Street re-openings a holiday gift to San Marco Square merchants

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

San Marco Square is a must-do for great shopping, amazing dining and some of the best backdrops for the family photo album during the holidays. While these amenities are always abundant, the best part for this year is the timing of new business openings and the completion of the latest phase in the re-development of San Marco Blvd. With traffic lanes open in both directions a week before Thanksgiving, navigating the Square has never been easier and there is an overall excitement about the future of San Marco.
That bright future includes several new businesses that have recently opened or will soon open, including The Parlour, The Grape & Grain Exchange, Aardwolf Brewing, and the Maple Street Biscuit Company. The trend to grow, serve and sell local produce is burgeoning in San Marco and these restaurants and shops are on the bandwagon.

All Spiced Up’s Ana Hernandez is also one of several merchants who seem to be filling the bill of San Marco residents’ desires for local foods and products. She has recently partnered with five restaurants from The San Marco Dining District (Taverna, Bistro Aix, Matthews, bb’s and The Grotto) to offer specialty rubs and blends used by the chefs of those restaurants. For a time, some of the proceeds from sales of those seasonings at All Spiced Up and at each restaurant will help fund the maintenance of Balis Park on the Square.

The Balis Park maintenance fund was also given a terrific boost last month through the annual Autumn in the Park Farm to Table reception and dinner. More than 150 people attended the event sponsored by Anita Vining of Prudential Network Realty and created by Anita Morrill of Empty Nest Events, along with chefs from Taverna (Sam Efron), Bistro Aix (Tom Gray) and Café Nola (Kathy Collins). Also participating was Bob Smith, with a signature drink from The Grape & Grain Exchange, and new craft brewer Aardwolf Brewing Co.
Despite some concerns for the next phase in development, merchants are looking at the bright side of the changes, knowing they will have a solid foundation for the future to grow upon their newly designed median and restructured Balis Park.

Diane Martin, president of the San Marco Preservation Society, said “Petticoat-Schmitt Civil Contractors did a spectacular job with all the challenges they’ve had to open the north-bound lane in time for the holidays. The merchants really appreciate that!” She added, “And the up-lights on the Date Palms are gorgeous at night. When the expansion of Balis Park is completed and the benches, trees, bike racks and personalized bricks are in, San Marco Square will be THE place to be!”

Area merchant Forrest Brewer, proprietor of The Wardroom Ltd. gift shop, is pleased with the results thus far. “The construction company delivered on its promise to open the street for the holidays,” he said. “Although – the construction didn’t hurt us as much as we feared it would this summer; our business was actually up from last year. I think they handled it well.”

According to city officials, the next phase of the streetscape and redesign should be underway the first business day in January. When asked about the impending two-to-three month construction, Brewer fast-forwarded to the outcome, saying “it will be great for special events at the Square, relieving the San Marco Merchants Association of the cost of blocking off the streets” for events such as the annual Holiday Magic (see sidebar) when the Square will be filled with holiday festivities from sleigh rides and bounce houses to carolers and Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Regarding the cost to block off the streets for special events, Doug Skiles of EnVision Design and Engineering, noted that after completion the fees charged will instead be put towards SMPS and Balis Park.

Hernandez, of All Spiced Up, agreed that foot traffic has picked up since the first of November but also has concerns about the construction planned for early January to remove vehicle traffic through-way between Atlantic Boulevard and San Marco Boulevard at Balis Park.
“I think we (the merchants) will have to think outside the box to bring in the business,” she said. For example, Hernandez hosts a monthly Visiting Chef event at the shop, demonstrating how her spices, blends, salts and seasonings can be successfully substituted for any recipe’s grocery store
ingredients.

Last month’s Shop Small Saturday was heavily promoted locally and provided a jumpstart to holiday sales to help put area merchants in the black as they head into the normal winter retail doldrums potentially exacerbated by resumption of construction.
Ending on a positive note from the former SMPS president: “When the whole thing is done, it will be amazing. The next phase will happen during the slowest period of retail year. The positive impact will far exceed expectations,” Skiles said. When asked about the perceived concerns about parking, he observed, “We rival any shopping center in Jacksonville for parking. You won’t always get a spot right in front of the door…even at a mall.”

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