A year ago there were 20 restaurants open between the Etowah River at the end of the Cotton Block and Turner McCall Boulevard. Today, there are 20 restaurants open in that same downtown district.
Gone are A.Y.F., 425 Broad St.; Cups & Mugs, 239 Broad; Pastime, 111 Broad; and the Victorian Rose Team Room, 510 Broad.
New this past year are Curlee’s Fish House & Oyster Bar, 227 Broad; Dandy Lyons, 239 Broad; Brewhouse Music & Grill, 325 Broad; and Swift & Finch Coffee at 600 Broad.
Steven McDowell, chairman of the Rome Downtown Development Authority, said it’s very important to have such a diversity of restaurants in the district.
“They are a magnet to bring visitors to downtown,” McDowell said. “They are the ultimate economic provider for downtown — having guests, visitors and people excited about seeing what’s downtown.”
Sylvia Lanier, owner of Promotions Plus on Broad Street, said she thinks it is wonderful to have a good mix.
“Everyone has a different idea of taste, and there are so many restaurants that you can choose from, from steaks to pizza to pasta to whatever,” Lanier said. “Bringing these restaurants downtown has really increased the activity downtown, and it’s just fabulous that we have all this going on.”
Paula Blevins, owner of C&S Trophies on Broad Street, said that on any given day she can choose from a wide variety of menus, call in an order and go pick it up.
“In the evening after I get off work I love having a good variety to choose from, and now we have breakfast options, too,” Blevins said.
The ability to walk from her shop in the Cotton Block and have a variety of cuisines to choose from — Mexican, Thai, seafood, traditional Southern home-cooking, pizza, subs, you name it — is something she considers a major asset to downtown.
Being able to walk to lunch or dinner is important because any conversation about the restaurants in downtown cannot be complete without a discussion of the parking challenges. One of the latest concerns among some of the restaurateurs involves the Third Avenue Parking Deck.
Several restaurants have opted to participate with the Downtown Parking Management office plan to validate ticket stubs for their patrons. Customers park in the Third Avenue deck, enjoy their meals and get a free ticket to put in the machine as they exit the deck.
On some occasions, when The Forum or Brewhouse are expecting particularly large crowds, 450-plus, and do not choose to lease the deck for the show or event, the Parking Management office staffs the deck at the entrance and charges a flat $5-per-car fee. The regular rate is $1 an hour, with the first hour free.
Charles Curlee, owner of Curlee’s Fish House & Oyster Bar, said some patrons then expect him to reimburse that $5 fee, which Curlee said is simply not possible. The alternative then, if on-street parking is not available, is that his restaurant loses business for the night.
Anthony Barba at LaScala has expressed the same concerns. He started to complain about the problem almost a year ago.
“Our business was hurt so terribly badly, and nothing has changed,” Barba said. “The deck has compounded the problem for me. Last April or May, one night I lost 35 reservations from people who called and said they can’t come; there’s nowhere to park.”
Parking Manager Becky Smyth said that at this point her office is not planning to change the procedures at the deck.
People leasing The Forum for large events are also encouraged to lease the deck for $400. In that case, all of the gates are opened, and it’s free parking — not only for people attending the event at The Forum, or elsewhere, but for anyone who wants to go to one of the downtown restaurants or shop in businesses downtown.
Smyth said she learned several years ago that if people use the normal ticketing machines and 400 people try to leave at the same time after an event, the traffic could back up in the deck for an hour or more.
“First-time users couldn’t figure it out, and then you’ve got credit card processing; … even though you’ve got three machines to pay to get out it still takes 30 seconds to a minute to operate it,” Smyth said. “If you pay as you go in, then we can leave all the gates up and nobody has to be there at the exits.”
Smyth also indicated a significant number of people who come into downtown for major events and pack the deck probably take advantage of the many downtown restaurants as well.
“We haven’t found anything any better than what we are currently doing,” Smyth said.
Curlee wishes that something better could be found.
“I can go back and show days where they have charged $5 parking and we have up to a 25-percent decrease in sales,” he said. “It typically has been the most inopportune times, Friday and Saturday business. Restaurants depend on those two particular days to carry the week because of the nature of sales.”
Curlee also expressed some concern about the decision to charge $5 parking for the Sammy Kershaw appearance at the Brewhouse Music & Grill.
The success of downtown restaurants is important to the city’s coffers up front each year. City Clerk Joe Smith said business license fees paid by the restaurants alone amount to between $9,000 and $10,000 in a typical year.
This year, the alcohol pouring licenses issued to the Broad Street restaurants brought in more than $81,500 for the city.
The Broad Street restaurants also provide jobs for approximately 300 full- or part-time employees.
Some merchants and city officials were somewhat surprised by a market report done by the Small Business Development Center that showed Rome might actually be underserved by restaurants. David Doss, for one, was seeking a copy of that report recently to help him bring a restaurant to an outparcel on the planned Courtyard by Marriott site on West Third Street.
Jamwich, a specialty sandwich shop, is expected to open at 510 Broad St. next month.
DDA Executive Director Ann Arnold said the market would make the decision as to how many restaurants downtown can bear.
“We’ve been successful so far with what we have, and we would certainly welcome the opportunity to see if we can add something else to the mix,” Arnold said.