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Downtown Raleigh wants to get back on its feet.
After a tough six months marked by business and office closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, and property destruction following demonstrations for racial justice at the end of May, city officials and the nonprofit Downtown Raleigh Alliance (DRA) are engaging a mix of strategies to draw people back downtown again. Public art, outdoor dining, free parking and socially distanced events will be part of that mix, as will efforts at making people feel safe and secure in terms of their health and physical safety. New businesses, including popups, retail stores, breweries and coffee shops—not to mention downtown’s first full-service, national grocery store—will also surely help.
But right now, downtown is quiet: residential occupancy rates remain above 90 percent, but only 15 to 20 percent of employees have returned to downtown offices, according to DRA data. Pedestrian activity was down 74 percent in July, 55 storefronts are still boarded up and food and drinks sales are down 56 percent over the same time last year (though sales have been increasing since April).
“We are trying to offer opportunities to come downtown that feel thoughtful and safe,” said Bill King, the DRA’s president and CEO, during a presentation to Raleigh’s city council last month.
Here’s what some of these initiatives will look like.
Promoting Equity and Diversity
In a partnership with Wake Tech, the DRA is continuing to offer popup spaces for minority-owned businesses. The DRA also has a page on its website listing Black-owned businesses located downtown, a video series promoting diverse business owners and is working to recruit more diverse businesses to open downtown. “This is something we really need to be responsive to,” King said. “We need to make sure downtown is a place where more people feel welcome, that we’re reflecting the diversity of our community and we’re taking this opportunity to do that. We need to make downtown more diverse and welcoming.”
Downtown’s bars may be closed but more than 100 of its restaurants are open in some capacity, and dozens offer outdoor seating (for a full list, visit downtownraleigh.org). The city has issued more than 30 permits to restaurants to expand their seating into public right-of-ways, including sidewalks, streets, pedlets and parklets. “We have the goal of making sure downtown is the safest place to dine and spend time in all of Raleigh,” King said.
Supporting Businesses, New and Existing
The DRA is administering grants for businesses with damaged storefronts for repairs and new investments (buying new outdoor furniture, for example), as well as offering marketing support for reopening. (There’s a list of all downtown businesses that have reopened and a video series featuring downtown business owners on the DRA’s website). Along with some sad announcements of closings—we will miss Port of Raleigh, Chuck’s, Jose and Sons and Virgil’s Taqueria—several new businesses have taken the plunge and opened downtown during the COVID pandemic, including the brewery Roshambo, The Optimist coffee shop, plant-based restaurant Good Day, Good Night, Bigfoot Taphouse, CBD retailer Hemp to Heal, cosmetic services provider Arch and Edge and, of course, the Publix grocery store in Smoky Hollow.
Spend Time Outdoors
In the absence of downtown’s lineup of fall festivals this year, the DRA wants to encourage visitors to come downtown for other reasons, including to eat, to exercise in fun outdoor classes or along prebuilt routes, spend time in parks and to hold outdoor, socially distanced meetings, lunches and other small events. “Just having peoples’ feet on the streets in a safe way is really helpful,” King said.
Public Health and Safety
In July, the city council approved a $300,000 allocation from the city’s economic development office to the DRA to hire and support additional ambassadors to assist with safety and security as well as to help pay for a marketing campaign to entice more visitors. The DRA hired four additional ambassadors, including three focused on safety in gathering spots and residential communities and one focused on social services, plus a new ambassador manager. On Glenwood South, ambassadors will encourage visitors to wear masks and practice social distancing and soon, banners will hang along Fayetteville Street announcing that it’s open for business while encouraging mask wearing, too. Raleigh police officers and officials from the city’s emergency management department are working with Glenwood South businesses on a COVID educational project to ensure they’re complying with state-issued mandates.
In partnership with the transportation department, Raleigh’s arts office commissioned 30 artists to create semi-permanent sidewalk paintings all over downtown, to be installed in the coming months. Raleigh Arts is supporting the Black on Black project to promote artwork from artists of color around the city, and it partnered with the Raleigh Murals Project to raise funds to pay local artists to paint murals on ply boards covering damaged storefronts earlier this year. Raleigh Arts and the DRA will work together to document all of the art created during the unrest in a public collection that will preserve and continue to celebrate the artists’ stories. The DRA is also working on bringing attention-grabbing art installations to downtown, as well as activating vacant storefronts, and the DRA’s website is hosting virtual arts events, including First Friday, self-guided arts tours and scavenger hunts.
Transit and Parking
The city’s transportation department has implemented around 100 curbside pickup zones for restaurants and retailers offering curbside pickup around downtown. It also suspended its “$5 after 5 p.m.” parking fees, making it free to park downtown after hours, and has suspended transit fares.
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