A walkable arts destination

Published 9:21 pm Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ever since Suffolk began to experience the same flight from its downtown area that created veritable ghost towns of the central business districts of cities and towns across the nation in the last part of the 20th century, folks have been trying to come up with a solution to empty storefronts and decaying buildings. The results have been spotty, at best.

Suffolk stalwart Andy Damiani, the former city mayor who is, perhaps, just as well known for the moniker Mr. Downtown, continues, even in his 90s, to lobby for revitalization, and he continues to pour his own money and time into his dream of rebuilding a vibrant and vital community centered at the intersection of North Main Street and Washington Street.

His continuing work on the National Bank building is evidence of a commitment that will not be thwarted by either tenant turnover or lack of official public support for his ideas.

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Others have joined the effort in recent years, with the high occupancy rate for the Lofts at 111, the new apartments on West Washington Street, providing proof of the viability of the area when fresh ideas are thrown into the mix.

It seems unlikely that downtown Suffolk will ever be a retail destination for Hampton Roads, but the Lofts project shows there are other options available that can be successful. One of those other options is to capitalize on existing facilities — and, perhaps, to add new ones — to create an arts district within and among the small cadre of destination restaurants and specialty shops that thrive within a three- or four-block radius of the Godwin Courts Building.

Suffolk already benefits from the downtown locations occupied by the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, the Suffolk Art Gallery, Jester’s, the Shooting Star Gallery and the Great Dismal Swamp Gallery at the Suffolk Visitor Center. Local artwork also can be found at the Plaid Turnip and at other specialty retailers in that area.

Those businesses, galleries and arts organizations have partnered in a new effort to promote Downtown Suffolk as “A Walkable Art Destination.” The concerted effort is a great first step toward marketing the city’s core as a place attractive to those who love the arts.

As the effort grows and gathers steam, Downtown Suffolk could well become a haven for the arts in Hampton Roads, a distinction that could help set it apart from the other six cities comprising the metropolitan area. And that could make all the difference in the world to the long-suffering downtown business district.