There is a perception among some that downtown Brunswick is filled with empty buildings and businesses struggling to survive.
Bill Bernstein is not one of those naysayers.
He moved here nine months ago from Nashville, Tenn., after researching different small historic cities to relocate. He chose Brunswick because the cost of living is good, real estate is affordable, the quality of life is great and the downtown district is filled with businesses that are thriving.
He sees the same potential in downtown Brunswick that he saw in Nashville 30 years ago when it was transformed into a destination filled with lots of small businesses catering to visitors and local residents alike.
He believes downtown Brunswick has the same potential. He purchased the Zell Building and another storefront on Norwich Street that is currently under renovation and will be completed within a month.
Bernstein said it has been a great business decision, though he has one regret.
“Why didn’t I do this sooner?” he said.
Part of his business plan is to be selective, only choosing offers from potential tenants who will compliment other downtown businesses.
“Retail is different than it used to be,” he said. “It does no tenant good if the business won’t be successful.”
And it’s not a good business plan if he rents space to a business that fails in six months.
"Empty buildings are expensive,” he said.
One of his new tenants is Crawford Perkins, owner of SoGlo Guitar Gallery, scheduled to open on March 1 in the Zell Building.
“I’m all about downtown,” Perkins said. “This is the artsy area where all the creative people are. It’s just a great area.”
One of the factors that Perkins considered was the number of businesses that generate traffic downtown.
“It’s insane that people think there’s nothing going on here,” he said. “You have a hard time finding a parking space at night. Every shop is full.”
Perkins said downtown merchants have a sense of community and support each other.
Susan Bates, owner of Tipsy McSway’s, is preparing to celebrate the seventh anniversary of her restaurant on Newcastle Street. She, too, is among the business owners who have seen a resurgence downtown.
“It’s on the upswing,” she said. “Everything compliments us.”
Bates said she doesn’t feel threatened by the prospect that another restaurant could open in the building next door that is also owned by Bernstein. Or the Silver Bluff Brewery currently under construction less than a block away.
“Having a multitude of options is good for everyone,” she said. “I think the city does a good job.”
William “Skip” Mounts, dean of the School of Business and Public Management at College of Coastal Georgia, said the key to success for downtown merchants is to offer something the other tourist areas in the Golden Isles don’t offer.
“We have to brand ourselves on the unique aspects we have that people can’t get on St. Simons Island,” he said. “It can be developed proactively by us or by someone else. You have to give people a reason to come.”
Bates said there are discussions about a brewery tour that would lure people downtown. They would tour the Silver Bluff Brewery, the Richland Rum distillery and Rabbit Eye Winery.
“People would want to go eat after that,” she said. “We would get business from them every night.”
In fact, Bates said she plans to have at least one Silver Bluff Brewery beer on tap at her restaurant.
One thing that would help is if more apartments and housing is available downtown, Mounts said.
“I think we have to have developers encouraged to build apartments,” he said. “You have to have year-round residents. It would bring businesses.”
The old Parker Kaufman building will help fill that need. The building is being renovated with offices and retail on the first floor and apartments upstairs.
“If there was a 24-hour community downtown it would be ideal,” Bates said. “It would help every business."
Another mistaken impression among some is that downtown Brunswick is unsafe, particularly after dark.
“Downtown Brunswick is extraordinarily safe,” Mounts said.
Bernstein agreed, saying he also lives downtown.
“The perception is the problem,” he said. “It’s the most safe I’ve ever felt in a city."
Mathew Hill, director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority, said he has seen a resurgence in the downtown business district.
The tax allocation district, or TAD, approved by voters in 2017, will help lure even more businesses downtown. The TAD will enable merchants to get tax breaks as incentive to renovate some of the older buildings waiting to be occupied.
“We have some buildings that would be great restaurants,” he said. “To retrofit a building is not cheap.”
While it may appear difficult to find parking spaces, Hill said a downtown parking study shows plenty of spaces are available. The city has plans to erect signs to direct motorists who may not be aware of where they are located.
Hill said he remains optimistic the downtown district will continue to grow and attract more business.
“Twenty years ago, when 5 p.m. came, there wasn’t a person on the streets,” he said. “Now, the businesses climate has picked up. The downtown business climate is good."