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Downtown Fredericksburg shows signs of recovery

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Ryan Bullock, owner of The Orion Sushi Bar and Ultra Lounge, is pushing to have more restaurants downtown.

Ryan Bullock, owner of The Orion Sushi Bar and Ultra Lounge, is pushing to have more restaurants downtown.

Storefronts in downtown Fredericksburg are slowly but surely filling up again.

The Caroline and William street corridors, which like the entire region saw shops close during the Great Recession, are now experiencing an occupancy rate of 92 percent.

Of the 105 storefronts of Caroline Street, 97 are occupied, as of the first quarter of 2014. On William Street, 35 of the 38 storefronts are occupied.

The number of occupied buildings has been steadily rising. In the final quarter of 2013, 91 percent were filled. And during 2013’s third quarter 89 percent of stores had tenants.

That percentage is fairly consistent with other business hubs in Fredericksburg. Central Park reached 94 percent occupancy in the first quarter of 2014. In Eagle Village, that percentage was 91 percent during the same time frame.

“It’s coming around strongly,” said Karen Hedelt, Fredericksburg’s director of economic development and tourism.

She said there are an additional three or four businesses looking to move into downtown since the last quarterly report.

Her department has been actively seeking tenants and offering incentives for new and existing businesses.

The Economic Development Authority offers JumpStart! grants and commerce grants that pay out based on performance. It also provides façade matching grants to downtown merchants to approve the way Fredericksburg looks.

“Downtown is the heart of our community,” Hedelt said. “It signals to our visitors about what we value.”

Hedelt considers Ristorante Renato at 422 William St. a façade grant success. The owners were able to repaint and get a new sign and awning after receiving the money.

During the downturn, in December 2009, downtown merchants had to get creative with the empty stores.

Their merchants association counted more than 11 empty storefronts on Caroline Street, according to a Free Lance–Star article. It sponsored Christmas trees in some of those windows to keep the street from looking drab and encourage holiday shoppers.

Hedelt’s office is starting a similar revitalization project in partnership with Spaces Design Studio for the interior of empty buildings. Buildings that have become problem vacancies will have design plans displayed with leasing contact information. Potential business owners will be able to see what the inside could look like with a little work.

The first to receive an interior plan will be 201 William St., which is at the corner of Caroline Street. The storefront has been vacant since 2006, when the lease wasn’t renewed for Cards & Cones, a gift shop and eatery.

Hedelt said the business scene downtown is evolving, as well. Whereas downtown used to be almost entirely retail-oriented, more service-oriented businesses and spas are moving in.

Restaurants also have had success downtown, including two that opened within a block of each other about a year ago.

Aby and Blake Bethem got an EDA grant to build Vivify Burger & Lounge’s rooftop bar, the first downtown.  / Photo by Scott Julian

Aby and Blake Bethem got an EDA grant to build Vivify Burger & Lounge’s rooftop bar, the first downtown. / Photo by Scott Julian

Blake and Aby Bethem opened Vivify Burger Lounge at 314 William St., which is across from the Bethems’ popular Bistro Bethem restaurant.

The Bethems were among those receiving EDA grants for façade renovations. They also received a grant to build Fredericksburg’s first rooftop bar at Vivify.

Ryan Bullock spotted a niche and opened The Orion Sushi Bar and Ultra Lounge at 318 William St. He and the Bethems are among those pushing for more culinary options downtown.

Another locally owned restaurant, Cork & Table will open at 909 Caroline St. in August.

Owner Jim Fallon, a longtime chef, has leased the space to create a wine shop and bistro, serving American fare with a French flair.

Hedelt also thinks shops like recently opened Fraser Wood Elements, which sells flooring, furniture and accessories, are well-suited for Caroline Street.

“Home décor, furniture, that’s something people are interested in and we want to encourage,” she said.

She said the greatest barriers to opening a business downtown are a matter of perception.

“People are concerned about infrastructure, such as parking, and modifications to the buildings,” she said.

One business that moved in about a year ago, When Pigs Fly, is flourishing in the niche furniture market Hedelt hopes to draw.

Owner Janese Simunek said she chose the storefront at 1001 Caroline St. because of the heavy foot traffic in that area.

Now that her business is growing, she said she’ll most likely be seeking a larger space downtown once her lease is up.

“People should move their businesses here,” she said. “We should support small business, that’s what downtown is all about.”

On the same block, Bob Whittingham, who owns Whittingham and The Kitchen at Whittingham, has seen the retail market’s ups and downs over the 20 years he’s been there.

“You see things come and go,” he said. “People retire and move, but that last few years with the recession was different. And that’s not just downtown, people felt it everywhere. It’s starting to come back, but it’s a slow process.”

He said that when the weather changed in April, he noticed a marked improvement in the number of people shopping downtown and interest in the surrounding buildings.

Whittingham wants to see more retail on Caroline Street, so customers have multiple options.

“Things have changed so much in the past 10 years, the recession and the Internet, it’s affected how people shop,” he said.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976


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