CRESTVIEW — While a dozen vacant commercial buildings currently stand along the city’s mile-long Main Street, it was in much worse shape a few decades ago, recalls District 3 Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles.
“In the early ’90s, there were far more pigeons downtown than there were people,” said Boyles, whose district includes Main Street. “There were a lot more vacant businesses. There were a lot of buildings where the roofs were in the floor.”
Besides serving on the commission, Boyles is the co-owner of three commercial buildings on Main Street. He also chairs the Crestview Community Redevelopment Agency.
The agency uses a portion of property tax revenue from properties in the Community Redevelopment Area, or district, to reinvest back into the area for upgrades such as better roads, sidewalks, drainage and streetlights.
Main Street forms the spine of the district, which was created in 1995 and has about 300 parcels.
Boyles and Sandra Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Main Street Crestview Association, both have high hopes for downtown.
And both agree its future is a bright one that will require time and patience.
One major step that helped turn downtown Crestview around since the early ’90s was the city’s creation of the CRA District, Boyles said.
For that area, he said, city officials obtained Community Redevelopment Block Grant money that helped pay for the relocation of unsightly power lines from Main Street to adjacent side streets, the installation of decorative brick pavers on some sidewalks and intersections, the creation of angled parking and the installation of streetlights.
“It was a facelift to the street itself,” Boyles said. “I think that was the first step to bring people back to the downtown district.”
Past relocations by the library, post office and Chamber of Commerce to newer parts of Crestview hurt the area, and construction of the State Road 85 overpass one block east of Main Street and above the railroad tracks “killed downtown,” Boyles said.
However, he added, “I argue (the overpass) will ultimately save downtown. Not having all that traffic will allow it to be a 21st century downtown: A walking, mobile downtown, which you wouldn’t have if the traffic had stayed.
“I think at this point all it’s going to take is time. Millennials want a place where they can get out and walk, have an ice cream and stroll around” instead of relying on their cars.
Relatively recent changes to Crestview’s alcohol ordinance have made it easier for some restaurants that sell alcohol to set up downtown. With proper permitting, alcohol also can be served at certain events.
Last year’s New Year’s Eve bash hosted by the Main Street Crestview Association “was the first time we served beer” at an event, Wilson said of the 23-year-old organization. “We had a big turnout and everyone behaved.”
Wilson began serving as the association’s executive director in 2017. As part of its agreement with the CRA, the association hosts the New Year’s Eve party and a number of other events that attract people to downtown.
“When I first started, we were hosting the Fall Festival and the Christmas Parade,” Wilson said. “Now that we’ve grown so much, we host an event almost every single month.”
Upcoming shindigs include the Triple B BBQ Cook-off on March 28 and the Strawberry Festival on April 18.
Visitors to those events might be able to check out the new El Nopal food truck. Serving authentic Mexican hot dogs and other food, it’s expected to open at the Main Street Eats food truck court by the end of March.
In addition to hosting the crowd-drawing events, the Main Street Crestview Association helps downtown businesses by offering them several types of grants, such as the facade grant.
“It’s a matching grant, so if someone were to spend $10,000 on a fašade, they get $5,000 reimbursed,” Wilson said.
The association has awarded six fašade grants since Wilson began leading the organization.
On another note, she said there are a number of reasons why some business owners have decided to set up their businesses on SR 85 instead of Main Street.
“Sometimes I hear, just being able to have 40,000 people pass you daily (on SR 85) is obviously an advantage,” Wilson said. Also, “I think some of the issues have been that some of the buildings (on Main Street) weren’t kept up to code or standards so people could conduct business properly. And I think, because it is downtown, the rent might be a little bit higher than if you go somewhere on a side street or in a little strip mall on (U.S. Highway) 90.”
Yet, Main Street “is really beautiful,” she said. “It is very busy down here during certain hours, especially with the courthouse now being open. During lunchtime, it is very busy, so that’s why it should be attractive for new business owners to come down here.”
The new Okaloosa County Courthouse on the north end of Main Street opened in November 2018. The previous courthouse in the same location had closed in 2016 because of problems with asbestos and black mold.
Wilson said the Main Street Crestview Association would like to see more businesses, such as a restaurant that stays open late, that bring people downtown after regular business hours.
A good fit for that scenario, she said, is the vacant building at 224 N. Main St. that formerly housed Christopher's Uncorked Bistro.
“We would love for somebody to come in there and have that kind of setting,” Wilson said. “And we’d love to see an 18-hour day in our downtown. Obviously, we can’t force business owners to be open that long.”
However, The Heights Restaurant and Bar that might open by the end of March at 482 N. Wilson St. will have later hours, she said.
The Heights’ co-owner, Bill Toannon, also co-owns Casbah Coffee on the corner of West Pine Avenue and Wilson Street. He is treasurer of the Main Street Crestview Association.
“We’re slowly going towards (having more businesses with later nighttime hours),” Wilson said. “It’s a bit of a slower process because you have to have some business owners that just go ahead and do it and let people know, and then it will create this chain reaction.
“I’m sure we’ll get there eventually, but I understand too from business owners, if they don’t have customers come in, they can’t afford to be open every night until nine or 10 o’clock,” he added. “That’s why we’ve been doing so many events. We want people to know we have a beautiful downtown and what kind of businesses we have so people know to come here.”
Some of the big upcoming changes include a public parking lot and park on the old Piggly Wiggly site on North Wilson Street, the installation of a downtown gateway arch north of the courthouse, completion of a monument sign on the south end of Main Street and the installation of digital message signs near the Sheriff’s Office’s north district office, just east of the courthouse.
Local officials also are looking to provide a pedestrian and vehicle connection along Industrial Drive between downtown and Twin Hills Park.