Fifth Avenue in Naples is an elegant main street.
It features some great restaurants, a boutique hotel and a nice array of retail stores.
At night, the street is vibrant, filled with boomers who seem to enjoy a lively but decidedly upscale vibe.
It doesn’t feel like a late night place, but that’s OK. For me late is 10 p.m. these days.
We had a chance to spend a day and night in Naples recently when we attended a Florida Redevelopment Association meeting focused on Business Improvement Districts (BID); particularly Naples successful model which includes a partnership between downtown property owners, city government, the chamber and CRA.
My wife Diane is president of the FRA this year and I spent a few years on the board many years back so it felt good to reconnect with an association that has done a great job advocating for CRA’s, DDA’s and BID’s over the years.
The focus of the day was the history, present and future of Naples’ much loved main street, 5th Avenue South, which like many Florida main streets has reinvented itself over the years through good times and bad.
In December 2010, in an effort to jumpstart the avenue, a group of civic, business and city leaders got together and formed a Business Improvement District that levies a tax on property owners that is then reinvested into beautification, events and marketing.
The Naples BID is a good model for other aspiring streets and may serve as inspiration for places such as Palmetto Park Road in Boca and Congress Avenue in Delray.
The goal of the Naples effort was to re-establish 5th Avenue South as “the place to go” in Naples.
An active board of directors, a small but entrepreneurial staff along with a strong core of merchants and downtown evangelists has restored 5th Avenue’s luster and importance in the wake of competition from nearby lifestyle centers and shopping districts.
We heard from Mayor Bill Barnett, BID President Michael Wynn (whose family has owned property on the avenue since the 40s), BID Director Lise Sundria and Naples CRA Director Roger Reinke on how they work together on branding and marketing efforts.
Mayor “Bill” as he is affectionately known has been an elected official for 24 years with some time off between terms. His historic perspective and involvement has proven invaluable as he recalled efforts in the 80s to transform the look and feel of what had become a tired downtown.
“It took people with vision,” he said. “And the changes were not without controversy,” he said. “Downtown is the heart of Naples and the heart was broken.”
Two early catalysts were the conversion of a suburban style Nationsbank building into the Inn on 5th, an attractive hotel that has become an important economic engine for the district and the hiring of new urbanist town planner Andres Duany whose team came to Naples with a slew of ideas.
It took political will and some time to add the design elements needed to rejuvenate 5th Avenue and BID President Wynn said Mayor Bill has been a champion of that vision.
“The mayor’s warmth is an asset,” Wynn said. “It makes a difference to have a mayor who believes and who is engaged along with us. We’re fortunate.”
The Duany plan drew upon Naples historic strengths as a hub for tourists, fishing and commerce.
Leaders also wanted to remind people that 5th Avenue led directly to a beautiful beach, a fact that was somehow lost as Naples bled tourists to other popular west coast beach communities.
The Wynn family has more than 70 years of history in Naples and as president, Mike Wynn has a unique perspective of how the city has boomed and busted through the decades. The city got its first traffic light in 1949 and thrived through the 50s before being hit by Hurricane Dennis, a category 5 storm that devastated downtown Naples.
Along with many other cities—Delray included—5th Avenue was hard hit by suburban flight and the rise of the mall in the 70s and 80s, with vacancy rates hitting as high as 40 percent. Former Delray CRA Director Chris Brown, who was at the Naples meeting, can relate.
“When I came to Delray in 1991, I closed my office door at 5 p.m. and nothing was moving on Atlantic Avenue,” he said. “There was roughly 1 million square feet of commercial space and 500,000 of it was vacant. I thought…’what did I get myself into’ here.”
The situation was similar in Naples and the retail that was left was marginal at best. There was even an adult bookstore on the avenue, hard to imagine given today’s upscale vibe. Office vacancy downtown was also 50 percent, Wynn said.
“Like many cities, we came together,” said Wynn. “We realized we needed to act and act fast. We also realized that for the avenue to have life, we actually needed to have people coming downtown.”
Not a revolutionary concept, but hard to pull off because it requires a tremendous amount of promotion and hard work.
The BID was formed in part to compete with competition from other shopping districts. Key strategies include beautification, relentless marketing and promotion and 12 street festivals. The BID, a non-profit, also organizes block captains, provides business counseling and also offers local businesses an array of marketing services. Money for the BID is raised via assessment and the BID also does some fundraisers that ultimately raises over $400,000 annually.
Wynn said the BID takes to heart the wisdom of the great placemaker Willliam H. Whyte who said: “what attracts people most, is other people.”
Wynn said the BID hopes to compete by embracing the arts, retail, office, tourism, events and a vibrant food scene.
Rod Castan, VP of the BID and a property owner from the Courtelis Companies, said 5th Avenue won’t rest on its laurels because of competition and an ever changing commercial landscape. On his wish list: more chain stores which he says drive retail traffic that also supports mom and pops, a small boutique theater and a need for more housing near the downtown, which appears to be under way.
“When the avenue suffers, the whole city suffers,” says Wynn who also serves as president of his family’s chain of Ace Hardware stores.