Since taking over as the city’s Downtown Development Authority director in 2011, Raphael Clemente has made the revitalization and promotion of downtown West Palm Beach his mission.
Q: Downtown West Palm Beach has had a lot of ups and downs over the years. Do you think it’s on the upswing?
A: I definitely think it’s in an upswing. Since 2008 we’ve had well over 100 businesses open in downtown and roughly 20 have closed. Even considering that in ‘08 the recession hit so many people, economically we’ve still seen strong growth in downtown.
Q: How do you sustain that?
A: I think that trend is going to continue and it’s already spreading outside of the Clematis district, which is what has always been our goal at the DDA. With what’s happening along Evernia, Dixie, Olive Avenue, south of Datura Street, we’re seeing a lot of businesses come in. Obviously residential is doing well in downtown and there is a lot of commercial development as well. Once we get hotels coming into downtown those are going to have tremendous impact and it will take us to the next level.
Q: Downtown business owner Rodney Mayo has described Clematis as not having an identity. What would be your response to that?
A: I disagree with that. I think Clematis — and it’s not even Clematis, it’s the downtown district — West Palm is the heart and soul of this region and it has been for years. The downtown area is the seat of government, it’s our cultural hub. It’s been the business and banking center since the settlers arrived here. I’d argue that it serves multiple purposes to multiple people. Some might say that’s not an identity. I’d say we’re the center of the region.
Q: We hear often that Clematis Street is not Atlantic Avenue. What has Atlantic Avenue done right and how can Clematis replicate that model?
A: I think downtown and Atlantic Avenue are different places. Atlantic and Delray Beach had a vision and they started working on it diligently 20-plus years ago. In terms of that ground-floor retail and restaurant development, they have some advantages, they have smaller spaces. How we function in West Palm Beach, we have very large office components, courthouses, the city hall, we’ve got law firms, Phillips Point. We don’t have that low-scale village feel. I think it’s a different place. Our entertainment district has changed and evolved over time.
What I see coming is sort of the rest of the story for us that started with the waterfront being done and will continue with the hotels being done. I think, in the next two or three years, we’re going to see West Palm Beach mature into the great midsized city that it is. I don’t think it’s really a comparison to make with Delray, Boca or Downtown at the Gardens. We’re a different place. We have an identity and a significance that’s just different.