Replacing the old frontier

Published 9:59 pm Monday, August 8, 2016

For years, it seems like downtown Suffolk has been trapped in the past. Several buildings and offices downtown have been vacant for a long time.

I recall my grandmother, Bernice Cofield, telling me about her days as a fry cook at The Horseshoe Café. She used to tell me the regulars heralded her hamburgers and yock in particular, as some of the best they had ever had.

The café was founded in the late 1930s and eventually went out of business in 2002, according to the Southern Foodways Alliance. More than a decade later, the café still stands on East Washington Street.

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Several buildings along North Main Street and Washington Street have remained untouched years after closing. I’ve been curious as to why this has been the case.

Most folks would expect the downtown area of most cities or towns would be home to newer buildings and businesses. However, there has been a paradigm shift for Suffolk.

Rather, the North Suffolk suburbs seem to be the new “downtown” of the city. Within the last few years, this area has attracted military families and young homebuyers, which has contributed to development in the area.

New condominiums, apartments and shopping centers have replaced the once predominantly rural landscape. This is a logical effort to appeal to the demographics of incoming homebuyers.

However, downtown Suffolk has remained largely the same for the last decade.

I think the city may be hesitant to change the area’s historic landscape. Also, the close proximity of the buildings on Main and East Washington Street may make new construction difficult.

However, there has been construction at isolated buildings outside of the town center. In 2005, the Birdsong Recreation Center was demolished and replaced by the nonprofit Obici Healthcare Foundation. And in May, it was announced that the historic Golden Peanut Facility would be developed into an apartment complex.

Economic development director Kevin Hughes has said the city wants to preserve the facility’s brick buildings. However, officials hope the complex will also attract college students and young adults.

Preservation is essential to the city and may be the reason for the lack of construction downtown. However, this new development serves as a glimmer of hope for new things in store for the area.

Also, if aspiring entrepreneurs decide to occupy the vacant buildings, this can direct more commerce downtown.

While, there are complications to preserving historic sites, there is hope in the near future the downtown area can really feel like “downtown.”