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Three trailblazing leaders make it their mission to restore DTR.
Not all heroes wear capes. Enter Downtown Raleigh Alliance CEO and President Bill King, Shop Local Raleigh executive director Jennifer Martin, and North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association founder and myriad bar owner Zack Medford—three hometown heroes who have made it their MO to save DTR—or die trying, so to speak.
As businesses were forced to survive by any means necessary over the last year, these three local luminaries have championed that effort, looming large and mighty over a Downtown that will rise from the ashes like a phoenix—each of them making their indelible mark on its resuscitation and breathing life back into those sacred grounds.
Now, as they help dig Downtown out of the rubble (and boards!) that was 2020, they’re filled with hope for the future—and for a thriving DTR.
A Spring Awakening
Nearly all notable changes to Downtown businesses and restaurants in 2020 have been born out of King’s ideas—alongside his DRA team.
With the support of Duke Energy, DRA created the Duke Energy Storefront Revitalization Grant, which has helped 97 storefront businesses—all locally owned—adjust to operating during the pandemic. With $375,000 in grants, they’ve worked together to help restaurants and other businesses not only survive, but thrive. Retail establishments have built online stores; restaurants have created takeout windows; and dine-in options have moved outdoors with the help of heaters, pedlets, tables and chairs.
To boot, King, as a fierce advocate for DTR businesses, helped materialize the modified Downtown Raleigh Restaurant Week this past October—with the goal of having Raleighites safely “Dine Out Downtown”—no doubt a success, as plans are already in the works to bring it back this spring (yes, please!).
DRA has also recruited pop-up stores to fill empty storefronts to both help entrepreneurs establish a foothold in the market and to draw visitors back as well. One such success story is Black Friday Market, a co-op DTR retail space for Black-owned small businesses. While many business owners found 2020 brought challenges that were nearly insurmountable, innovative concepts like Black Friday Market inspire hope that perhaps now is the perfect time to move forward with a dream.
After all, spring is an ever-apt time for a reawakening. “Spring always offers hope for new beginnings and, this year, more than ever,” King says. “With hope of widespread vaccines being more available, I think we’ll find that people will be ready to come back to Downtown. The second half of 2021 will look and feel a lot different, and that gives us something to look forward to.” Hope springs eternal, indeed.
When asked where he finds his inspiration to help so many, King humbly shares, “I care deeply about these folks. These are people, not just businesses; they’re entrepreneurs who have worked so hard to build up their dreams, and I feel a responsibility to do everything I can to help.”
On With the Show
The brightest rainbows often follow the darkest storms, and Martin says that even with the challenges that 2020 presented, “there is always something good; we just have to find it.” Fingers crossed!
Learning how to pivot and adapt to the many challenges that the pandemic created, Martin and her Shop Local team found ways to help Downtown businesses by producing new strategies for safely and successfully holding events. Brewgaloo, for example, North Carolina’s largest craft beer festival, was held via five drive-through events in 2020—a drastic change from the typically huge crowds that descend on Downtown each year to sip and socialize, but also a smart pivot that mitigated simply canceling—while still giving local brewers the opportunity to sell their products and make new customers.
Beyond Brewgaloo, Martin set her sights on saving some fa-la-la fun. Typically a huge draw, the Raleigh Christmas Parade sees tens of thousands of people lining the streets—but, shocker, 2020 was anything but typical. Rescuing and revamping the beloved event in an effort to highlight and celebrate locally owned businesses, Martin pivoted the parade to virtual for the first time in its 76-year run. And while the look and feel of such reimagined events are certainly different, businesses still get a chance to connect with people.
Today, Martin most looks forward to DTR hosting events again—which will not only bring people together, but will have an enormous impact on our local economy.
When asked what she feels will save Downtown, Martin muses: “Saving it will be all of us shopping, eating, visiting and pitching in to help one another. Without that, Downtown will still be ‘Downtown’—it’ll just look very different and not have the local charm that we all love.”
A Beacon for Raleigh Bars
As co-owner of several beloved watering holes, plus tour company The Great Raleigh Trolley, Medford (affectionately dubbed “Mayor Medford”) is a notable changemaker, family man and friend to all in the Raleigh community—his name synonymous with championing community efforts, charity events and boundless philanthropy initiatives—and much more. As bars were forced to abruptly close last spring, Medford became the leading voice in lobbying state and local government (and you’ve no doubt seen his face splashed across the screen fighting the good fight).
In true “Mayor Medford” fashion, he formed the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association (NCBATA), a group that advocates on behalf of more than 1,000 bars across the state and works tirelessly for fellow business owners to have the right to reopen safely—enabling thousands of employees to return to work and bars to resume serving customers following the same safety protocols as restaurant bars.
To get us back on track, Medford advises to “focus on the people and businesses that play an active role in making Raleigh such a special place.” And if anyone can help get us there, it’s Zack Medford. He feels encouraged by his cohorts in the campaign to lessen restrictions on businesses during this time and encourages the community to support them.
Although he is known to not have the same amount of trust in elected officials, Medford has complete faith in fellow entrepreneurs and leaders like King and Martin.
“Raleigh’s creative small business owners are the heart and soul of this city,” Medford says. “I think our community is ready to embrace the art, culture and vibrancy that brought them here in the first place.” Preach on.
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