On June 25, David Diaz will become the third director of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a city-supported organization with a budget of $900,000 and a charge of "building unique partnerships and collaborations with the public and private sectors to address issues facing downtown Raleigh." Since 2005, Diaz has led a similar organization in Roanoke, Va., though he's been working in the city of 90,000 since 1999. We spoke with Diaz as he was headed south to Raleigh for Memorial Day weekend to look for an apartment with his wife, Emily.
What were your original impressions of downtown Raleigh and what's happening here?
I'm very impressed by the fact that Centura Bank is moving its headquarters to Raleigh. One of the fundamental pillars of downtown revitalization is jobs. When you have that, it can spur other types of development, particularly on the retail and urban entertainment end—the restaurants and all of the nightlife that can come with a great employment base for downtown.
What do you think can happen downtown? What strikes you as something to move on?
I got a tour of downtown Raleigh, and I think it has a lot of potential. But I think a large part of my job really is to learn about what the hopes and dreams are of people in Raleigh for their downtown. I've got expertise in city planning and downtown development, but it's really too early for me to have a diagnosis of what downtown Raleigh needs because I've spent so little time there. I see my first six months almost like a listening tour, meeting as many people as possible who have ideas for downtown and the people who can make them happen.
You mentioned urban entertainment. That's something that's been a topic with downtown development, in terms of people saying development downtown is wiping away the character that was there first. What's your approach to a situation like that?
Similar things like that have happened in downtown Roanoke. One of the things you have got to balance is this growth versus keeping what's cool and funky in downtown. Roanoke is very strong in this regard. Roanoke has a fabric that encourages these kinds of unique entertainment establishments that give a downtown an identity beyond what you normally find in a successful downtown. You've got to figure out what's in the best longterm interests of the downtown, but, at the same time, be sensitive to not taking away too much of the character people associate with your downtown.
Many people would compare what Charlotte did with what Roanoke didn't do, as a positive for Roanoke. In Charlotte, they tore down everything. In Roanoke, we kept almost everything. So there's a strong authenticity and fabric. We have people from larger cities coming to Roanoke because they're trying to find it now, they're trying to find that sense of center where people can go to and think, "Oh, wow, this is pretty neat." It sounds like what's going on in Raleigh is figuring out how we grow and keep the downtown economically successful while preserving those things we think matter.
In conversations with the mayor and the city council, what do they seem eager for you to pursue?
I haven't had those discussions with them yet. The city manager, Russell Allen, was part of the interview process, and I got to meet him for about 30 minutes. I really appreciated that Mr. Allen took the time last week to call me and say that he was looking forward to working with me.
Raleigh has a squad of "Safety & Clean Ambassadors" managed by Downtown Raleigh Alliance. Roanoke didn't. How important are they?
I think they're incredibly important for any downtown, because in our business we've got to take a hospitality approach. You have to think of our organization as a management company for a hotel, but it's an outdoor hotel with a lot more complexity to it than one building. Customer service is No. 1 for an organization like ours. It's critical that we have people who can welcome people to downtown and have a friendly atmosphere where the customer is always right. Looking at Raleigh, there are so many people moving into the city from all over the country. We have to be there to make the best impression possible so those people can stay here and really like Raleigh.