‘Perfect sense’

Published 10:48 pm Friday, January 7, 2011

Business leaders applaud passenger station idea

Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a four-part series about the move to bring passenger rail service to Southeast Virginia.

Downtown business owners and advocates are optimistic about the benefit a potential passenger rail stop in Suffolk could have on the area’s downtown.

“I think it could be the one thing that turns the tide for downtown,” said Margaret Gellas, who owns a popular Italian bistro in downtown Suffolk with her husband, Stephen. “It would be a wonderful thing if that could happen.”

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City leaders are hoping to attract the attention of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation for a stop on the planned passenger rail line between Norfolk and Richmond. The proposal is moving forward, with several critical steps having been taken in recent months.

“If you can point to one single thing that I think could make the most impact on downtown, I think that would be it,” Gellas said. “It would just bring people to Suffolk that don’t even think about Suffolk. I just think it would be great — not to mention, I would use it myself.”

A conceptual plan by the city places a proposed stop between Saratoga and Wellons streets, south of the downtown core. The location would take up the current site of the Golden Peanut Company, which consists of abandoned buildings, as well as Peanut Park and a few homes and businesses.

The Golden Peanut Company site is owned by the Archer Daniels Midland Company. Spokesman Roman Blahoski said the company has no comment on the city’s proposal.

Suffolk Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts said the plan is purely conceptual and is based upon a location the city determined to be a good one.

“We have not identified a specific site,” he said. “We’ve not begun any type of real estate strategy.”

Downtown Business Association president, former mayor and downtown property owner Andy Damiani said he welcomes the rail project and a stop in Suffolk.

“If Suffolk does it, it will be a plus,” he said. “It brings people together.”

But, he added, “To help downtown, it has to be in downtown.” Damiani does not consider the Golden Peanut site to be downtown.

Damiani also suggested that the effects of any additional rail traffic could be mitigated by bringing back plans for the Finney Avenue flyover. The project would carry cars over several railroad tracks that run through downtown, allowing them to avoid waiting for long, slow freight trains and stopping passenger trains. However, the project is not funded and has apparently been placed on the back burner indefinitely.

Gellas echoed Damiani’s sentiments.

“It’s a draw, to have a station there,” she said. “I think it makes perfect sense.”