Naomi Riley

Executive director, Fuquay-Varina Downtown Revitalization Association; Owner, The Polished Table

Husband Jim, adult sons Bryce and Garrett, and his wife Jordan


Bachelor’s degree in education, East Carolina University

Painting; boating in Swansboro

Fun facts:
Watches YouTube videos at night on leadership; loves setting a table to entertain

N.C. Main Street Award for Best Branding and Image Building Campaign by FVDA, 2013

Walking through downtown Fuquay-Varina with Naomi Riley is quite the adventure: Drivers honk and wave, and she stops often to wish people happy birthday or luck in catching Pokémon.

But don’t call her a local celebrity.

“Oh, no. Our citizens are willing to give their time and skills to help their community. I’m just the organizer of the talents,” said Riley, executive director of the nonprofit Fuquay-Varina Downtown Revitalization Association, or FVDA. “We’re good at connecting the dots.”

In the unique municipality of Fuquay-Varina, created in 1963 by the merging of Fuquay Springs and Varina, Riley’s work is visible in two thriving downtown districts, where newcomers such as The Mason Jar Tavern mix with long-timers like Ashworth’s Clothing, open since 1937.

As a hometown native and half of the two-person FVDA staff, the bustle is Riley’s dream come true.

“It’s always had that community feel,” she said. “And as we’ve grown, we’ve been able to attract people with similar core values, who support each other. We’re attracting kindhearted, remarkable business owners, just like we attract citizens.”

One of the fastest-growing towns in the state, Fuquay-Varina’s population has grown almost 34 percent since 2010, with no slowdown in sight.

Challenge accepted, says Riley.

“I never forget that downtown is the most important economic driver for Fuquay-Varina. I’m passionate about it,” she said. “We can grow and grow, but the footprint of downtown is one we must protect.”

A former schoolteacher, Riley volunteered with FVDA before being asked to step up as director in 2010. Her role includes event planning, historic preservation, local advocacy, marketing, fundraising and cultural growth.

“I almost didn’t take the job,” said Riley, afraid of public speaking and doubting herself. “But my father, Charles McLaurin, taught us to be public servants. He said, ‘Naomi, when you are passionate about something it’s easy to talk publicly about it, and you love Fuquay-Varina. And no one goes into any job knowing everything. You’ll find great people to help. This is the perfect job for you.’

“I’m so glad I took the job. It’s helped me grow as a professional woman.”

One of Riley’s first tasks was balancing the two distinct downtowns. In 2013, the FVDA earned the N.C. Main Street Award for Best Branding and Image Building Campaign for its work in branding Fuquay, Varina, and their connector dubbed The Link.

Fuquay-Varina has been part of the N.C. Main Street Program since 2007. Downtown investments by the town include an arts center in development and recent tree-replacement and sidewalk-widening projects.

The goal of town leaders is to increase residency downtown, creating a literal “link” of mixed-use development between the downtown districts.

“FVDA knows that mixed-use is needed in the Fuquay District and we’re excited to know that the town will be working on that economic development piece in the future,” Riley said. “We already have solid businesses that bring people to these districts. I’m researching the types of programs that help attract people to live downtown.

“I’m fascinated with things happening as a result of collaboration. That’s when the world gets better.”

Riley recalls the 2008 opening of Stick Boy Bread Co., as the start of downtown revitalization. Then came Varina Station.

“Varina Station, a mixed-use development project by Bill Akins, ignited the Varina District,” Riley said. “Soon afterward, Aviator Brewing Company opened up and the ball started rolling.(Aviator owner) Mark Doble has made so much investment in downtown, rehabbing buildings not the cheap way, but the right way. We’ve formed a team that understands the value of downtown.”

Doing what’s comfortable and easy, Riley says, results in mediocrity.

“But I’m surrounded with people who are not afraid to do and try,” she said. “Who’d have thought that Fuquay-Varina could have the state award-winning En Plein Air Paint-off event, and auction original art bringing in bids of $2,500? Or Edna’s Café and Cocktails, a Puerto Rican restaurant serving the best Cuban sandwich around? And our music scene! You can’t click on our entertainment calendar and say there’s nothing to do.”

Riley has even opened her own shop, The Polished Table, putting her love of entertaining to work while being careful its offerings don’t overlap those of other local stores.

“Downtown’s recent success has been a result of citizens feeling they have been part of the process,” Riley said. “A nonprofit (like FVDA) provides the avenue for a grassroots movement to happen. When you have public-private partnership, everyone wins. We rely on the community to fund what we do, and they have always come through for us.

“Our Shop Local movement, which we started in 2010, is still a big component of our work, and our events give people the feel of what Fuquay-Varina is all about. Simply said, FVDA grows community.”

The community’s creativity also shows in facing challenge: With the town library’s impending move into a new facility on Judd Parkway, some downtown businesses have volunteered to house bookshelves and hold story times to maintain that destination feel.

“For every obstacle you face, there are creative ways to address it,” Riley said. “Our organization has created an atmosphere where people feel heard, can share ideas, and are not afraid to think big. As a result, these people become ambassadors because they feel valued. I have high expectations of what we can become.”


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