Downtown Florence is a great place to shop, eat and entertain, and can be even stronger with the proper planning, support and investment.
When Rick Elliott calls downtown Florence a “cool little spot,” people acquainted with the restaurateur listen.
Elliott knows cool as well as he knows fine Italian and American food. For years, his restaurants have been part of downtown’s allure.
Set between the University of North Alabama and McFarland Park on the Tennessee River, the historic shopping district draws everyone from university students to boaters.
While the district has been strong for years, several recent developments are drawing even more shoppers, diners and people looking for nightlife.
Van Morgan, president of the merchants’ group Downtown Florence Unlimited, points to redevelopment of the old Rogers Department Store for much of the present excitement. The clothing chain, Jos. A Bank, put the building back into service after it had been closed for years. Then came Alabama Outdoors and Yumm Sushi and Beyond.
Martin Supply of Sheffield is relocating its corporate headquarters into the building, bringing dozens of employees.
One of Martin’s owners, Doug Ruggles, said the good things that are happening in downtown Florence caused the business to relocate there.
Nightlife also has become an important element in extending the hours of commerce downtown. A three-block stretch of Court Street has few empty parking spaces after dark.
“We have people coming in on their boats from Memphis during the summer and staying the weekend,” Elliott said.
Further development is under way with two new bank buildings under construction.
Although life is good in the downtown district, city officials should not rest or be satisfied. There remain ways to strengthen the infrastructure and make the district even more attractive to potential customers.
While the beautiful and popular Tennessee River is just down the hill from downtown Florence, the city has no clear or safe walking path to move pedestrians between the commercial district and McFarland Park. The city should work with state Department of Transportation officials to solve this problem.
The addition of bicycle stands, marked bike routes and more streetside dining tables outside food establishments could attract more families to combine outdoor activity with commerce.
And, of course, there is the ever-present challenge of finding a parking space. That is a good problem to have, but it may discourage some customers from stopping. Downtown business owners and their employees could help solve this problem by using the city’s parking deck at Tennessee and Pine streets.
We applaud the investments made by business owners, the active involvement of Downtown Florence Unlimited and the support of city government in maintaining and improving the district. As Elliott says, it’s a cool little spot.