Back to the future

Published 10:38 pm Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Those folks who were in the right place at the right time last Thursday got a chance to see the past meet the future in downtown Suffolk. As vintage railcars were pulled along the tracks by a gleaming engine, the Norfolk-Southern Railroad showed a select group of Chamber of Commerce members what passenger rail will be like when it comes back to Southeastern Virginia.

Virginia has set aside $93 million to make the improvements that will be necessary to make the Norfolk-to-Richmond trip a safe, daily occurrence. Studies are now under way to determine the best place for a so-called “western stop,” which would give riders an alternative location to embark and disembark.

The Bower’s Hill area of Chesapeake is one possibility. Downtown Suffolk is another. And Windsor is yet another. The possibility of a downtown passenger railroad station that is actively in use after all these years is an exciting one.

Email newsletter signup

Such a station would offer Suffolk residents easy access to the train and the railroad network that ultimately could transport them just about anywhere in the nation. But even more important is the fundamental change such a facility could bring about in the struggling downtown area.

With the potential for more families and others with business in Richmond headed downtown to park and wait for a train, some downtown business owners are understandably excited at the prospect of a boost to the economy of the city’s central business district.

For years, most of the economic growth in Suffolk has been in and around the Harbour View area of North Suffolk. That’s understandable, considering the draw of more than 2,200 people working for U.S. Joint Forces Command, not to mention the many contractors and ancillary businesses that have sprung up to support the agency.

Downtown Suffolk needs help, though, and especially with the prospect of JFCOM’s closure — and the economic impact that closure could have on the city — a passenger rail stop could be just the boost that the businesses and restaurants located there need.

None of that matters to the regional committee charged with choosing the location, of course. Folks in that group are worried more about traffic patterns, population levels and the like. Suffolk officials would do well to quickly develop a plan to address the traffic problems that could derail their bid. And they should focus the rest of their efforts on selling the committee on some of the more intangible benefits of a downtown Suffolk location.

A creative pitch could win the day. And a win here could help transform downtown Suffolk back into the bustling business district it once was.