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Downtown Gainesville business owners hopeful for the future
This building on Bradford Street, formerly Elmo’s Italian Kitchen, is now vacant and available for rent. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Linda Orenstein is hoping that, maybe now, there will be a renewed fervor for Gainesville’s downtown.

Orenstein’s family owns Gem Jewelry, one of Gainesville’s few longtime downtown businesses.

And in her time involved with downtown development, Orenstein said she has seen interest wane.

“Main Street has been rocking along for like 10 years, and people kind of just accepted it — it was there,” Orenstein said. “Now with a new director, it’s sort of a rejuvenation — you know, get everybody excited again. That’s what I’m hoping for: new ideas and a new person and then people who had just sort of laid back and gotten tired will take an opportunity to get excited again.”

Main Street, the mini chamber of commerce for the downtown business owners, was recently taken over by the Gainesville City Council along with a decision to take tourism marketing out of the hands of the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau and under the city’s wing.

Orenstein said she thinks that the takeover should mean better coordination between city tourism efforts and downtown events.

“We ought to be able to do more things together, instead of everybody doing their own thing” Orenstein said. “And it ought to be more efficient.”

But it’s too early to see any difference yet.

As the Main Street advisory board met Wednesday for the second time since the program came under city control, leaders were still working on making the transition and doling out responsibilities.

Assistant City Manager Angela Sheppard reported that all outstanding invoices from the previous Main Street program had been paid.

“It hasn’t been an easy process,” Sheppard told the board. “There were a lot of loose ends.”

Angela Thompson, the organization’s new city-employed coordinator, tried to get board members to sign up for one of the board’s four committees geared toward marketing, building design, economic restructuring and image development.

After few volunteered, Thompson moved on, telling board members she’d like to have the committees finalized by their next meeting.

And while the new group is not yet cemented, city control may mean downtown merchants have more leverage — or at least more access to a listening ear — in conversations about city regulations that impact them.

“It could only help when you need ordinances and permits, for the city to be part of it, it makes it easier for a new business,” Orenstein said. “I don’t think it will hurt, and it remains to be seen how much better it’s going to be; but I don’t think that there’s really going to be any adverse effect from it.”

Already at Wednesday’s meeting, members of the new Main Street board expressed their concerns over the impacts of City Council’s actions on their businesses.

Scott Dixon, the board’s vice chairman and owner of Scott’s on the Square, took the time to express concern over city-approved road closures for major downtown events. He said early road closures are costly for downtown businesses on some of their highest-grossing days of the week.

And there was lengthy discussion about a near-final proposal to significantly increase the city’s fines for parking violations. The measure will receive its final vote Tuesday, but has already been given initial approval by the City Council.

Cheryl Hardin, owner of an art gallery on the square, Gallerie 110, said the changes may have unintended consequences for downtown business owners.

“If we’re trying to make downtown a destination for people ... we ought not to be doing things that further drive away our customers,” Hardin said.

And that seems to be the new board’s main goal — to attract the people to what they feel is Gainesville’s best asset.

“The only thing we need in downtown Gainesville, to me, is more people,” said Catiel Felts, director of communications and tourism for Gainesville. Felts oversees the new Main Street program as well as the city’s new efforts at tourism marketing.

And after their first weeks together, board members say they already feel a renewed excitement for promoting downtown.

“Our little city is amazing in what we have with historic buildings,” Hardin said. “... We have just a little jewel of a city. We just have to implement action to make the city grow.”

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