What the people want

Published 10:21 pm Monday, September 20, 2010

Members of the Suffolk City Council are gearing up for an annual retreat on Wednesday and Thursday. The special meeting is intended to give members a chance to discuss a variety of topics that they might not normally consider during a regular meeting and to spend time going into more depth on those topics, as well as others on the agenda.

One important topic of discussion will be the potential uses for some valuable pieces of property that Suffolk either owns or has an economic development interest in. Two of the most important of those properties are the former site of Louise Obici Memorial Hospital and the former site of Tidewater Community College, a 300-acre gem located along the banks of the James River in North Suffolk.

Both properties have their flaws, but Suffolk citizens dream big when they think about them. Many folks downtown would love to see some sort of an entertainment complex built on the former hospital site — something with restaurants, a movie theater, maybe a bowling alley. Some folks in the northern part of the city would like to see at least a portion of the former college site turned into a public park to serve people in that growing part of the city.

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While there are certain problems inherent to each suggestion — private developers would have to be interested in the entertainment complex idea in the midst of a stalled economy, and the city likely would have to convince TCC to turn over a portion of the old college grounds at less than the market value — both ideas share an interesting characteristic: They’re designed to provide recreational opportunities in a city with relatively few options when it comes to entertainment and recreation.

Especially with the economy in such dire straits, Suffolk must act wisely when it markets and disposes of the properties it owns and when it lobbies private developers and other non-municipal interests in regards to properties like the Obici and TCC sites.

Developers should, of course, not be overly constrained when it comes to improving their properties the way they see fit. But city officials would do well to consider ways they can influence the decision-making processes for those developers, showing them the benefits that could be gained by giving the people of Suffolk what they want.

This week’s retreat offers a great opportunity to come up with a strategy to do just that.