Could entrepreneurs push downtown Victoria in new direction?

Frank and Terri Reyes are the new owners of The Golden Gecko, a jazz bar and lounge at 202 E. Forrest St., the former Hauschild Opry House. The Reyeses plan to renovate the old opera section as a venue for music, dancing and parties.

Frank Reyes lived during the mid 1980s on an Army base in Germany.

For four years, the young U.S. serviceman gravitated during down time to historic downtowns. At nights, he collected coasters and mugs from his favorite European bars.

Recently, Reyes turned his passion for upscale pubs and storied buildings into a multi-faceted business. He hopes the business provides a cozy lifestyle and spark for more visitor-friendly attractions downtown.

Reyes is one of two entrepreneurs who recently opened doors in downtown Victoria, a historic district many discount for lack of ample shopping and bustle.

Business leaders who crave downtown revitalization say these new shops and clubs might reflect signs of changes to come.

WHY DOES DOWNTOWN LACK BUZZ?

Not since the 1980s has the city's downtown buzzed with retail and after-hour dining options. When developers in 1981 built Victoria Mall, downtown retailers moved north to where the shoppers went.

"So what happened downtown is you now have an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. crowd. You have mainly lawyers and bankers," said Randy Vivian, president of the Greater Victoria Area Chamber of Commerce.

Take a peek up from most spots downtown and you're likely to see a courthouse or office building. Reyes, other business and tourism leaders say they hope the skyline will grow to include more merchants.

But why? Why can't the city settle for retail, dining and entertainment growth along Navarro Street and arteries elsewhere?

"The heartbeat of a community is its downtown," Vivian said. "If the downtown is not strong, the same can be said of a community, too."

Dale Fowler, president of the Victoria Economic Development Corp., said a vibrant and historic downtown can attract tourists and even big business.

"Many of our bigger industrial clients look at a thriving downtown as an indicator of a higher quality of life in a community," Fowler said. "They want to make sure their employees would be happy here."

'IT CALLED TO ME'

Reyes on April 16 opened The Golden Gecko, a bar and jazz club he hopes attracts upscale clients. He also opened an events venue dubbed The Venue @ Liberty Forrest.

He and his wife, Teri Reyes, house both businesses in the old opera house, or Hauschild Building, at the corner of Liberty and Forrest streets.

"I used to stand outside and just look at that building," the husband said. "It called to me."

At 221 S. Main St., Lauren Bade on May 1 opened a gift shop under her name. She plans, in coming months, to open in the same building a wine bar called 77901.

Neither a post-recession economy nor nearby sidewalk and street repairs deterred her or Reyes from opening a business. Both entrepreneurs said they prefer to start a business when the economy appears on its way up and infrastructure improvements only added more motivation.

"I like downtown. I've always liked downtown," Bade said. "There's an energy down here and it's more active than many people think."

Bade grew up in Victoria, left during the mid 1980s and launched successful businesses in Fredericksburg, a Texas town known for its downtown. Each year, tens of thousands of tourists flock there.

She considers Victoria ripe for similar activity, she said.

"Now is the time to do business. Victoria has far more history than Fredericksburg ever had and it can draw far more people," Bade said. "Potentially, it could be incredible. People are desperate for a place to go an hour from home. Once they start coming, they come year after year."

IS THIS A TREND?

Gary Dunnam is director of the county's Heritage Department. He works to draw attention to the county's history and its landmark nooks downtown.

He said the sidewalk and street repairs, $750,000 set aside to market the city, and new business owners are signs of good things to come.

"The stars are aligning for great things to happen," Dunnam said. "There are going to be dramatic changes made downtown. I think downtown's time has come."

Of course, business is risky, especially in an area where foot traffic disperses after 5 p.m. Unlike most downtown merchants, Bade and Reyes remain open at night and on the weekends.

They might not be alone. Vivian, the chamber of commerce president, declined to disclose names but said local and outside merchants expressed an interest in relocating downtown.

"I think you're going to see a big trend moving in that direction, I really do," he said. "I really see retailers and restaurateurs appreciating the aesthetics of downtown. It's ripe for development."

Reyes, owner of the trendy bar and events venue, said he's banking on it. Although his events venue is booked through July, he seems to understand the battle ahead.

"It's a ghost town down here at night," Reyes said. "We need more shops and they need to stay open later."