Looking Back on a Decade of Change

As the director of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance for a decade, David Diaz has been essential to the city’s growth. Now, as he prepares to leave, he offers some parting thoughts.

When David Diaz visited Raleigh a decade ago to interview for the chance to become the third president of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, he came prepared with organizational plans—how to grow the advocacy nonprofit, how to increase its power, and how to enlarge its budget. But he didn’t come prepared with something important—enthusiasm for downtown Raleigh itself.

In fact, at dinner during his first night in town, the job recruiter told him he may want to find at least a skosh of it before his slate of meetings and interrogations with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance’s board the next day.

“He said, ‘Hey, you might want me to sound more excited about downtown Raleigh.’ And that was telling: They wanted me to tell them how great their downtown was,” remembers Diaz. “And I must have, because I got the job.”

And now, after a successful decade in his role as the president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, Diaz will take his leave this month. He and his young family are headed back to Virginia, where he worked before taking his post in Raleigh. He will help build a downtown-like culture in Tysons Corner, Virginia, an unincorporated bedroom of Washington, D.C., that’s currently loaded with shopping malls and corporate headquarters. But today, he’s staring out of the tall windows of the downtown coffee shop 42 & Lawrence, on the ground floor of the 23-floor apartment building the SkyHouse. It’s the sort of mixed-use facility that he could only dream about a decade ago. Suddenly, Diaz gets wistful: “I guess I’ll try to bring a little bit of Raleigh to Tysons.”

On that first night ten years ago, Diaz had dinner at Sullivan’s Steakhouse, a franchise that’s long been an anchor in the valley of Glenwood South. In 2007, there simply weren’t a lot of options for a nice meal in downtown proper. Fayetteville Street had just reopened. PNC Plaza was still under construction. And the new Raleigh Convention Center was still more than a year from opening its doors to the kind of traffic that would eventually fill its ranks of restaurants hotels, and bars.

“There was that excitement from the people interviewing me for the job,” he says. “But I didn’t share it, because I didn’t see it.”

What he did find soon enough, though, was a group of government leaders entrepreneurs, and citizens deeply invested in creating something great in downtown Raleigh, in helping to reinvent a city center that had slowly slid into obsolescence. Those are qualities that people in his role customarily attempt to foster; in Raleigh, he was able to step into a setting where people were already passionate about the possibilities. He could help the city itself grow.

Still, in his tenure, he’s accomplished those initial organizational goals: The Downtown Raleigh Alliance’s budget has tripled. It now hosts big banquets and mixers, devoted to celebrating and galvanizing downtown energy.

But Diaz seems proudest of the ways the Downtown Raleigh Alliance has helped shape the city’s still-emerging core, from policy decisions to business recruitment. In 2015, the city approved the Downtown Experience Plan, a landmark collaboration between the DRA and Raleigh itself meant to offer a 10-year vision for what’s to come. And Diaz leaves just as hotels begin to arrive downtown in earnest, the result of an initiative to redefine and remarket the meaning of being in Raleigh’s city center. That’s taken longer than he hoped, but it will prove an integral part of Raleigh’s continued momentum, he says.

As Diaz prepares to head north, his decade in downtown Raleigh has left a lot of lasting impressions—and several imperatives for the city, if it wants to capitalize on and maintain the growth it’s created. First, he says, the plans already in place have to be executed, from the long-delayed revitalization of Moore Square to the much-ballyhooed BikeShare program. These are central tenets of creating a richer downtown that’s capable of catering to a growing number of people and pursuits.

Second, Raleigh must maintain its mix of long-term visionaries and short-term doers, so that urgency and energy are met with the infrastructure to support them. And finally, the city has to balance taking risks with its customarily methodical, stepwise approach to decision-making. That could produce a city that’s stable and innovative, the ideal balance as the city soon considers essential questions about expanding the convention center, maintaining its downtown amphitheater, and, most of all, shaping a world-class park on the campus of Dorothea Dix.

“I’m excited that the mayor particularly wants to have some kind of aerial connection from Dix to downtown. That’s totally feasible, because there are pockets of Dix that are so close,” he says. “I would love to come back here in five years and see that started and see that connection to downtown. I’ll miss seeing that come to fruition.”

Grayson Haver Currin

Grayson Haver Currin is the former managing editor of the Independent Weekly and the former editor in chief of the Raleigh Agenda. He has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, and Pitchfork. He is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Come Out & Show Them, lives in Oakwood, and runs too much.

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