Reinvention and the hope of the Hyatt await at Railroad Square – Tallahassee Democrat

Posted: August 14, 2020 at 5:49 am

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Marina Brown, Democrat correspondent Published 12:01 p.m. ET Aug. 13, 2020


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The landscape has changedin the Railroad Square Art District, with a new hotel nearly complete but a pandemic underway.

So recently a First Friday hub, the artsy district of nearly 70 eateries, galleries, and funky collectibles is under stress and hours have been limited.

Likeall other small business owners in these COVID times, the people are intrepid, brave, frightened, fighting, and above all welcoming. They are people with dreams of offering to the public things they have made with their own hands, cooked on their own stoves, or conceived as delights for the people of Tallahassee.

Theyd taken the leap, rented the space, and filled their establishments with surprises from art to soap to comics and furniture with whimsical paint.

And now they wait. But outwaiting a virus is a tricky thing. And the entrepreneurs of Railroad Square hope they can hold on hope they can count on locals to remember them.

Village Art in Railroad Square(Photo: Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat)

It seems like another life now, but tenants remember how, First Fridays at Railroad Square had become a sprawling block party filled with food, fun and purchases, before it was shut down in March. Business was good and the anticipated opening of the nearby Hyatt House Hotel seemed to assure plenty of new visitors and football game attendees who would discover the Arts District steps away.

Gamescape in Railroad Square(Photo: Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat)

Things are different now, of course, but even though there have been those who couldnt stick it out several tenants say they know of eight to 10 who have had to close up shopothers intend to hold on as long as they can. And theyre doing it by modifying, adjusting, and tightening their business belts.

Ashley Larney, who works at Gamescape and Cafe says that the cafe is closed and the entire game room, where board and card games are played, is suspended. Yet the store has increased the number of products theyre sellingconsole systems, X-boxes, video and board games. Local sales are down, she says, But online sales have increased. But, whereas before the lively game room would have been filled with 35-40 people, today it is oddly quiet.

Iron Vault in Railroad Square(Photo: Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat)

Brett Fain, an owner of Iron Vault, a gym and training site for goal-oriented Strong Man aficionados says the period when gyms were totally shut down was hard. What was great though, is that the people who train with us wouldnt stop paying, even though they couldnt come in. Now, the gym practices strict disinfecting, mask-wearing, and organized hours for training. Even though we got some federal aid and a local grant, our business is down 30-40%, and that hurts. Nevertheless, Brett Fain says, Were gonna make it.

At the Foto Studio, Bob OLary is one of the affable partners. Photos of events and portraits line his shop. First Fridays were wonderful we would have 50-80 walk-ins. Now, its rare to have someone just walk in the door. He says that you can tell when a business has had to close. Youll suddenly see tables and chairs and display cases sitting outside their store. Weve lost six big corporate conventions we were going to photograph, he says, though he hopes other events, like weddings will keep things alive.

One of the other photographers at Foto Studio, Katie Clark, has, however, received some happy news.

Construction continues during the COVID-19 pandemic on the Hyatt hotel by Railroad Square. (Photo: Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat)

Lily Boynton Kaye, co-owner of Railroad Square says that developer Stephen Wendell of Mountain Shore Properties and the Hyatt Hotel corporate decision-makers have selected Clarks photos to be featured in the guestrooms of the 120-room property.

Along with an outdoor sculpture by Mark Dickson that pays homage to the industrial history of the area, and original works in the lobby and common areas by Christl Grow, Robert Saltarelli, and Perdita Ross, Kaye says the Hyatt Hotel has clearly established its connection to the art and artists of Railroad Square.

Cosmic Cat Comics in Railroad Square(Photo: Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat)

Nearby, at Village Art Co-op and Cosmic Cats Comics and its associated art gallery, things dont feel so rosy. Our business is down 85%, says Loretta Denes, co-owner of Village Art Co-op that sells painted furniture and home dcor. Weve been here three years and just now were beginning to pay ourselves a little salary! She says that four sales a month would cover her rent and utilities, but her business is on the edge now.

Were really depending on the Hyatt attracting people hoping it will be open by December with visitors 365 days a year! For now, shes having trouble buying up the soap inventory of someone who went out of business. One hundred dollars here or there becomes tough.

Ned Staceys comic book business is out of reserve funds, he says. His small reading rooms wouldnt be virus-safe in this time. His business has taken a 75% hit, and he says hes really on the bubble. With an additional 1,000 sq. ft. of warehouse and an art gallery/studio, Stacey says that its only his online sales that are keeping him going.

The Crum Box in Railroad Square serves up a variety of dishes including a meatball sub, pulled pork sandwich, a pork tenderloin sandwich and sausage.(Photo: Mike Bonfanti)

Thats the same sentiment echoed by Pete Evarts, for six years the owner of the red caboose called the Crum Box Gastgarden. He is the cook, dishwasher and everything in between. With no indoor seating now, he remembers the typical 100 servings of his famous sausage each (now cancelled) First Friday. Saying hes akin to hanging on by my fingernails, Evarts hopes people will remember that Railroad Square is still open for business, and still filled with people who need a little extra help keeping the joy alive in Tallahassees unique art district.

Even with so many questions in the air, there are a number of new businesses that are set to open soon, including a dog boutique and dog training facility, a Belgian waffle cafe, Phaze One Skate Shop, Chop Barbershop, and Campus Greek and Embroidery.

Art classes, such as acrylic pours and soap-making are being held at a number of shops, including The Halfway Point, Feeling Art, Obsessions Gifts, and Flair. Questions in the air and hope too.

People enjoy live music as they dine outdoors at the Railroad Square Craft House on Friday, June 26, 2020.(Photo: Ken Lanese/Special to the Democrat)

From the lumber yard beginnings of her grandfather, to the evolution of an industrial park and arts hub under her mother, Lily Kaye and her brother, Adam, are committed to keeping the vibrant bridge between university and town a growing, thriving entity. Railroad Square tenants say the Kayes have been generous in helping them with rents in this difficult time. And seeing the Hyatt featuring art district artists clearly thrills the Kayes.

Now, its up to us, Tallahassee, to go see what fun, tasty, unique, and creative surprises are still on display in Railroad Square. And you wont even have to wait for a delivery truck or a pounding on your door to take home your prize.

Marina Brown can be contacted at:

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What: Railroad Square Art Park

Where:618 McDonnell Drive

Hours: With COVID-19, mostly afternoons, Thursday-Sunday,

Details: Visit online directory for details on specific business,

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Reinvention and the hope of the Hyatt await at Railroad Square - Tallahassee Democrat

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