By Ron Wayne
Greg Allen visited Lucky’s Market on Northwest13th Street on its opening weekend a little more than a year ago and never stopped going back.
“I decided to check it out, as I do with any new grocery stores,” said Allen, 57, a former professional cook for 15 years. He got some amazing grand opening sales and now shops weekly even though he doesn’t live close to the organic grocery. “I like the weekly sales, which quite often are cheaper than other local stores. They have a great variety of fresh produce, bulk items such as nuts, granola, spices, flours, and meats and seafood at very reasonable prices.”
Lucky’s is among the stores repopulating what had been Gainesville’s premier retail district a few decades ago. The city’s original mall was situated along Northwest 13th Street near Northwest 23rd Avenue. When Oaks Mall opened on Newberry Road, shoppers fled there and to the burgeoning Archer Road area, which still shows no sign of slowing.
And yet a stronger than expected market for retailers remains along this stretch of road, according to Realtor Betsy Whitaker of Asset Management who has helped the area transition more than once. Within the past 18 months, discount clothing retailers Burlington Factory Outlet and Ross Dress for Less created new stores where an old Walmart had been, and smaller retailers are filling in gaps in the area.
“We have tens of thousands of people in north Gainesville who want a shopping alternative,” Whitaker said. “They do not want to go down to the Oaks Mall and fight the traffic and certainly don’t like going down to Archer Road, which is a nightmare for us up here.”
Before the area west of Gainesville grew so much, Northwest 13th Street was the city’s shopping mecca, complete with the Gainesville Mall, two movie theaters and other stores.
“It was the center of town in the 1960s…. people would dress up and wear their Sunday best and bring their families down to the mall on Friday nights and they would walk the mall and shop and eat,” Whitaker said. “It was a social gathering.”
A turning point started when Oaks Mall lured Sears from the Gainesville Mall. With the loss of an anchor, other stores began to close and it wasn’t long before the mall closed and was demolished, she said. Whitaker was instrumental in first bringing a Kmart to the site, but then the chain went into bankruptcy. She then secured Lowe’s to the spot in 1992. While the home improvement store thrived, other parts of the retail corridor faltered.
The Pick ’n Save grocery closed in what was known as Plaza Verde near Northwest 23rd Avenue. A movie theater in the same plaza also closed. “Those buildings were vacant and just vandalized for a long, long time,” Whitaker said. A sprawling parking lot built to accommodate moviegoers became an asphalt prairie.
About 10 years ago, a strip of storefronts was built filling in the space between what had been the Pick ’n Save and the movie theater. That was quickly filled with smaller tenants such as a hair salon and a Subway. “That was all new and we leased that overnight because there was nothing for people on that side of town to get small 1,800-square-foot spaces,” she said.
The plaza took another positive turn with the opening of a fitness center at the site of the former theater. “And then we were able to get Planet Fitness in there,” she said. “It’s one of their top locations in the Southeast. It’s really been a great money maker for them.”
Whitaker had been negotiating with Burlington for the Pick ’n Save site, but a problem cropped up and she suggested the old Walmart site for its new store. Lucky’s had considered the old Walmart site but another grocer – Save-A-Lot – was already in that plaza, she said.
“Lucky’s was a huge coup for Gainesville,” she said. “The owner put in a million bucks and so did Lucky’s….it was a big renovation.”
The popular Colorado-based store has spurred new retail growth nearby. A Rooms to Go outlet store opened in the former Sticks ‘n’ Stuff location at NW 13th Street and NW 23rd Avenue. On an opposite corner Whitaker was instrumental in the development of a new strip center that will have a Chipotle, a hair salon and a mattress store. A few blocks south on 13th, the former Brasington’s auto dealership has been converted into a commercial space called The Square. She has already leased an ice cream parlor and a nail salon. She hopes to lure a restaurant because there are not enough restaurants in the area, she said.
“One of the problems you run into when you’re dealing with national tenants is they want to be where the hot spots are and so they’ll pay two to three times as much rent down there to be there than they will up here,” she said. “This is what I had to convince Lowe’s about. There is a demographic that is strong financially that will support this part of town that detests going to Archer Road.”
Gainesville residents north of University Avenue find it’s easier to get to 13th Street than it is to get down to Archer Road.
“It’s very easy ingress and egress. East Gainesville can get to it very easily. It makes sense to have your shopping there,” Whitaker said. “I have always fought tooth and nail to get people to stay in this area.”
Fans of Lucky’s are glad she has been successful. Although Allen is now a library associate at the University of Florida, he still likes to cook and the organic grocery makes it easier. “I’m always able to find great food there to make some good meals,” he added.