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What's up, Downtown?

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

For rent signs are the only adornment in the smudged display windows of a collection of vacant buildings between King and Orange streets, in the heart of Downtown Georgetown.

Add in an economy that still has business owners wondering if the worst is finally over and the recent shut down of the steel mill, which left nearly 250 people jobless, and it may create a bleak impression of the present and future of the Georgetown County seat.

But that would be misleading, according to downtown business owners. From their perspective, downtown is in a good place, though there are some changes that need to be made, and it’s headed in the right direction.

It’s a city bursting with potential, they say.

“There’s always the state of reality: businesses come and businesses go, but downtown is doing OK,” said Lavonn Gettmann, manager of Kudzu Mercantile, a kitchen store on Front Street. “There’s a strong interest in this town to keep downtown alive.”

Front Street is special, said Michele Giarratano of River Club, who owns Front Street Deli with her husband, Andy. It has an old-fashioned Main Street feel that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the county.

“Georgetown is getting such bad press, but there are a lot of thriving businesses on Front Street and there are a lot of reasons locals should come,” she said.

Rising up along the Sampit River, the buildings that line Front Street house restaurants, boutiques, bakeries, art galleries and a trove of specialty stores dealing in everything from books to fine jewelry to freshly made pralines.

Just off the main stretch, on the dock at Cannon Street is Independent Seafood, where folks can pick up fresh shrimp and fish for dinner. And Morsels Market, a gourmet grocery, has whatever you need to complete the meal.

According to Jeanette Ard, owner of Colonial-Floral Fascinations, more businesses are needed in Downtown Georgetown, but it already has just about anything one might need or want, plus a few things they hadn’t thought of.

“I’ve been in business here since 1989 and have not bought anybody a gift since then that I haven’t bought on Front Street,” she said. “Since the economy went bad, I don’t buy anything outside of Georgetown. I just don’t need it if I can’t buy it here.”

And the selection isn’t just wide; it’s unique.

“A lot of what you find in Downtown Georgetown, you’d otherwise have to go to Charleston for,” Gettmann said. “They don’t even have it in Pawleys Island.” Kudzu Mercantile is a spinoff of the popular Kuzdu Bakery. Bienvenue Home Accents has an assortment of items from antique tea sets to handcrafted jewelry from Africa.

The floral shop also sells cigar boxes, cigarettes and lighters, and doubles as an ice cream shop.

At Sweeties candy shop, folks can get an assortment of handmade chocolates, fudge and other goodies, including bourbon soaked cherries dipped in chocolate. And Miss Lizzie’s and Head Over Heels have the latest in women’s fashion and accessories.

But Gettmann said she believes it’s the ambience of downtown as much as the merchandise that keeps people coming back.

The Giarratanos, who live at Pawleys Island, have owned Front Street Deli for nearly 13 years and Michele said they see a lot of the same folks year after year.

“We have so many wonderful customers who say they always come and stop and have lunch with us when they’re in the area,” she said. “They come to eat, but a lot of them also come to talk to us, because we care about people and we’ve made friendships that last a lifetime.”

That’s standard for Front Street businesses. The owners and employees believe in displaying Southern charm and hospitality, and in taking the time to talk to those who venture into their domain and help them find what they’re looking for, even if it’s just directions to somewhere else.

While Downtown Georgetown does cater to quite a few locals, most shop owners say the majority of their business comes from vacationers, folks driving through on Highway 17 and weekenders.

“That’s why a lot of us weren’t dependent on the steel mill,” said Beth Killen, co-owner of Miss Lizzies. “It’s unfortunate for Georgetown, yes.”

But Killen said it’s a year-round rotation of visitors that brings most of her sales.

Business at the mercantile is up over last year, Gettmann said, and her customers come in from all over the world.

“Georgetown draws a very diverse visitor,” she said. “They come from everywhere. I have customers from Finland, Italy, England, Canada and all over the U.S. And it’s not just families with small children.”

While Myrtle Beach markets itself to families, Georgetown has a broader appeal. It welcomes families, but also draws couples and folks looking to get away from the commercial look of Myrtle Beach.

Carolyn Camlin moved The Bath Etc. Shoppe from Pawleys to Front Street. She said she gets lots of customers who come down from Myrtle Beach for the day.

“I think the quaintness of Georgetown has a lot to do with it,” she said. “It’s laid back, and unlike Myrtle Beach, we have more specialty shops than chain stores. Then there’s the history of Georgetown. You can ride around and see all the homes that have been restored.”

Ron Rader, owner of Coffee Break Café, said he always asks his customers from Myrtle Beach what brought them down to Georgetown.

“Almost all of them, about 99.9 percent, say if they see another high-rise hotel, neon sign or T-shirt shop, they’re going to die,” he said. “I get a lot of people who are older and retired, and they just don’t want to deal with the traffic and all the crowds and commercialism, so they come here and find a place to relax and don’t get hassled. They just kind of walk around and shop and go at their leisure. They want a quiet place with some culture and history.”

And that’s precisely what they find, Rader said.

Backing up to businesses on the water side of Front Street is the Harborwalk, a waterfront boardwalk that offers a quiet, picturesque place to stroll, have lunch or check out the alligator Giarratano said likes to hang out in back of her business.

The Harborwalk sits between two of downtown’s most historic and culturally significant structures, the Kaminski House, built in 1760, and the Rice Museum, which was built in 1842 as the town’s market.

The Kaminski House is now a museum that holds a collection of 18th and 19th century American and English antiques. The Rice Museum hold artifacts and other materials that tell the history of the area’s rice and indigo cultures.

“There are so many great reasons to come to Front Street,” Giarratano said. “We’ve got the tram rides, where people can take you out to find out about the history of Georgetown. We’ve got museums and boat rides, shelling trips. There’s so much rich heritage here in Georgetown. People just need to take advantage of it.”

Downtown business owners say they’d like to see more locals and tourists strolling and shopping on Front Street, enjoying the food, sights and activities downtown has to offer.

And while things may not be moving as quickly as downtown merchants would like, they are at least moving in the right direction, giving hope that issues business owners have long been complaining about will finally be remedied.

The Georgetown Business Association recently conducted an planning study of the downtown, known as a “charrette.” It is intended to help draw in more visitors, getting more people to buy into their community and “helping the city grow in a positive direction,” said Annette Fisher, president of the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce.

As part of the study, a team from the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development came to Georgetown to gather opinions, insights and suggestions from community leaders, business owners, visitors and others.

For a week in June, they also had businesses collect shoppers’ ZIP codes to get a better idea of who their customers are. Out of just over 3,000 customers, there were 769 ZIP codes from 45 states and 10 other countries.

The study has gotten mixed reactions from downtown merchants. While all seem pleased with the ideas it generated, which include improved signage directing motorists downtown from Highway 17 and a “gateway” to the city, some feel the $28,000 spent on the survey could have been better directed.

Killen said it could have instead gone toward new signs, which would have brought visible results more quickly.

Many of the suggestions in the study could have been obtained from merchants for free, said Katie Maleckar, owner of Prince George Framing.

Merchants have been asking for improved signage for years.

“That’s nothing new,” Maleckar said.

While ideas brought about by the survey are good ones, she said, the survey will be a waste if the ideas aren’t put into action.

“You can tell people all day long what they need, but it’s got to get done,” she said.

Geraldine Jayroe, owner of Bienvenue and Swamp Fox Tours, agrees.

“The information in the charrette is good, but the things they told us are things we’ve been trying to get started for years.”

It’s true, Fisher said, that much of what’s in the charrette, folks downtown already knew. But the survey was not a waste, she said.

“Many of these things we discussed, but you need some formal something on paper that says what you’ve heard from people and what the recommendation is from a community development organization that does this,” she said.

And there was another important benefit of the study: getting an outsider’s perspective.

“The big thing is having eyes from outside looking in. That’s a key part of the process,” she said.

The charrette gives the city a place to start making improvements, Fisher said.

Downtown merchants say they just hope the study is put to good use — and soon.

Signage needs to be addressed immediately they say. While a handful of small brown signs on Highway 17 point the way to downtown, that’s by no means enough.

“Hundreds of thousands of people drive by on Highway 17, but they don’t know Front Street exists,” Giarratano said. “The signs aren’t big enough and by the time you see it, you’ve passed it. At St. James Street or Broad Street, there should be a big archway to direct people here, to a wonderful place where they can come and have lunch and spend a few hours walking around.”

“People just zoom through,” said Adele Rowell, who owns Head Over Heels shoe store with her husband, Ken.

Customers tell Gettmann they find the mercantile by accident.

“A couple just left and they said they’ve been driving up and down 17 for years and never knew this was here,” she said. “They were totally delighted to find it.”

Tracy Littlejohn, who opened Upper Crust Bakery in February, said she hears similar accounts constantly.

“Once they’ve found Front Street, they’re thrilled,” she said. “They all seem happy and they say they’ll come back. We just have to let them know we exist.

“I really, truly believe a sign is a great way to start, but it shouldn’t be lumped together with a big package and debated over with all these other individual things. Let’s get started with a sign and then work on the other issues. Let’s get the process started that way,” she said.

Merchants say parking also needs to be a priority.

“It’s almost like a frenzy if you see a spot open up,” Giarratano said. “The hours between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. are just crazy. The block turns into a zoo and I think we lose a lot of people, because they get frustrated and leave.”

A good start at solving the parking problem would be for the city to better enforce the two-hour parking restrictions on Front Street, which would prevent store owners from taking up parking spaces intended for customers, Maleckar said.

Camlin said she doesn’t favor two-hour parking limits, but agrees something needs to be done.

“I think Georgetown is up and coming,” she said. “If we can just get that taken care of and some more businesses on the other end of the street, we’ll be a real destination.”

Jayroe suggests the parking lot on Screven Street, across from the courthouse, be converted into a merchants’ lot now that the new judicial center is open on Cleland Street.

“If the merchants themselves would quit parking on Front Street, we would have adequate parking for our guests,” she said. “It wouldn’t hurt a merchant to walk a block or two.

Business owners also want to see the downtown area be better maintained. Even regular pressure washing of streets would make a big difference, Ard said, as well as enlisting volunteers to maintain the planters outside businesses.

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