This story originally ran in the Monday, October 19, 2009 edition of the Blue Ridge Business Journal. The Journal ceased publication in December 2010. Visit roanoke.com/bizjournal to browse an archive of BRBJ stories. For business coverage from The Roanoke Times, visit roanoke.com/business.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Q&A: Downtown Roanoke Inc.'s new executive director, Sean Luther
Sean Luther was recently hired as the new president of Downtown Roanoke Inc., a nonprofit downtown development organization. Luther, 27, comes from the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Although he doesn’t start his new job until Oct. 26, he took the time to answer a few questions about downtown development issues.
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A: The Market Building project remains DRI’s No. 1 capital priority in the downtown service district, and we are very excited that the city is giving the project such focus. DRI is prepared to assist in whatever capacity the city needs us to be in order to move the project forward and ensure it is a success. We also anticipate that the work at Market Square will be designed to blend into the Market Building’s streetscape plan in order to unify and strengthen both downtown assets. In regards to other construction downtown such as the Center in the Square project, we recognize that, while temporarily disruptive, construction is a sign of continued growth downtown. We will continue working to represent the issues of our stakeholders in mitigating the impact of construction in order to ensure that everyone is able to share in the benefit once these projects are completed.
Q: How might the historic farmers market capitalize on growing consumer demand, both regionally and nationally, for “local foods” and organic produce and meats?
A: The DRI staff has already been working with a number of our vendors to capitalize on this growing trend, and an increasing number of vendors are embracing organic farming practices. Roanoke, through the Downtown Market, is a national example of a community that realized the benefit to supporting local agriculture before the current national trends developed. DRI will continue to capitalize on these trends by positioning the Downtown Market as the region’s seven-day-a-week connection to the local agricultural community. We are also in the midst of a comprehensive look at the market handbook, and I think that will bring about new opportunities next year that will benefit the market and the community.
Q: There are some concerns that a comparatively new farmers market in Grandin Village may be taking both revenue and a few vendors away from the downtown farmers market. How might the downtown venue compete, or collaborate, with the Grandin market to ensure the continued vitality of the historic farmers market?
A: I haven’t had a chance to visit the Grandin market personally so I can’t comment particularly except to reiterate that a number of our vendors are participating in both markets, which serves to broaden their exposure to the community. We are a seven-day-a-week market and that makes our operation unique as a community asset. Again, I think our strategic look at the market handbook is going to strengthen the Downtown Market and has the possibility to bring about positive changes, if that is what the market stakeholders find is necessary.
Q: Downtown living spaces now include both high-dollar condos and market-rate apartments. What should be the next phase of downtown living development?
A: Downtowns, like any neighborhood, function best when they are accessible by everyone in the community. I think the city and the development community have embraced that concept very successfully. Unlike many cities, downtown Roanoke has quality stock of affordable-rate, workforce and up-market housing. The national economic situation is going to heavily influence what the next few residential projects in downtown Roanoke look like. For example, it will likely continue to be difficult to finance an up-market condominium project (though it isn’t impossible). Contrastingly, I think the successful public-private partnership at the Hancock offers a fantastic model of a downtown development which is easily replicable because it is a rental and the risk is spread across a wide number of price points. My personal opinion, having just been looking for a downtown apartment, is that there is plenty of growth potential for downtown housing across all price points. The existing residential stock is fantastic and the forthcoming medical school will only serve to increase the demand for downtown housing.
Q: How can DRI interact and integrate with other economic development initiatives in the region?
A: In my experience, downtown organizations like DRI work best when they serve as catalysts for cross-organizational communication and cooperation. DRI has many such connections with fantastic regional organizations, and I look forward to building those connections further. I believe that downtown is the center of the region and there is an inherent interdependency between the region and downtown. Further strengthening our cooperation with other economic development initiatives and local governments is essential for continued growth of the region as a whole and downtown in particular.
For more information about Downtown Roanoke Inc., visit www.downtownroanoke.org or call (540) 342-2028.