

It is a great time to be in Suffolk!