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Downtown Norfolk Council refocuses after residential growth, workforce decline

The residential population of downtown Norfolk has tripled in the last decade as the pandemic reduced the commuter workforce. (Photo by C. Watts via Flickr)
The residential population of downtown Norfolk has tripled in the last decade as the pandemic reduced the commuter workforce. (Photo by C. Watts via Flickr)

The population of Downtown Norfolk has tripled since the last time the Downtown Norfolk Council wrote up a strategic plan nine years ago.

The 45-year-old nonprofit, which coordinates events and programs downtown and works hand-in-hand with the city, has long been focused on commercial and business concerns.

“In 2015, we really weren’t talking about downtown as a neighborhood. It was a business center where 30,000 people were coming to work, driving in and out to work," said Mel Price, an architect with Work Program Architects and the chair of the DNC’s board of directors. "But we’re a neighborhood and we need to start thinking and talking about downtown like a neighborhood."

The downtown workforce is returning post-pandemic “but it’s more Tuesday through Thursday. Residents are here all the time,” said DNC president Mary Miller.

Miller says the neighborhood’s 6,000 full-time residents have different demands than the nine-to-five workforce, like concerns about trash or the handling of homeless people.

With a new strategic plan, the DNC is setting its sights firmly on what downtown’s residents want and need.

The DNC’s biggest project is its Clean and Safe effort, in part funding on-the-ground workers to clean up sidewalks and keep downtown neat.

Miller also said the DNC is set to invest more money into revamping Selden Market, the Main Street vendor hall.

“It was done as a temporary project when it was done seven-and-a-half years ago, so to make it more sustainable, to make it more welcoming, to become really that third place downtown where visitors, residents, cruise ship passengers can come hang out,” Miller said.

And it’ll be doing so working on a tighter budget. The group is funded largely by a tax supplement on downtown properties, but its biggest contributor was taken off the tax rolls last year, when MacArthur Center was purchased by the city.

At its height, MacArthur represented 15% of the DNC’s budget, Miller said, so the DNC is in for a few tight years ahead, especially as the general cost of doing business has gone up.

And that’s going to mean picking and choosing targets for funding — and dropping some things the DNC previously put money into.

For instance, Miller says the DNC previously backed art projects in the NEON District, splitting the cost with other funders. Going forward, the DNC won’t have the resources to help with those projects.

“We’re trying to figure out how to say ‘no.’ I’m not good at saying no. We always want to be seen as helping the community,” Miller said.

More than half of people surveyed as part of the DNC’s strategic planning process said the future of MacArthur is the biggest project in downtown Norfolk.

Residents downtown are also still pining for a grocery store in the area. There was a failed citizen bid to attract one after the closure of a Farm Fresh on nearby Boush Street.

There was a plan in the works to bring a grocery store to the now-defunct Greyhound Bus Terminal on Brambleton Avenue, but the city shot that down, instead announcing Tidewater Community College would build a soaring arts building there. That project fell through as the college struggled to secure funding and major donors said the city failed to uphold its end of the bargain. Now, after a short stint housing the city’s homeless, the Greyhound station sits dark.

“Folks let us know time and time again they would love to not have to get in a car to go have all of their daily needs met,” said Price, the board chair.

There is a proposal on the table that could put a grocery store in at the former Save A Lot location on Church and Brambleton near the St. Paul’s redevelopment area.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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