Gainesville City Council members are turning their eyes toward downtown retail, urging city staff and Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce employees to fill empty storefronts.
With a small uptick in the economy, it's time to start focusing on businesses at the square, council member George Wangemann said.
"I feel like I see a lot of empty retail stores, which I know is a factor of the economy," he said. "I know the chamber is working to fill those up, but I'd like to know what else we can do to encourage business."
Putting an emphasis on small businesses could help combat future recession hits, he noted.
"My brother lives in Utah, and he's told me about how they're not suffering as much because about 80 percent of the economy is built on small family business," Wangemann said. "We should focus more on retail and get these stores filled up and give the appearance that we're doing decently."
By publicizing information about the city's tax incentives, officials could find a balance in small and large businesses, he noted.
"When a larger business goes out, it devastates the community with hundreds of employees out of work," he said. "With a small business down, we're talking 10 to 15 people, which is devastating but not as bad."
Part of the square's problem relates to parking, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Dunagan said.
"I was told this morning that restaurants are really hurting because there's no parking, and people sit in the same spot for hours," he said. "We need to work out some kind of enforcement."
Merchants expressed their concerns about parking at a recent meet-and-greet coffee event, council member Myrtle Figueras said.
"The merchants who care are very concerned about the merchants who park in front of their stores all the time," she said. "They're blocking their own business when they need to park in the deck. That's what we built it for."
Chamber members are feeling positive about upcoming retail additions, said Tim Evans, the chamber's vice president for economic development.
"On the whole, I'm hearing from commercial brokers throughout the area that retail activity has picked up, and we're seeing that, too," he said. "It's happening everywhere with ALDI, Olive Garden, Irish Bred Pub and Michael's. It's coming one after another."
Chamber members are emphasizing Gainesville as a crossroads for surrounding counties and working with Lakeshore Mall's new management to boost retail ideas.
"These are ways for us to bring in tax revenue from outside the community, so we need these retail services," Evans said. "Additional retail can impact our revenue for the long term and spread the tax burden."
Main Street Gainesville, a city organization that promotes downtown business, also is looking for new ways to draw people to the square.
"We have a lot of things going on that we're developing, and hopefully we'll have a great summer event or series to announce soon," Main Street Manager Angela Thompson said. "We're adding a parade to the Spring Chicken Festival, and a few businesses are coming in, which I also hope to reveal soon."
Re-cess Southern Gastro Pub owner Chris Richardson is eager to open a new business this spring. Sidebar 120, a Latin-inspired restaurant, will sit next to Re-cess at 120 Bradford St.
The restaurant, which obtained a liquor license from the city last week, will feature a full bar and target a younger crowd.
"The atmosphere is urban American with brick walls and corrugated steel. It feels like a warehouse or a place down in the city," he said. "Just as we do a twist on southern food at Re-cess, this will be an American twist on Cuban, Mexican and Chilean foods. There's quite a variety."
Before opening in April, Richardson was able to solve the parking problem by securing 30 spots next door.
"I think the customers may be more excited about the parking than the new restaurant," he said with a laugh.
"That's the biggest complaint I have from my existing customers, and now both restaurants can have their own parking."