Gainesville’s downtown shopping district will play host to a number of holiday events in the coming weeks, with hundreds of people flocking to the square to eat, shop and take in the lights and greenery.
And those who make the trip will have more choices of where to eat or shop.
Gainesville’s downtown is home to more than 50 storefronts both on and off the square. Currently, more than 90 percent of them are occupied.
Regina Mansfield, Gainesville’s Main Street manager, said some cities around the state, including LaGrange, have vacant storefronts in more than 50 percent of their parcels.
“We do have a few vacancies, but in the grand scheme of things, I think we’re ahead of the curve,” said Mansfield.
From 2006 to 2008, 44 new businesses moved into downtown buildings. Over the same time period, five businesses closed and another five relocated or expanded.
“Things have changed over the years,” said Lorry Schrage who owns Saul’s with his wife Sherrie. “Some businesses have gone out and some have come in, but I think that’s pretty normal with a renovated area. But overall I think it’s been pretty positive.”
Saul’s has been downtown since 1939, and Schrage, whose family started the businesses, has worked in the store since 1970.
He said one of the biggest changes to the business landscape downtown was the overhaul of the square area in the mid-1990s. Before then, he said, there were very few restaurants and an abundance of empty parking spots.
“I think that caused a lot of excitement and for some new businesses to come in,” said Schrage.
In fact, that’s what caught the eye of Frames You-Nique owner Don Griffin. About 13 years ago, Griffin opened his store on Main Street because of the renovation of the downtown area.
Since then, it’s the events and the attention placed on downtown that has kept him there.
“We’re event-driven,” he said. “The events have drawn people downtown and they’re thinking about us again.”
Events like Friday’s Jingle Mingle, the farmer’s market and First Fridays have generated an elevated interest in the area, and business owners have seen the difference.
“There’s a lot of different choices and reason for people to come downtown,” said Griffin.
In 2006, downtown hosted 21 events attracting more than 16,000 people. Last year, nearly 70,000 people came downtown for its nearly 200 events.
“Just from reviewing the past, we definitely have more events and activities and we have more job creations and I feel like there is a parallel between the two,” said Mansfield. “I think if you have a vibrant and live downtown, people are going to come down there.”
But Gainesville is not completely immune from the economy or the struggles of small business owners.
The city has added a net 400 downtown jobs since 2006, but more than a dozen businesses have closed or relocated since then.
“I don’t think it’s a transient place,” said Debra Harkrider, owner of Main Street Market. “I think we suffer from what most places suffer from.
“(New businesses) come in and have all these great hopes and they think as soon as they open the door people are just going to come in, but they don’t realize that you’re really not going to turn a profit for the first few years and you have to be able to financially withstand that. ... I think that happens everywhere. It’s just the nature of a small business.”
But, she said, they city has kept its head above water — more so than some other downtown districts.
“Our community has supported these companies so they’re able to stay and prosper,” said Harkrider. “I think in a difficult time, Gainesville, if you look at the rest of the country, I think we’re doing pretty darn well.”
And many see the expansion of Brenau University into the Georgia Mountains Center and the continued growth of the medical industry as just another catalyst for more success.
“We have a great influx of young, professional people that are coming into the area,” said Harkrider. “I think the merchants on the square and people involved with downtown see that and are bringing in businesses that are attractive to the new people that are coming into Gainesville, so I think it’s a really good combination.”