The vibrant melodies of trumpets, saxophones and tubas will ring in a new era for downtown Gainesville’s Bo Diddley Plaza on Thursday.
The New Orleans-based Preservation Hall Jazz Band will perform at the last event to take place before the plaza closes on Sunday for renovations. Free and open to the public, the concert is part of a three-day-long event known as frank, which began Tuesday. Public interest advocates and strategic communicators from around the world gather to share their thoughts on driving social change.
Ann Christiano, frank director, said she is grateful that the event is taking place in Bo Diddley Plaza because she noticed a parallel between the gathering and the future changes she expects for Gainesville.
“frank, as a gathering, is so focused on positive social change and a better future for all of us, so I think it makes sense that that would be the last event (in Bo Diddley Plaza),” she said.
Planned by the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), the plaza’s renovations will include an addition to the current green room for event performers, a new café on the northeast portion and an informational kiosk on the northwest corner. In addition, the plaza’s bus stop will be moved east, adjacent to the courthouse, to make the plaza more visible from University Avenue, Gainesville CRA manager Sarah Vidal-Finn wrote in an email.
Renovations are expected to take one year, Vidal-Finn wrote. Beginning March 1, the plaza will be fenced off for construction, causing weekly events that are typically held there to find other venues.
The Union Street Farmers Market, which has taken place in Bo Diddley Plaza every Wednesday — rain or shine — for the past seven years, will be moving to city lot 10 at the corner of Southwest First Avenue and Southwest First Street, across the street from Loosey’s Downtown Gainesville and a parking garage.
Charlie Lybrand, director of the Union Street Farmers Market, said he doesn’t expect the move to alter the market’s popularity too much. He hopes the small loss of customers will be supplemented by new customers from student apartments nearby.
Lybrand added that he and the market vendors are excited for a change of scenery, and that the new location relates to the history of farmers markets in Gainesville.
“The thing that’s kind of unique is that, oddly enough, this parking lot that we’re going to is where the first farmers market in Gainesville was ever held many years ago, so it’s like going full-circle for a little while,” he said.
The farmers market isn’t the only thing having to change locations, as the homeless people who typically inhabit the plaza will no longer be able to live there once the area is fenced off on Sunday.
Mark Sexton, spokesman for the Alachua County Commission, said the mission of Bo Diddley Plaza is not to provide a place for people to live.
“Certainly all citizens, whether they live in a mansion or they don’t have a home, are welcome to use public facilities,” Sexton said. “But if someone is homeless and is looking to get back on their feet, there will be much better alternatives than Bo Diddley Plaza for them to take advantage of.”
Sexton said one such alternative is GRACE Marketplace, which offers meals, clothing and restrooms as well as substance abuse and mental health counseling.
Local business owners — such as Diego Ibañez, the owner of Emiliano’s Cafe near the downtown plaza — are hopeful that the plaza’s closure will encourage the homeless to pursue the services available to them at GRACE Marketplace.
Ibañez isn’t only concerned with the homeless, however, as he said he has “mixed feelings” about the renovation project.
“I think the end result will be very beneficial to the plaza and to downtown as a whole,” he said. “On the flip side, we’re hoping that they can get it done in the time allotted, or even less, because during that time there are some big events that benefit downtown that won’t be able to be held there.”
Despite the “mild inconvenience” caused by construction, he said the newly renovated plaza will attract more people to the downtown area upon completion, allowing it to maintain its reputation as the “cultural epicenter of Gainesville.”
Nathalie McCrate, a project manager from the Gainesville CRA, said she hopes the renovations will anchor Bo Diddley Plaza as the “heartbeat of downtown,” a place where people can gather and feel welcome.
“We’re hoping that this new facelift will bring that out even more so it’ll be a better destination for not only locals but visitors when they arrive,” McCrate said. “They’ll see this entryway and they’ll be like, ‘Wow, this is Gainesville.’”
Disclaimer: WUFT News and frank are affiliated with the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications.