A good step toward better downtown

Published 9:17 pm Friday, April 28, 2017

By John Carr

On April 4 The First Lady of Suffolk hosted a “Cocktails and Conversation” meeting for local business people. The featured guest was Benchmark Planning, the company the city’s Economic Development Department is using to lead a new downtown revitalization study.

With offices in Charlotte and St. Louis, Benchmark has 30 years of experience, much of it in the Southeast — including projects in Lynchburg, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Nags Head, Lynchburg and others.

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Presenter Don Douglas said his company wants to build upon a successful initiative that dates back to 1998, when the city worked with Urban Design Associates on another downtown development plan. That effort led to the Hilton, Constant’s Wharf, and the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, among other projects.

Douglas described Benchmark’s collaborative approach. Company representatives already have held a series of meetings with downtown business people. He also showed some of Benchmark’s earlier work to get the conversations going, but made it clear they would not have cookie-cutter recommendations. Suffolk’s new plan would be unique to Suffolk.

Downtown business leaders have not been shy about sharing their challenges and their desire to see more empty storefronts occupied. But that doesn’t mean there is a lack of optimism.

Across the country, downtown areas once thought dead and gone are making a big comeback. For decades it seemed downtown areas were the victims of malls, big box stores, and the loss of major employers like textiles.

That pendulum is vigorously swinging the other way now. You can probably think of a downtown you have visited that is not only making a comeback, but may already be resurrected to a point surpassing its former glory days.

This is the track Benchmark would like to help Suffolk along, building upon the progress already made. With most of the projects from the earlier effort completed — huge projects at that — it is exciting to see Suffolk moving into a new phase.

Like the previous effort, it will be a major undertaking that will depend upon both private and public investment. The work could help downtown Suffolk take a big leap in the direction of becoming a more fun place in which to spend your time. Such a place should draw more people from all over Suffolk and beyond.

Benchmark Group plans to set up in a downtown storefront and continue to gather community input. It’s still early in the process, but it is exciting to imagine what might be coming next for downtown Suffolk.

John Carr is the publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. Email him at john.carr@suffolknewsherald.com.