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Downtown businesses, Main Street Gainesville moving forward amid friction over changes on square
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Downtown Gainesville - photo by Scott Rogers

Downtown businesses are taking it upon themselves to bring foot traffic back to Gainesville’s square after the relocation of the Gainesville Spring Chicken Festival and Beach Bash.

Forming separately from Main Street Gainesville, business owners banded together in January 2019 to establish the Gainesville Business Coalition.

“We’re wanting to bring more family-friendly events to the square like concerts, festivals, car shows and a talent show,” Aimee Hoecker, Downtown Drafts co-owner, said, noting that some newer businesses came downtown with the expectation of having the city-sponsored events on the square.

While the Gainesville Business Coalition and Main Street Gainesville aim to work together moving forward, the coalition was launched out of frustration with the direction of Main Street — moving two high-traffic festivals away from the square, red tape for hosting or getting involved with public events and a sleepy website and social media presence.

Meanwhile, the city’s loosening of liquor laws on the square, even peeling back open-container laws to allow people to carry alcohol in public in a “downtown dining district,” has made hosting events outside of the structure of Main Street easier.

Main Street Gainesville, as a division of the Gainesville Convention and Visitors Bureau, is funded by the city’s hotel and motel tax revenue. The budget for the current fiscal year is about $174,000. The program’s purpose is to support downtown businesses, and it is managed by Kristen Redmon, who was hired in August 2017.

Main Street sponsors several downtown events each year, including Jingle Mingle, First Friday concerts and Mutts on Main.

Membership in Main Street is tiered for $25, $100 or $250 a year. Benefits include placement in Main Street’s annual coupon book, event consultation services, promotion on Main Street’s social media accounts and access to grants — depending on the level of membership. Some businesses that are members include Downtown Drafts, Mule Camp Tavern, Avocados and Purple House Gallery, according to the Main Street website.

Ordonez, owner of Love Is All You Knead, praised Main Street Gainesville’s hosting of events in downtown, but said the coalition seeks to increase the amount of activity on the square.

The group’s business owners are planning a St. Patrick’s Day weekend festival — the break-out event for the coalition — and organizing an additional event that will take place on the square during the Gainesville Spring Chicken Festival.

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Attendees gather on Saturday, April 28, 2018, during the 14th Annual Spring Chicken Festival in downtown Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

Like Main Street, the coalition has set a voluntary membership fee for businesses in the downtown core.

Ordonez said every event the coalition puts on will benefit a charity. The group hopes to raise 80 percent of its funding from business owners and the rest through sponsorships and grants.

Dorsey Danielson, manager of the upcoming ChopBLOCK Food and Spirits, said the coalition isn’t aimed at pushing out Main Street Gainesville but forming a mutually beneficial relationship.

“I think it’s difficult for one organization to be everywhere all the time,” she said. “I think it’s difficult to see every single facet when they’ve already got a lot going on. We can be a help to them to where when they’ve got so much on their plate, we can get the edges and help push the square forward in a tandem-teamwork effect.”

Nikki Perry, city of Gainesville’s communications and tourism director, said Tuesday at a Main Street Coffee Break event that there was a “lack of knowledge” about Main Street Gainesville but that she views the Gainesville Business Coalition as an asset.

“I think it’s really timely because one of our initiatives this year, starting fresh in January, was to get more business involvement in Main Street,” Perry said. “The fact that this has organically occured, to me says that it’s right.”

Perry said the city can assist the coalition with some of its new initiatives, possibly including access to grant funding.

“We want to encourage businesses and other organizations to promote themselves and promote downtown,” Perry said. “We don’t want people to feel like this is our downtown. This is their downtown.”

She said she does want to make sure the marketing of downtown stays uniform as the coalition begins work.

“I want us to have a unified voice with the marketing of downtown Gainesville to make sure that that voice is heard loud and clear as to who we are, what our image is and what we offer downtown,” Perry said.

Main Street America, a nationwide downtown development program, certifies Main Street Gainesville every year. Other nearby cities with Main Street programs include Dahlonega, Jefferson and Toccoa. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs oversees Main Street on the state level.

Main Street’s current service boundaries are bordered by Academy Street, Jesse Jewell Parkway and E.E. Butler Parkway.

Redmon said she is working with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to get Main Street’s official boundaries widened to include midtown Gainesville and the area near Brenau University.

Perry said these areas are included in most residents’ ideas of downtown, as the city found in its 2015 Downtown Strategic Plan.

But Main Street’s boundaries do not include Longwood Park or Lake Lanier Olympic Park, the sites for the Spring Chicken Festival and Beach Bash this year. The Gainesville Convention and Visitors Bureau will be the sponsor for Beach Bash, while Perry said many city departments collaborate to host the Spring Chicken Festival.

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A crowd gathers Friday, July 7, 2017, at the "beach'" in downtown Gainesville made from 100 tons of sand during the third annual Beach Bash in downtown Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

Perry and the city argue these events had to move due to the impending construction of Parkside on the Square, a multi-use development that will have retail and restaurants on the ground floor with 32 condominiums above. Parkside will be on the “fourth side of the square,” in front of the Main Street parking deck and facing Spring Street.

Perry said that while downtown Gainesville has lost two events ahead of the construction of Parkside, businesses should benefit when it is complete because it will bring more people into the square.

“These are more customers for our businesses, and there will be a whole first floor of new businesses, new restaurants. Yes, we have had to move two events out of the downtown area, but look at all we’re gaining from this development,” she said. “We’re gaining 32 new condos that are going to be filled with people and visitors, then a whole new range of businesses that are going to attract more people to downtown.”

To compensate for the Spring Chicken Festival and Beach Bash leaving downtown, Main Street will this summer sponsor two movie nights on Roosevelt Square, which sits just off of the Gainesville square. Two movies, one for adults and one for children, will be shown each evening.

Roosevelt Square is not suitable for the Spring Chicken Festival, Perry said, because the trailers and cookers used in the chicken cook-off would tear up the grass. And for the Beach Bash, bringing in sand could also kill the lawn.

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Roosevelt Square is located off the downtown Gainesville square behind the Hall County courthouse annex. - photo by David Barnes

Main Street hopes to use Roosevelt Square for future downtown events, though, as it could be an alternate space when the fourth side of the square is no longer available.

“Most cities have a town green that can host festivals and events, and this is the perfect location because it’s right between two parking decks,” Perry said. “It’s right in the heart of downtown.”

Jingle Mingle will be on a Saturday this year, rather than a Thursday, to attract more visitors, Perry said.

The Gainesville Convention and Visitors Bureau has also hired a new digital communications coordinator who will start on Feb. 25. Perry said she hopes to start a redesign of the Main Street Gainesville website with the new fiscal year, which will start in July. And the downtown square, Roosevelt Square and the Midtown Greenway now have free Wi-Fi, and the “distrx” app for smartphones has information about events and attractions.

Also, Redmon said Mule Camp Market, Gainesville’s traditional fall festival organized by the Gainesville Jaycees, is not leaving downtown.

Organizers of Mule Camp have adjusted its layout to compensate for the construction of Parkside. The festival could be shifted farther north, going a little farther down Bradford and Main streets, Redmon said.

Redmon said that even on nights when there aren’t special events, she sees more people staying on the square in the evenings. With more restaurants, the square stays busy at night, and shops are motivated to stay open later, she said.

ChopBLOCK’s Danielson said working together helps make that happen.

“This to me, this is my town,” she said.  “Anything that I see that has the potential to make it better for the people that live here and the people that work here, I’m absolutely behind. I think that it has to be a team effort.”

Times staff Nick Bowman and Megan Reed contributed.

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