Serious consideration needed

Published 10:06 pm Wednesday, December 16, 2015

There’s little question that downtown Suffolk is in need of a boost. Even the most recent revitalization projects in the city’s core business district — the loft apartments and retail space along the south side of the 100 block of West Washington Street — have failed to result in significant improvement in the area.

Storefronts remain empty along both that street and North Main Street, parking lots are full of trash and abandoned vehicles, and businesses continue to see customers trickle in and out, rather than flooding through their doors.

Something has to give, and a group of concerned citizens met recently to have a discussion about the various things that might help turn things around.

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Pretty much everyone involved in the Dec. 9 “Friends of Suffolk” meeting had some vested interest in the discussion. There were developers with property whose value would improve along with the fortunes of the community’s businesses. There were politicians who would attempt to ride the coattails of a restored downtown area to election or re-election. There were business owners who just want to see more customers coming through their doors. And there were those who see an opportunity to sell property that could be used in future revitalization plans.

As with any topic, the only people really engaged in the discussion about downtown Suffolk are those with some sense of connection to it. In fact, that’s part of the problem merchants and restaurateurs face there: They have a hard time attracting outsiders from North Suffolk, Chesapeake and other parts of Hampton Roads into the area.

The lack of traffic — meaning “potential customers” — sets up a vicious cycle that hurts everybody involved, including the rest of the city. Since folks don’t come downtown to shop, it’s hard to attract businesses to locate there, which makes it even harder to attract customers (who often conclude they can drive to North Suffolk, Chesapeake or Greenbrier more easily and find greater variety when they arrive).

The cycle results in low tax collections for the city and inadequate employment opportunities for its citizens. And the depressed situation leads to crime, blight and an even harder slog for economic development officials attempting to attract new business.

Some of those involved in the Friends of Suffolk group believe a new library and a college campus will be the key to revitalization. Some think creation of an arts district could spur the desired growth downtown. Others suggest that it’s a matter of finding the right national retail chain to add to the current mix. We suspect there’s some combination of those ideas that would prove most practical and lead to the greatest degree of success.

For too long, nobody has had a lot of success making money in downtown Suffolk. Perhaps it’s a good thing — rather than something to be worried about — that the folks involved in the latest discussions have some skin in the game. They might have the most to gain if the situation improves, but they’ve also got the most to lose if it continues to fail — and, therefore, the most motivation to see that it doesn’t.

Suffolk officials should encourage this group to continue its discussions, and they should be ready to give serious consideration to the results of those discussions.