FLORENCE — The revitalization of downtown took significant steps forward in 2012, with 31 new business licenses being issued by the close of the year.
The downtown area was already healthy, but there is one thing that Van Morgan, president of the merchants association Downtown Florence Unlimited, points to as the moment critical mass was achieved.
“When Jos. A Bank (men’s clothing) opened and put the Rogers building back into service after all those years, we crossed a line downtown from being a cluster of marginal mom and pop businesses to really developing into more substantial, better capitalized stores and restaurants that are going to be with us for a while,” he said.
For more than a century, Rogers Department Store had been a landmark retail center on Court Street. But by the late 1990s, the local owners had sold it to a national chain, which eventually closed it. It stood as a gloomy reminder of the days when downtown shopping districts flourished before the advent of malls.
Enter Martin Supply Co., of Sheffield. Doug Ruggles, primary owner of the company, formed Gordon Street to buy the building and began refurbishing it for new retail clients. First was Jos. A. Bank. Then came Alabama Outdoors and, most recently, Yumm Sushi and Beyond. More space is available for rent, and Ruggles said Martin will be moving its corporate headquarters to the Rogers building soon.
“What’s happening in downtown Florence is the reason we want to locate our corporate offices there,” he said. “We are finishing up our annual sales training, where we brought in all our sales team. We took them through the (Rogers) building Thursday evening. These are guys from all over the Southeast, and to a man and a woman, they were very, very impressed with the vibrant feel of downtown. They are excited to promote this location to their customers so they will see what we are a part of.”
The activity doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. Restaurants and bars come to life through the evening. There is a three-block stretch of Court Street that has few available parking spaces after dark.
Rick Elliott has been a restaurateur in downtown for two decades. He owns Ricatoni’s Italian Grill and City Hardware next door to each other on Court Street. The expansion of shopping has been beneficial, he said.
“To a certain degree, the downtown has always been a magnet,” he said. “The feel, the proximity of the university. To me, it’s always had the infrastructure.”
Elliott said he chose downtown for his restaurant for practical reasons.
“The other thing about downtown is the entry costs are still relatively low. It’s cheaper for me to come in and do something different here than to go to Cox Creek Parkway,” he said. “You give up some visibility and traffic count, but you don’t have to throw up the numbers to keep the doors open.”
As more shops have opened, Elliott said he has seen an increase in the number of people visiting downtown Florence. He said people are travelling from farther away and often spending the night in a local hotel.
“At night, it’s almost like an entertainment area,” he said. “We have people coming in on their boats from Memphis during the summer and staying the weekend. Downtown has become a cool little spot.”
Two new banks are under construction downtown. Several restaurants, boutiques and professional offices opened, as well, in 2012.
Andy Mann, president of the Shoals branch of Progress Bank, which is under construction on Tennessee Street, said they chose downtown Florence for their first local office because of the retail activity.
“We liked the growth in downtown,” he said. “It’s a viable business location.”
City Council President Dick Jordan, whose district includes downtown, said the resurgence of membership in Downtown Florence Unlimited has helped spur growth. He said actions taken by the City Council a decade ago helped lay the groundwork for the downtown revitalization.
Jordan said the construction of the new library, extensive renovation of the Tennessee River harbor in McFarland Park, downtown streetscaping, and forming a closer relationship with the University of North Alabama all helped insure that the traditional downtown business district remained vibrant.
“It’s like a domino effect,” he said. “You get a business like Jos. A. Bank, and it’s just one business after another coming here.”
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.