Downtown Jacksonville is growing rapidly, and business owners are flocking to the area for its “historic charm” and “uniqueness.”
Downtown Jacksonville has become full of small businesses in recent years, and two Jacksonville landowners, as well as the city itself, hope to see it become even fuller, especially since it is so more affordable than other parts of town.
Martin and Lori Aragona, who were married for 30 years last August, have dedicated their careers to helping people achieve what they call the “second American dream”: owning a business.
They own the buildings at 622 Court St. and 516 Court St.
Lori Aragona said they get calls all the time from people wanting some space like what they have to offer because it’s affordable.
“I think the second American dream is that if you want to, you can start a business if you want to,” Lori Aragona said. “But it’s not easy to start a business, it has to be affordable. Downtown offers more affordable rents than Western Boulevard, and it’s definitely more unique.”
Jacksonville City Manager Richard Woodruff also looks forward to what downtown is and will continue to be.
He said that over the past decade they have demolished a number of vacant old commercial buildings and 40 to 50 dilapidated houses. The city has also invested in downtown by building the Jacksonville Landing, the Freedom Fountain, the Center for Public Safety, and about two dozen new single-family homes.
The next decade must focus on revitalizing the road network, he said.
“We already have plans that are being finalized,” Woodruff said, “and hope to be able to bid in late spring or early summer, for the revitalization of the four-block college area here. on New Bridge Street, all the way to the Fountain of Liberty.”
Woodruff said it will bring the lighting system underground, new sidewalks, new landscaping and a new traffic pattern. The project is expected to cost around $3.5 million.
“The city definitely believes in downtown,” Woodruff said. “No, you’re not going to have a chain of stores, you’re not going to have a new big retailer. But we have to make it a friendly environment, so hopefully we can attract restaurants, hopefully attract a small brewery, something of that nature, specialty shops The town has spent the last decade trying to lay the groundwork, and now it’s time for us to move on to some real, more very positive things.
Area businesses love being downtown and are excited for what’s to come.
The Riverwalk Youth Ballet is located at 708 New Bridge St., and owner Alyssa Hudgins said she always saw the potential.
“Downtown Jacksonville is full of historic charm, old buildings just waiting for someone to breathe life into them,” Hudgins said. “There’s something special about being a part of both Jacksonville’s history and its future. I’m thrilled to see more businesses taking a leap of faith to open in downtown Jacksonville, and grateful to those who have seen what I see in what the future holds for the region.”
Zing Zumm Children’s Museum executive director Samantha Plocica said it’s great to have new faces downtown, and since they’re the county’s only family-friendly children’s space, they bring in a lot of people, so seeing downtown cleaned up would be great.
“You know, getting the roads, the new paved bridge, better parking, just bringing more useful businesses downtown,” Plocica said. “I know a lot of our visitors would love a place to grab a bite to eat or grab some ice cream during the summer. Any growth here would be great for us.”
Plocica said they would also like to spruce up their building, maybe put some murals on the wall, just so they can compare it to other downtowns and make it more of a representation for the community.
As Hudgins said, many have already taken the plunge to relocate or open up downtown, and the Aragonas have been able to help several achieve that “second American dream.”
Danielle Hampton is their new principle at 516 Court St., and she’s set to open a beauty salon with tanning beds, microblading, permanent makeup, and more.
“I was browsing through Facebook when the top unit appeared and it spoke to me,” Hampton said. “I was like, ‘you know what, I got married eight years ago in this courthouse, I went to school here, I just need, ‘I was like, ‘this’ is that.'”
Next door to Hampton is the Loft Bridal Bar, which specializes in wedding dresses, but will soon also offer formal wear for all occasions. Although they also organize wedding parties.
“It’s more like an intimate, inclusive whole,” owner Corinne Elizabeth said. “You can come and have your hair and makeup done. We have videographers who can step in, makeup artists, and everything is included.”
Other businesses in the building include Mystic Parlor, which is a hair salon run by Nelly Rosendale, Bury Me Blonde, which is a hair salon run by Jordyn Leurck, and a photography studio.
“I wanted to be downtown,” Leurck said. “I think it’s so promising, and all of my clients are here, they’re all military wives. They’re such strong, independent women. I’m so excited to be downtown. Being able to serve them is a highlight in my life.”
Martin Aragona said he and his wife bought the building at 516 Court St. in 2008, but stayed there for several years because they didn’t know what they wanted to do with it. Eventually they had a vision and slowly renovated with an architect.
Their building at 622 Court St., Piazza de Biagio, houses The Grazing Tray, Coffee Haven, Marlo Construction and event spaces.
Although Biagio isn’t what he used to be, Martin Aragona said they still host private events and Lori Aragona said they may host dinner parties in the future. For the most part, however, the space is used for The Grazing Tray, owned by Samantha Prevatte, and Coffee Haven, owned by Katie Lee.
“We share it with Sam now,” Lori Aragona said. “It’s better for us. You know, COVID has closed all the restaurants.”
Following: The Grazing Tray & Coffee Haven brings charcuterie, coffee and love to Jacksonville
The building was the first brick building on Court Street, built by Ransom P. Hinton in 1901, according to the Aragonas, and used as a commercial store. Hinton also served as mayor of Jacksonville at one time.
In honor of Hinton and their love for downtown, Martin and Lori Aragona named one of the event spaces the “Ransom Room.”
Martin Aragona said he and Lori always loved going to Charleston, South Carolina, and fell in love with all the old buildings there, which led them to fall in love with downtown areas and their uniqueness. .
“We like to go to some businesses at Western, but you don’t want to do that all the time,” Martin Aragona said.
Journalist Morgan Starling can be reached at [email protected]