Downtown merchants look to future
BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Saturday, February 16, 2019
The Downtown Merchants Association is ready to take the main stage with the grand opening of a new business and a membership drive.
For the past year, the group of business owners and investors has been organizing, but it’s time to get to work, said association President Tarrick Pittman, who owns and operates CoolGeeks, a computer repair shop on the Douglas Block in downtown Rocky Mount.
Set for Feb. 28 is the ribbon cutting of the Bel Air Art Center and Willow Tree Yoga on South Church Street. Opened by Mike and Jessica Hicks, a local veterinarian and dental hygienist, the Bel Air will feature a gallery of local and regional art along with art studios.
Pittman said he’s proud of the Hicks for the job they’ve done. Downtown is full of success stories like that, he said, and the association wants to ensure all the businesses thrive.
The association began slowly as merchants decided together they would benefit from having one strong voice.
“We incorporated a year ago and have been focused on establishing the board,” Pittman said.
The association is now preparing for a big kickoff in early March.
“We want to have a participation drive and sign up the merchants that haven't joined us yet,” Pittman said. “We're working for the greater good of all of downtown.”
The association is a mix of new businesses and longtime businesses, Pittman said.
“We're talking legacy businesses like Bullock's Furniture, which has been here an extended period of time,” Pittman said. “Virginia's Dress Shop and Moore's Bicycle Shop are anchors to downtown. And we have new businesses like Bin and Barrel and then all the businesses on the Douglas Block. It's a collaborative effort and starting to feel like a real downtown community.”
On the association's agenda: A focus on minority- and women-owned businesses, code enforcement of dilapidated buildings, finding out a way to prevent trains from sitting for a long period of time in downtown and working with the city staff to achieve downtown development.
Pittman also serves as a member of the city's Central City Revitalization Panel. He said the panel's main responsibility is supporting the City Council's plans for revitalization.
The Merchant's Association is a wholly separate entity that might have to disagree with the city from time to time, Pittman said.
“We're independent,” Pittman said.
That’s why he’s concerned City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney appears to be circumventing the established channels by asking association member Ben Braddock to serve as her downtown liaison.
Braddock told the Telegram that he’s invested in downtown as a stakeholder, private investor and real estate broker, but hasn’t been approached by city officials to serve as a liaison.
At first, city officials answered with a simple “no” when asked whether Small-Toney had offered Braddock a consultant position. Tameka Kenan-Norman, the city’s chief communications officer, later clarified the city’s answer.
“Regarding Mr. Braddock, please also note Mrs. Small-Toney has been in communication with Mr. Braddock as to how he and his staff may assist her and her staff on working more collaboratively with downtown stakeholders, including Main Street, the Douglas Block, the Mills and areas between; however, they have not officially agreed as to how the collaboration will be arranged,” Kenan-Norman.
Pittman said the association is excited about the hotel proposal presented to the public last week but wants the City Council to be fiscally responsible. Small-Toney has been overall supportive of the association, Pittman said, but conversations have been slow with Landis Faulcon, the city's director of community and business development.
Braddock provided this statement after presstime for the print edition:
“I am the vice president of the Downtown Merchants Association as well as a participant in an informal downtown stakeholder group. Both groups have reached out to the city manager as well as different department heads about concerns and problems that we as groups and citizens have. Our stakeholder group invited the city manager to speak to us several months ago which she did do. I hope that she and city staff become more engaged with citizens and stakeholder as work to redevelopment downtown.”