An exciting time in downtown

Published 7:07 pm Saturday, July 1, 2017

It was probably a simple coincidence that caused the concurrent scheduling of two events on Thursday that have the potential to make a huge difference for downtown Suffolk in the years to come.

In one of the empty storefronts that right now are all too easy to find within the city’s core business district, a crowd had gathered to hear consultants hired to help develop an update to Suffolk’s downtown master plan. They were eager to hear which among the many ideas submitted throughout the week by scores of residents, business owners and others might be recommended when the company submits its final suggestions to City Council in the fall.

At the same time, on the outskirts of historic Suffolk, at the very edge of what most folks would consider downtown, in the Hilton Garden Inn by the Nansemond River, a small group watched as an auctioneer presided over what turned out to be the passage of a property that had long been an industrial facility from private hands to the public.

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With one word — “Sold!” — the Lemmon Tract, a 26-acre parcel stretching downstream alongside the river from the Kimberly Bridge, became the property of the city of Suffolk.

Across town, back inside the former All About Virginia location on North Main Street, one Suffolk official leaned over and showed a city councilman a text message on his phone while the consultants continued their presentation. The message brought news of the city’s winning bid. The men were both engaged and interested in the downtown development plan, but they took a moment to smile at one another, both recognizing that this particular auction purchase could be a very big deal.

Suffolk officials are being careful not to be very specific about their potential plans for the Lemmon Tract. But a couple of things are clear because of its location within a floodplain: It will not become a shopping center, impervious surfaces like parking lots will be kept small, and the heavy leaning is toward some sort of passive park — something like the trailhead for a riverside path or boardwalk, perhaps.

The city has spent some significant time recently talking about gateways into the downtown area and how important it is for Suffolk to make the best first impression it can make. As officials work to come up with a solid downtown development plan that will entice people to visit the city’s core business district, they would do well to make sure those gateways into that area present an inviting and welcoming first impression. A park-like setting in Kimberly would make a great impression.

It’s an exciting time to be in downtown Suffolk. The possibilities are endless, and the community support for making those possibilities into realities seems deeper and broader than it has in many years. We can’t wait to see where all of this takes us.