Downtown ‘ambassadors’ ready to work

Published 8:00 pm Saturday, August 27, 2016

Perhaps the time is right for a downtown resurgence.

Judging by the turnout at a few recent meetings of folks with ties to the city’s central business district, there is a high level of interest among downtown business owners in working together to promote and improve the area.

The latest gathering took place Wednesday afternoon at Harper’s Table restaurant, where several dozen business and civic leaders noshed on Harper Bradshaw’s delectable delights (I’m convinced there will be softshell crabs and pork belly sliders every day in Heaven) while getting to know one another and comparing notes about the business climate in this important part of Suffolk.

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The meeting was organized by Tom Powell of The Addison Group, a marketing firm in Suffolk.

“We’ve got everything we need as a city to really prosper,” Powell told the group. “I want to get a conversation going, so we can make an impact on the city.”

Downtown Suffolk has suffered through a range of business cycles that have left it a shadow of the bustling place it once was.

Ninety-four-year-old downtown businessman and former mayor Andy Damiani is one of those who has worked for years to try to rejuvenate the Washington Street and North Main Street corridors.

He was on hand at Wednesday’s gathering, and Powell recognized him for his efforts and for Damiani’s influence on Powell’s own work. Powell said he remembered meeting then-Mayor Damiani when Powell was a second-grade student. The impression the mayor made on the young lad never faded, Powell said.

Damiani continues to be a cheerleader for the downtown area, but much of the work to renovate and redevelop the district is now being done by younger people — folks like Powell, Harper Bradshaw, restaurateur José Moncada, Realtor Lee Cross and many others.

Recalling the previous evening’s event on Thursday, Cross, who is looking for partners to develop some vacant properties he owns in the area, said, “It’s certainly always positive anytime downtown comes together.”

Also among that new generation of cheerleaders is Economic Development Director Kevin Hughes, whose job for the city has him promoting locations all around Suffolk for potential business investment. But downtown is still special, he said Wednesday.

“It makes my heart warm” to see so many people come together on behalf of the central business district, he said. “We really need you … to be ambassadors for downtown.”

Hughes told the group the city is working on a new downtown revitalization plan. The last such initiative, completed in the late ‘90s, resulted in redevelopment of Constant’s Wharf, the redesign of some streets, renovation of the Professional Building and the restoration and repurposing of the old Suffolk High School as the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

With those improvements now in place, Suffolk has an excellent opportunity to build on the framework that now exists to create a vibrant new downtown community that will attract folks from inside and outside the city.

With the support of this group of ambassadors, both young and old, Downtown Suffolk’s heyday could still be ahead of it.