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Downtown Upswing?
Its been a troubling few months for downtown, but new developments have raised hopes
Ed Busquet
The future of downtown Gainesville is looking a little less square.

Last week, the Gainesville City Council unanimously approved a zoning request for a $35 million development in midtown that will feature a 13-story hotel and two 11-story office buildings on Jesse Jewell Parkway. Gainesville's Wendell Starke, owner of City View LLC, has joined forces with Atlanta-based P.C. Management Co. to form Gainesville City Center LLC, which will oversee the 5.5 acre project.

City View Plaza LLC owns much of the property zoned for development, including Town View Plaza shopping center and two smaller strip malls. In addition, the company recently purchased the city's public safety building to make way for the roughly 250-room hotel, 8,000 square feet of retail space, a 5,000-square-foot conference area and 995 parking spaces on a block surrounded by Jesse Jewell Parkway, Bradford Street, College Avenue and Town View Plaza.

Developers also plan to construct an enclosed pedestrian walkway over Jesse Jewell Parkway that will allow patrons of the midtown development direct access to the Georgia Mountains Center. The exiting point on the square's side of the bridge will place pedestrians outdoors in front of the Georgia Mountains Center.

Lee Caswell of P.C. Management Co., who also built and sold the seven-story Wachovia Center on the corner of E.E. Butler Parkway and Jesse Jewell Parkway, said construction on the midtown project could begin by late summer and will likely have a positive affect for businesses on the square. He added that he does not foresee competition between businesses on the square and businesses located within the midtown development.

"I think with our development, you'll just have more employees in proximity to the square," Caswell said. "More people will go to lunch there and it will just add more vibrancy to it. It will be the catalyst for future development, which is a positive attribute for downtown Gainesville."

Owners of businesses on the square said they hope the walkway will lead hotel guests, businesspeople and patrons directly to their front doors.

Gus Gonzalez has owned Cafe ‘n Crepes located on the square since December 2005, and said the midtown development may be the key to revitalizing the economy of the square.

"I think with the hotel, it can be a good thing for everybody. I think it will attract more people to the square and that will be very positive for not only us, but other businesses, too," Gonzalez said. "Because right now, you see a few empty spaces for sale or lease on the square. And they're an opportunity."

Gonzalez said through discussions with other business owners on the downtown square, he has learned that most establishments there are seeing fewer customers this year compared to last year.
During his two-year stay on the square, Gonzalez said he has seen about eight businesses come and go.

"It hurts sometimes when you see some places empty," he said. "But I think the square is on the way up."

Dan Summer, owner of multiple buildings on the square, agrees.

"I think the square is in transition," Summer said. "It's got great potential. It just hasn't been realized yet."

Summer said the square was in full swing just two years ago, although several currently vacated buildings suggest a different economic status for the historic area today.

"I think that's just a function of the economy being flat right now," Summer said. "(The square) is not as strong as it was two years ago. It was full, people were there. It's just kind of died down here in the past six months."

Multiple businesses have left the square within the past year, including the hip-hop party that was The Boiler Room, Rhythm and Brews, Uptown Fitness, The Posh Princess and clothing retailer Daddy's Money, which kept its doors open on the square for 22 years before recently relocating to Thompson Bridge Road.

"We're not brand names. We're mom and pop stores, and unfortunately a lot of time you have a great dream, but not the experience or the financial backing to stay the course," said Debra Harkrider, owner of Main Street Market and president of the Main Street Gainesville Association.

"No business anywhere is immediately successful. It takes two to three years, and sometimes businesses don't make it that long."

But Harkrider said for businesses on the square, it's out with the old and in with the new.

Harkrider said upscale southern cuisine restaurant The Magnolia Grill will open in March in place of The Boiler Room. Ted’s Pro Music will soon open upstairs inside the Main Street Market building, and an Inman Perk coffee shop is slated to open this spring. Scott’s on the Square, a fine-dining restaurant just opened.

Summer said the square has rebounded somewhat from its decline in the late 90's, and for it to regain its original purpose as a bustling town center, the cure is simple -- "We just need more boots on the street."

"I think in order for the square's potential to be truly realized, we need to have more people on the square, that's why we're so excited about the new hotel and conference center," Summer said. "I think Wendell Starke's development when it comes, will be a tremendous asset to all the business on the square, to property owners and the community at large. It can work."

Gonzalez said he believes many Hall County residents presently make the Mall of Georgia their destination for shopping and entertainment, rather than the square. He added that although the 750,000-square-foot regional shopping center proposed just north of Exit 24 on Ga. 365 could detract local shoppers from venturing to the square, Gonzalez said he believes any attraction that draws customers to Hall County is positive for businesses countywide.

Gonzalez added the Gainesville Main Street Association could do more to advertise the square as an economic center, much like advertisers hawk the promise of luxury shopping at the Mall of Georgia. He said he would like to see businesses move in alongside Cafe ‘n Crepes that would lure families and students to the square.

Ed Busquet works at the downtown courthouse and said he frequents the square daily for lunch. Busquet, who is originally from Miami, said he believes the success of the square relies on getting more people out to the square in the evening, and holding more regular concert and art events outdoors.

"Ethnic restaurants, bars and trendier businesses would be cool, too. That would bring in younger people under 60," he joked. Busquet added that perhaps an ice cream shop would pull in a younger crowd, including teens and young families. He said he would also enjoy an art house on the square featuring foreign films.

Harkrider said that in addition to the Blue Sky concerts held at noon on Wednesdays in the spring and fall and the Mule Camp Market held in October, the Main Street Gainesville Association is in the beginning stages of planning an annual three-day rock ‘n roll music festival to be held on the square in early June.

"We want to show the younger people that there are fun things to do on the square," Harkrider said. She added that although Brenau University is close to the square, students are not often seen there as much as downtown business owners might like.

Despite the square's recent economic slump, Summer said that businesses such as Gem Jewelry and Saul's department store are a testament to the square as a long-lasting retail node.

Gainesville State College sophomore Miquel Garland said the square is the heart of Gainesville, and plays an integral role in the city's identity.

"It's so pretty on the square but everything closes so early you can't really come here to do anything," Garland said. "I love sitting outside and seeing the historic buildings."

Business owners and customers alike said the square is in a transitional state, but hope the historic feel of downtown won't change as glossy new buildings are erected along Jesse Jewell Parkway.

"It's definitely the historic center of Hall County. It's the county seat and historical commercial center," Summer said. "So it's going to be here for probably another 100 years. We'll bounce back."

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