Reason to think Suffolk first

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Not so long ago, downtowns across Hampton Roads were destinations of obligation rather than recreation.

A wary visitor may have gone to downtown Norfolk or Portsmouth in search of a good restaurant or an antique shop, but after dark, folks generally stayed away.

And not many people wanted to live there.


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In recent years, interest in urban environs has returned, and so have businesses and residents.

Fueled by a state and federal historic tax credit program, urban revitalization has steamed full force ahead, and people now line up to lay claim to recently renovated inner city lofts, condominiums and townhouses.

In a complete turnabout of convention, it seems that the trend is to live, work and play in the same community, an almost unheard of concept in much of Hampton Roads.

Norfolk has seemingly sold its soul to make its downtown an attractive destination for businesses, residents and visitors.

Following the lead of its big sister across the Elizabeth River, Portsmouth has likewise committed tremendous resources to cash in on the trend.

And even Virginia Beach, once noted for a complete lack of anything resembling an urban environment, refused to be outdone and built a downtown from scratch.

For better or worse, Suffolk is also riding the trend.

Just as in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach, Suffolk’s downtown revitalization is not without controversy.

In a perfect world, downtown Suffolk would restore itself and would realize all of the quaint charm in its potential without any commitment of resources from the city.

But as we are frequently reminded, this is no perfect world.

The confidence required to lure private investment into a dilapidated area will not materialize unless the leaders seeking restoration first show confidence in, and commitment to, the area themselves.

Downtown Norfolk, downtown Portsmouth, and &uot;downtown&uot; Virginia Beach have all become destination locations.

Those municipalities have invested money and other resources and private business has invested even more.

As a result, people looking to spend a day or evening out of their homes (read: spend money) often make those places a destination.

For the longest time, many people in Suffolk-all parts of Suffolk-looked elsewhere to eat, to play, to shop or to seek many necessary services.

Downtown Suffolk was a place to go to pay a fine or a tax bill; it was a destination of obligation.

Due in large part to a commitment from the city and from many private businesspeople, it is slowly becoming a neat place to visit, and even a nice place to live.

That is not a bad thing.

Unfortunately, there is a lingering misconception that the downtown resurgence only benefits &uot;downtowners&uot; – a notion that could not be further from the truth.

By restoring the charm to our downtown and taking advantage of the urban revitalization trend, downtown Suffolk is itself becoming a destination where people from all over the city, and even from elsewhere in Hampton Roads, go to spend a day or evening out of their homes (read: spend money).

Dollars that would go to Ghent, Old Towne or Town Center are now being spent in Suffolk.

As new businesses continue to open and visitors from outside of downtown have even more options, the synergy will continue to grow.

Tax revenues that would go to other localities will stay here.

Buildings that were once abandoned are now generating, and will continue to generate, tax revenues and jobs.

A worst case scenario for our city as it continues to grow is to become a bedroom community-a place to sleep and nothing else.

As discussed in this column two weeks ago, the tax revenue generated by new residential housing does not offset the money required to fund additional services required by each household – a sure recipe for increased taxes.

Tax revenues generated by businesses, however, can supplement the strain that new households will put on our budget.

But to accomplish that, we must keep some of our spending dollars at home and give folks a reason to think Suffolk first when deciding where to go.

And that may be done by providing an enjoyable destination with diverse options to choose from.

This is not to say that downtown must be the only option.

Harborview, boasting the city’s only multiplex and several excellent restaurants, has become a successful destination to keep residents (and their dollars) here in the city.

But downtown has some unique advantages that should not be overlooked.

It has an inventory of buildings located near city headquarters.

The historic tax credit program will continue to motivate private investors to restore this inventory.

And the widespread trend to return to the cities will generate interest from many people simply because it is a downtown.

All we have to do is take advantage of it.

Dave Arnold is a Suffolk resident and an attorney in Pender & Coward’s Suffolk office.