Published 12:00 am Friday, July 30, 2004
Some years back I contended that Downtown Suffolk was one of those huge lumbering beasts, wounded and stumbling toward oblivion. Since then millions have been expended to dress up the place at both ends of what too many consider our precious hub, a few blocks located between the Professional Building and the &uot;Hotel.&uot; This &uot;town center&uot; encompasses a very narrow strip running north and south, and only a block or so off each side of Main. There are parts that some important people wish would &uot;go away,&uot; unsalvageable, detracting from the &uot;Theme,&uot; an exception being a few blocks of Washington. Far more business takes place outside of that hub perimeter but gets much less support, handouts, by the city. There is a stop-limit on fancy lampposts for example.
The area now considered Prentiss Street was an expensive attempt to salvage the past, restored homes converted to business usage, railroad station with great intentions, and our planned high school restoration, expensive and touted to be our &uot;cultural center…&uot;this project costing the city its Physical Center. The sector known as McDonalds will soon be eclipsed by a Hilton Garden Inn that some refer to as a &uot;boondoggle,&uot; or a &uot;resume builder.&uot; Time will tell whether we will recover the investment within a reasonable period. Our legal department appears to be tied up attempting to salvage a million or so spent to redo the hotel sea wall, causing a time delay for our airport expansion.
Now we read that our city offers an incentive, up to $50,000 annually to doll up the facades of downtown businesses. This offer extends beyond the perimeter of downtown but those merchants were first in line with their dollar match. I grew up thinking it was the responsibility of business owners to look their best, to lure the customers. The motive behind the &uot;handout&uot; must be the result of business owners not concerned about appearance or lacking funds, perhaps due to high property taxes. (Planters Peanuts thinks so and they are not looking for a facade) This program is administered by a Downtown Coordinator a position created to cater to those interested in &uot;setting up shop.&uot; To &uot;gild the lily&uot; so to speak. The city continues to serve as a hospital emergency room to save the Dinosaur.
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While it is true that the four square miles of Downtown gets most of the assists, businesses elsewhere struggle without it. It’s getting so that most residents have shopping facilities within a few miles, they pop up overnight like mushrooms and where one appears others follow extending commercial territory in both directions along stretches of highway. Godwin Boulevard has accumulated three stoplights in but five years and lacks only a drugstore and an adult bookstore. Surely the other one is ready to expand and can find space in the up coming new strip mall near the Armory.
So why don’t most folks living in the 430 go downtown? They do for City business, DMV, and the Courthouse. All three of those stops appear to have ample parking but where else downtown is it available? One keen observer who lives down there keeps telling me &uot;the truth is you can look down the main street for five blocks and not see anybody.&uot; Retail business cannot flourish without tons of walk-in traffic and there won’t be any of that without a place close by to park. &uot;It’s that simple,&uot; he says and he has lived down there and done business for years.
Is the dinosaur still stumbling toward oblivion? Is the fault, if it is, lack of parking space, or lack of incentive to shop for travelers to the area who must go there for other reasons? Has it become an OK stop for just those who live nearby and can pick up what they need without jumping in a car? Will we one day see the downtown as just a cute place to live, and former homes restored and occupied by businesses associated with the Courts, eateries, gift shops, flower shops, place to buy a new shirt? Many feel it is becoming a &uot;closed&uot; society for those in some fashion connected to the courts or the local government and they are creating a &uot;handy village&uot; for themselves at other taxpayer expense. Nonsense?
Robert Pocklington lives in Suffolk and is a regular News-Herald columnist.