Downtown Renaissance Bringing Bloom

A decade or two ago, much of center city Gainesville was worn and forlorn—a mix of abandoned storefronts, sticky floored college bars and occasional pockets of prosperity.

Then a funny thing happened: People who saw the potential in the historic buildings and walkable streets started setting up unique businesses that, little by little, drew a wider variety of consumers downtown. And as a portion of those businesses thrived, others followed.

Today, downtown Gainesville is in the midst of a full-blown renaissance, local businesspeople say, with a growing diversity of restaurants, retail establishments and housing options, many appealing to older crowds. And more is on the way.

Paul Evans draws beer from the tap at Tall Paul's Brew House
Paul Evans draws a tall one at Tall Paul’s Brew House.

Several Forces at Work

Center City’s rebirth is being driven by several forces. One is the six-story, 124-room Hampton Inn & Suites, which opened in October 2009, says Nava Ottenberg, who moved her business, Persona Vintage Clothing, Costumes and Collectibles, to 201 SE 2nd Ave five years ago.

Another part of the emergence includes a change in demographics. Where college students dominated the downtown nightlife in the past, now people are more diverse in age.

Paul Evans, who opened Tall Paul’s Brew House in March in partnership with Jeff Hickey, says he sees grad students show up around 4pm, business professionals at about 6pm and a mixed crowd later in the evening.

Rockeys Dueling Piano Bar, which opened right after the first of the year at 112 S. Main St., also attracts people of all ages, says co-owner Brad Heron. “We’re seeing everyone from 21 to 81,” he says. “All the music is by request, so it’s a different show every night, from the Beatles to Lady Gaga.”

The residential mix is diverse, too. The last three people to buy condos in Union Street Station have been older than 60, say Ken and Linda McGurn, who developed that building.

More businesses and older residents are expected soon. Capstone Development, which operates student housing and retail space nationwide, is building The Continuum, at 425 W. University Ave., a few blocks from center city.

Along with 440 apartments for University of Florida students, faculty and staff on its upper floors, the project will provide 50,000 square feet of retail space. Of that total, 20,000 square feet will be on the ground floor of the apartment building, and 30,000 square feet of retail, dining and entertainment space will be next door in the Sanctuary project, which is what Capstone and the Doran-Jason Group are calling their transformation of the former First Baptist Church of Gainesville.

“I believe downtown will experience continued revitalization and redevelopment, with more businesses opting for the walkable, sustainable quality of life and business environment that this charming area of Gainesville offers,” says Jeff Jones, Capstone’s executive vice president.

 

Continuing the Momentum

As chairman of Gainesville Downtown Owners and Tenants (GDOT), Shawn Shepherd is one of the proponents of the downtown renaissance. He’s also someone who’s seen both sides of downtown.

He worked the area early in the last decade when he was general manager of Harry’s Seafood Bar and Grille. Then Shepherd left to run the Harry’s in Tallahassee for five years before returning to Gainesville in November to become co-owner of the Vellos Historic Brickstreet Grill (formerly Urban Flats), at the west side of the Hampton Inn.

He agrees the opening of the Hampton definitely has helped the area prosper, but so has the farmers market, which is thriving since it moved from the Sun Center to the Downtown Community Plaza.

“The Hampton brings a lot of visitors,” Shepherd says. “With the farmers market, we do well on Wednesdays, which normally are a slow day for restaurants.”

There are other attractions driving the renaissance, he says, including more unique shops, restaurants and bars.

Shepherd counts 23 restaurants and 12 nightclubs downtown. “It’s impressive to see all the new concepts,” he says. “People are aggressively attacking their businesses.”

To keep the momentum going, the owners and tenants association is working to stage additional events. Plans include street parties on the Friday nights before home Gator football games. The parties will be modeled on those that are staged before games in Tallahassee.

Called United Downtown, Gainesville’s Friday parties will be held in cooperation with the United Way of North Central Florida. A portion of Southeast First Street, beginning at the Hippodrome Theatre, will be closed, and booths will be set up for merchandise, food and beverages.

“These will be family friendly events,” says Debbie Mason, interim United Way executive director. “In addition to catering to local people, we’re hoping to bring in people who are in town for the game.”

Events like these will help address the area’s biggest challenge, which is the perception that many parts of it aren’t family friendly, Shepherd says. “We need to bring people downtown who haven’t been here for a few years and show them the night life isn’t just for college kids,” Shepherd says.

A vendor sells flowers at the Farmers' market in downtown Gainesville
Events like the farmers market (above) have drawn more diverse groups to center city for years. Now the downtown merchants association is planning new events to attract even larger crowds.

Finding What Works

While many local business owners are supporting GDOT’s efforts to promote downtown, smart owners are also working hard on their own to distinguish themselves. For Persona’s Ottenberg that has meant diversifying. “Costumes are my bread and butter, but during the recession, I had to keep trying new things to survive,” she says.

Product lines that have caught on for her include locally made jewelry and her own clothing line, Sleepwalk by NavaO, a series of new outfits made from fabric from vintage dresses.

Ottenberg also has rallied other business owners to promote her block, which is in the section of Union Street Station that is just east of the Hippodrome and somewhat removed from the main flow of foot traffic. Thanks to the merchants’ efforts, decorative lights have been strung across her portion of Southwest 2nd Ave. The lighting has brought more theater-goers from the Hippodrome, she says, adding, “I’m always looking at what else I can do.”

For Evans, the key to the success he’s experiencing was careful planning. “When I was in school 10 years ago, I didn’t like the local bar scene,” he says. “I wanted to fix everything.”

So he globe-trotted to study brew houses and breweries that worked well in Germany, Australia and Portland, Maine. He modeled Tall Paul’s, at 10 SE Second Ave., on a Munich brew house.

The touches from Germany include an expansive area with high ceilings and beers brewed on site. The large windows, in the front, which can be opened, add to the spaciousness.

“Even when we have a large number of people, it’s not crowded,” he says. The establishment attracts baseball fans by having the complete MLB Extra Innings video package available, and it broadcasts soccer matches from around the world.

Evans also credits Hickey, who is a former manager of Lillian’s Music Store, with contributing to Tall Paul’s success.

Evans admits that promotion and planning alone wouldn’t have helped his business flourish. “This wouldn’t have worked five years ago,” he says. Now, Downtown and midtown are emerging.”

 

Gainesville Becoming Magnet

Increasing the recognition of downtown regionally and statewide also is important to its long-term success, Shepherd says. To that end, GDOT plans “to work with the tourism bureau to market to whoever we can,” he says.

The nationwide recognition of downtown Gainesville is growing, says John Pricher, tourism promotion director for the Alachua County Visitors and Convention Bureau. “What’s great is we have so many one-of-a-kind restaurants, with everything from sushi to steak, all in a three-block area,” he says.

Patrick and Melinda Crawford hope to join that mix. They operated a successful bar and restaurant in Columbus, Ga., but they wanted to relocate to a community that had more potential.

“We were looking at various locations, when my niece suggested we take a look at Gainesville,” Patrick says. “We loved it right away.”

That was two and a half years ago. Since then, the Crawfords have proceeded step by step to establish Sweet Mel’s, which will open this summer on the southwest corner of University and Main.

It’s a family affair, with the Crawfords’ son, Lance, bringing his experience from managing a Ruby Tuesdays location to the Gainesville business. Patrick’s brother, Andy, heads the remodeling team for the building.

Sweet Mel’s will feature out-of-town bands as a way to distinguish itself. “We’re optimistic,” Patrick says. “There are tons of people looking for something to do.”

Alex Rodriquez is another out-of-towner who’s making the downtown home. He came to Gainesville to attend UF, then ended up staying—and opening his own restaurant, the Frresh Cafe, at 204 SW 2nd Ave., at the age of 23. He says he decided to settle here because he prefers this community over his hometown of Miami.

“I like the small-town mentality,” he says. “In 75 to 80 percent of businesses, you can walk in and talk to the owner.”

 Let's Go Downtown concert series at the Bo Diddley Plaza draws a crowd
The Downtown Merchants Association plans to add to events like the Let’s Go Downtown concert series (above), with special street parties before UF football games.

Even Brighter Future Ahead

Jones, the head of the Continuum and Sanctuary projects, has kept his eye on downtown Gainesville for nearly 20 years, and he thinks it is just coming into its own.

“I’ve seen it improve greatly, but I believe it still has a great upside,” he says.

He’s optimistic about leasing the 50,000 square feet of commercial space in the Continuum and the Sanctuary. “Potential tenants are telling us that very little new retail space has been added here in many years,” Jones says.

The Sanctuary will be a prime location, Jones believes. “It will be one of the most unique and potentially dramatic spaces in town, featuring expansive open areas with high ceilings and large windows, smaller spaces with outdoor dining patios shaded by oak trees and the charm of a beautiful historic structure,” he says.

The addition of new housing and the development of the nearby Innovation Square will spur future vitality, Jones predicts. “I see a confluence of town and gown in Gainesville,” he says.

Ken McGurn, who began the rebirth of downtown with his wife in the late 1970s, agrees that the growing number of people living downtown adds to its vibrancy. So does the increasing number of innovative companies with offices in the area, he says.

Among those companies is Prioria, a maker of unmanned aircraft that the military and other organizations use for surveillance. It has kept its offices downtown as it has grown—starting out with six people in a building on University Avenue in 2003, then moving to the Sun Center and now having space on three floors in the Wachovia Bank Building, at 104 N Main St.

“We like the downtown culture and the proximity to the university,” says Jason Grzywna, vice president of engineering. “Our employees often work into the evening, and we frequently visit the Top, the Wine & Cheese Gallery, Starbucks, Volta, Stubbies and other locations within walking distance.”

Downtown’s progress is spilling over from downtown, with Innovation Square to the west and the planned Cade Museum for Innovation and Invention and Depot Park to the south, McGurn says.

“When you throw a rock in a pond, the ripples will spread over a wide area,” he says.

 

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