When they strike up the music on Saturday and christen the new Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh, Marc Scruggs will be somewhere in the crowd, smiling. Probably he’ll be in front of the historic Briggs Building at 220 Fayetteville St., which used to be his family’s hardware store and is now home to various offices and, on the ground floor, the Raleigh City Museum.
Without doubt, credit for reopening the city’s historic main street to vehicular traffic, after 30 years as a mall, goes to Mayor Charles Meeker, who made it his top priority–along with building the new convention center–when he took office in 2001.
Scruggs himself says it will be Meeker’s legacy: “I give all the credit to Charles for stepping up, recognizing the need, and building the consensus for it.”
Still, six years before Meeker, there was Scruggs, who all alone on the City Council went to bat for the idea of reopening Fayetteville Street.
Newly elected, Scruggs learned that the city was about to spend $800,000 for patch-up to the sad-sack mall. When he asked city staff how much it would cost to tear the thing out and restore the street, he was told $2 million. Armed with that information, he went to the Council’s Public Works Committee.
“I got totally slammed,” he says. He can laugh about it now, but at the time, it was devastating. “I mean, I just got steamrolled.”
Well, those were the days of conservative government in Raleigh, when Tom Fetzer was the mayor and John Odom ran the public works committee. The council was Republican, as Scruggs was at the time. He’s since become a Democrat.
But where his GOP colleagues saw no need to spend an extra dollar downtown, Scruggs thought it made “good business sense” to invest in what was, even then, in its underdeveloped state, Raleigh’s most valuable real estate.
Restore the street, with the old on-street parking, and retail business would come back, he argued, not just on Fayetteville Street, but on the surrounding downtown streets as well. Kind of the way he remembered it when he was growing up.
Scruggs’ earliest memories are of prying open the upstairs windows in the four-story Briggs Hardware building and watching Raleigh’s Christmas parade pass below at nightfall. Back then, in the ’60s–he’s 46 now–Briggs also held a “toy show” at the holidays. This was before Toys “R” Us and Wal-Mart, of course. Briggs Hardware was the biggest toy seller in town, he says, and between that and the parade, downtown Raleigh “was like a festival” to him.
He also remembers 1976, when the city put in the mall over the vehement objections of his grandfather, former Mayor James Briggs. His granddad was so mad, Scruggs recalls, that when the pavement was taken up, he threw mustard seed all over the dirt.
“He said that’d do Raleigh a lot more good than the mall was going to,” Scruggs says.
Sure enough, Briggs Hardware became “a 10-2 business,” with customers who came at lunchtime from their downtown offices but otherwise shunned a store they couldn’t drive to the front of. State government was a steady buyer, which helped. But then it, too, started moving out of downtown, Scruggs says.
And eventually, so did Briggs, which is out on Atlantic Avenue today. Scruggs opened his own store, called Marc’s Hardware, in the Ridgewood Shopping Center on Wade Avenue. He left the council after three terms–six years–and while he’s thought about running for other offices since, his family and his business have come first.
Closing Fayetteville Street had the effect of “cutting off circulation” right in the middle of downtown, Scruggs says. People felt unsafe on the mall at night, when they’d be virtually alone, and it wasn’t long before they came to view all of downtown that way. Meanwhile, the suburbs beckoned.
Scruggs’ fellow council members, though they wouldn’t ditch the mall, did start the ball rolling in a new direction when they purchased the former Hudson-Belk department store building on the mall–now the condo project called The Hudson–and backed the group that became the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.
On the other hand, his fellow Republicans didn’t appreciate Scruggs’ attempts to work across the aisle with the council’s Democrats.
“Was I ostracized in the party for it? Sure I was, I make no bones about that,” he says. So he changed parties.
Meeker’s council, with a Democratic majority, has “made a good start downtown,” Scruggs thinks. Now what’s needed is second-stage planning, with more specific direction from the city about where stores and residences are supposed to go, perhaps with some form of tax deferment for small businesses that follow the plan. (Something that would require special state legislation, Scruggs adds.)
All that said, however, Scruggs is “a big skeptic” about the $215 million convention center, and he’s not a fan of the $20 million subsidy for the convention center hotel either. And he’s really not a fan of the new-fangled Fayetteville Street design, with its skinny, 40-foot roadbed and its extra-wide sidewalks.
“This is not anything I had in mind,” he said last week, watching as workmen hurried to finish a street project that’s ballooned to a cost of $9.3 million–and that’s just for phase one, which is reopening the first four blocks of the seven-block stretch between the Capitol and the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. “I don’t understand why such a narrow street.”
“Raleigh Wide Open,” a celebration of the new Fayetteville Street and its many downtown offspring, starts Saturday, July 29 with ceremonies and a parade at 6 p.m. For details, visit www.godowntownraleigh.com.