The Downtown Raleigh Alliance is introducing a gift card program for downtown restaurants and shops, a step designed to boost the area’s resurgent retail trade.
The Shop Downtown Raleigh gift cards are set to go on sale Friday. So far, 86 businesses have signed up to participate, including 37 restaurants, 12 clothing stores, and assorted art galleries, home furnishing stores, hotels and service providers.
“I’m very excited,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said as she announced the program Wednesday. “There’s always people you work with, and you want to give gifts to. They’ll be able to use it for lunch and shopping.”
For a $1 activation fee, shoppers can purchase the plastic cards online at ShopDowntownRaleigh.com and use them to make purchases at any participating downtown Raleigh business. All the money you spend on the card will return to businesses downtown.
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“We zero out on it,” said Lacie Lindstaedt, spokeswoman for the alliance. “It works just like a credit card for the public.”
The gift card program reflects the explosion of growth the city’s core has seen in the last few years. In 2012 alone, 38 street-level businesses opened downtown, according to the alliance, a nonprofit organization that seeks to breathe life back into the city by encouraging local businesses and coordinating attractions like the farmers market in City Plaza.
The growth is the beginning of a bustle city planners have dreamed of for decades.
Decades ago, downtown Raleigh’s retail district thrived, drawing shoppers from throughout Eastern North Carolina. But it languished after the Great Depression, and many businesses and customers moved to outlying neighborhoods following World War II. City planners bemoaned the lack of life downtown and proposed a pedestrian mall in 1960. Fayetteville Street became the Fayetteville Street Mall in 1977, yet optimism for the mall diminished as garbage accumulated and storefronts went vacant.
The Raleigh Times wrote in 1979, “The Fayetteville Street Mall, like a smiling second-grader, has a lot of charm in spite of some missing front teeth.”
Retail continued to struggle, marked by the closing of the Hudson-Belk department store and cafeteria in early 1995. A few weeks later, News & Observer columnist Dennis Rogers called the skyscrapers that lined Fayetteville Street “fortified citadels of commerce where people rush to every morning and away from every night, leaving the streets to the drunks and the dreamers.”
But in recent years, retail businesses began to return. One of the first, Holly Aiken Bags + Stitch, is participating in the gift card program.
The smell of vinyl and sight of brightly colored bags fill the store at East Hargett and South Wilmington streets. Holly Aiken, the soft-spoken owner, said she moved her business from Glenwood South in 2008. At the time, she said, “there wasn’t much down here.”
Aiken said she needed the larger space for her handmade bag production, but she also liked the building and the location.
“I could tell this area was becoming more popular and just gave it a shot,” she said. The store has not only lasted, but it fills “every inch of space” with production equipment or displays of her unique merchandise.
With a view through tall glass windows of the nearby high-rises, Bolt Bistro and Bar has just finished its first year on Fayetteville Street, said owner David Sadeghi.
Sadeghi runs what he calls a “steakhouse with a little flare of bistro.” Originally from Persia, he moved to the United States in 1977 and eventually worked his way from dishwasher to restaurant owner. He owns the Townhall Grill in Chapel Hill, and when he saw the growth in downtown Raleigh, he decided it needed a steakhouse.
“I’ve been watching what’s been happening in downtown Raleigh in the last few years, and it is pretty impressive,” he said.
He said he hopes the gift card program is here to stay.
“There are so many ways people can use this gift card,” he said. “I hope they will.”