Putting words into action

Published 9:56 pm Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It takes an inveterate optimist to walk the streets of downtown Suffolk without experiencing a sense of lost hope. Historic buildings that suffer from neglect, grand shopping areas that stand empty and covered up and struggling retailers without the allure to pull in large numbers of shoppers are the things that capture the attention of the pessimist. The optimist, however, focuses on a handful of wonderful restaurants, several arts venues and even a couple of government buildings that draw people into the few square blocks at the core of the sprawling city.

Some people might consider Andy Damiani and Ralph Nahra to be the perfect examples of such optimists. As the gentlemen set out on a project to renovate a dilapidated building in the beleaguered 100 block of W. Washington Street, it would be easy to write their risk off as the work of two people with a Pollyannaish vision of the city’s downtown area.

Listening to Damiani, long known as downtown’s biggest cheerleader, it’s even easier for the pessimist to believe Suffolk’s former mayor may have allowed his unbridled enthusiasm for the business district to cloud his reasoning when it came to investing in the property with Nahra. Indeed, to see the two men together — Damiani all words and newspaper clippings and maps and charts to back up the words, and Nahra watching the show with a quiet smile — the cynic might wonder how these two men could ever be partners.

But both men love downtown Suffolk in a way similar to the way a man might love his wife of 50 years — they know all the faults, and they love it anyway. So they can’t really be charged with unchecked optimism; there’s far too much understanding of the plight of downtown Suffolk for that. Instead, perhaps, what comes across is a restless desire to see things change in a way they feel confident would ultimately make a vast difference both to downtown and to Suffolk in general.

That desire — along with a love of investing — has translated into a number of transformed properties throughout the area, with the most recent being the W. Washington Street property now being brought back to life next door to Damiani’s Washington Square mini-mall.

“I’m sold on downtown,” Damiani said recently, surprising not a single person in Suffolk. “Downtown is worth saving. We need a strong commitment from everybody, not just in words, but in deeds.”

Damiani and Nahra have proved that they’re willing to put dollars behind their desires for downtown Suffolk. Citizens of every part of the city should hope for their success and for other investors to be willing to do the same.