The Heart of the City
By James Johnson
his retirement, 61-year-old Tony Chavonne is rarely seen without a
grin. He’s happy. Growing up, Chavonne says, the goal for people of his
generation wasn’t happiness, but a job. Now, the current president of
Fayetteville’s Downtown Alliance believes kids today want more than just
to work and grow old. They want happiness, and he thinks they just
might be onto something.
“I live down here, I have major investments here and I was born and raised here. What I do now is a labor of love,” Chavonne said. “And there is nothing I want to do more than see this downtown grow.”
While serving four consecutive terms as Fayetteville’s mayor from 2005 to 2013, Chavonne saw his hometown quite literally grow from a population of 150,000 to more than 200,000. Now retired, Chavonne focuses his efforts on a much smaller target, but one with far reaching economic benefits for the town he loves, the Downtown Alliance.
The Downtown Alliance is a non-profit membership advocacy group that for the past 10 years has worked to support and bring businesses into Fayetteville’s historic downtown area. The organization is responsible for an array of activities, including downtown’s monthly Fourth Friday street festival, the annual Halloween zombie walk, seasonal carriage rides with Santa, and works in partnership with the Arts Council for A Dickens Holiday. For the past two years, Chavonne served as the Downtown Alliance’s new president, and just as when he served as mayor, it has been during a time of great change for both the community and the organization itself.
“I think that right now, we find ourselves in a great moment of opportunity,” said Chavonne. “We have some really great opportunities that are being talked about. There is a pretty positive vibe about our downtown.”
Besides news that downtown’s historic Prince Charles Hotel will be receiving a major $11 million renovation which will transform the largely neglected abandoned building into an apartment complex with ground floor retail space, city officials have also announced plans to build a minor league baseball stadium in the field adjacent to the hotel. Chavonne and others speculate that private industry interest in a baseball stadium could generate millions of dollars in revenue for the city.
“The baseball stadium down here is just another piece to making downtown a performing arts center. We want to create an environment here, an environment where people will instantly know where to go when they want something to do,” Chavonne said. “The downtown district is where we want the center for our entire community to be. These things that are being talked about are a way to make that happen.”
For years the Downtown Alliance advocated for these kinds of businesses to come downtown. A recent shift in the Alliance’s relationship with the city government may have given downtown a bigger seat at the table when it comes to bringing business downtown. Years ago, during Chavonne’s tenure as mayor, the city hired a woman named Jamie McLaughlin to serve in a newly created position titled the Downtown Development Manager. According to Chavonne, the position would help develop and promote Fayetteville’s downtown. After McLaughlin resigned from the position in order to raise her family, the city decided in July of last year that it would be more beneficial to simply work with the existing advocacy group, rather than hire a replacement.
“The Downtown Alliance was able to contract with the city,” Chavonne said, “which allowed us to hire paid staff, and I’ll tell you, that really takes a non-profit to a new level. It allows us to have a dedicated staff and have a marketing budget to get the word out.”
This also freed up the organization to help advocate for every downtown business, not just the more than 100 businesses that serve as members.
Chavonne says that he is optimistic about the community’s future, as he sees the community as a “reflection of the country.” Since the late 1970s, during the wildly unpopular Vietnam war, Fayetteville’s downtown became more known for its strip clubs and crime than for its community festivals and coffee shops. Chavonne believes this was the result of the draft, which filled the city with soldiers who had no interest in being there. Today, Chavonne says, the military presence has become the area’s greatest strength.
“Today we have an all volunteer army. These are people who want to be here, people who want to make a positive change in their world,” Chavonne said. “The country is much more supportive of the military, and when you have a country that supports them and a city that supports them, I think that benefits us as a community. We recognize the sacrifices these people make, because they aren’t fighting these conflicts with battleships, they are fighting with our neighbors. We want these soldiers to know how much we respect them and want them to stay in our community even after they are out of the army.”
The focus of developing a community’s economy has shifted away from simply making jobs, Chavonne says. The idea behind bringing arts, entertainment and sporting events into the downtown area is an effort to make a city that people want to live in and explore, as much as they want to work in.
“When my grandmother came to work at Massey Hill, she just wanted a job. She was happy to have a job with one week a year for vacation. Back then, people followed jobs, but nowadays, people care about where they live,” Chavonne said. “Now jobs follow people. It is a complete paradigm shift. People want to be selective about where they live. They care about their quality of life. It used to be that people just wanted a job out of college, but today’s graduates now say, ‘I want to be happy.’”
As a person who gets his kicks from watching his hometown of Fayetteville grow, Chavonne is hoping that with every new downtown development announcement that springs up, his own happiness will prove infectious.