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Alachua Becomes Wedding Hub As Marriage Industry Grows

Cathy Hitchcock sets up tables and chairs for a rehearsal dinner on the ranch.
Cathy Hitchcock sets up tables and chairs for a rehearsal dinner on the ranch.

Amber Robinson surprised herself by having her wedding at a cattle ranch.

“I was totally against getting married outside,” she said. “I never thought I’d be one of those outside brides.”

Yet the weekend after she got engaged, Robinson booked the date at Santa Fe River Ranch in Alachua. The 31-year-old said her sudden change of heart came after she visited the site.

As Robinson and others have picked Alachua as their wedding destination, businesses there — such as makeup artists and dress shops — say they've felt the positives.

This wedding surge is due, in part, to Alan Hitchcock. After buying Santa Fe River Ranch in 2009, he inadvertently created one of the area’s first wedding venues.

“I had never even dreamed of being in the wedding business,” the 65-year-old said. “I did not understand that there was even a whole little wedding industry out there.”

Hitchcock planned to spend his retirement working with cattle, but after his daughter got married on the ranch in 2012, the property became a sought-after venue for weddings.

The business is now a family operation. After unexpectedly joining the wedding industry, the family had to learn quickly and be creative.

For his daughter’s wedding, Hitchcock said he hung a “redneck chandelier” made of PVC pipe and Christmas lights for the reception, which stayed for a year.

“People really liked it,” he said. “It looked surprisingly good.”

The business now supports Hitchcock’s ranch, which he said was "in the red" before his wedding business.

More than 100 weddings have been held at the ranch, and it’s usually fully booked a year in advance. The Santa Fe River Ranch has 35 dates available per year for booking.

“It’s a hidden market,” Hitchcock said. “There’s a lot of business that’s generated from what we do here.”

One of the businesses that depend on the marriage industry is The Wedding Cycle, a dress shop.

Owner Alisha Alsbrook-Stowe has run the dress shop for three years, which specializes in discontinued, pre-owned and vintage wedding gowns.

“It’s kind of a recession-proof industry,” Alsbrook-Stowe said. “There’s always going to be a wedding."

Most of her dresses cost between $400 and $500, and Alsbrook-Stowe credits the store’s success to consistent weddings in the area.

“It’s the last industry that you really can start from nothing and become someone,” she said.

Makeup Artist Kara Winslow said the wedding industry changed her life. Within five years, she went from struggling to pay rent to a home-owner.

Her company, Kara Winslow Makeup Artist, worked 40 weddings last year. The 36-year-old said she remains with brides until the end of the ceremony.

“I stay with them and make sure they’re picture perfect throughout the entire process,” Winslow said.

Winslow’s wedding package costs $550 and includes makeup for the bride and two others. She charges $150 per extra person and $100 per hour after the ceremony.

“Weddings are actually a huge part of the economy in an area,” Winslow said.

Winslow lives in Gainesville but regularly works in Alachua. She attributes the city’s popularity to its rural venues.

“Country weddings and barn weddings are all the rage,” Winslow said.

The barn wedding trend helped Nanette and Ray Holt’s venue, C Bar Ranch and Organics, attract clients.

Nanette inherited the ranch in 2014 after her mother died. She wanted to keep it in the family by creating a business she could pass on to her children.

“We didn’t want our kids to ever have a reason to sell it,” she said.

The Holts invested $1.4 million into the property and spent the last three years restoring the property. Even before it opened this March, Nanette said brides flocked to the site to plan unique weddings.

“Everybody has to out-do their friends now,” Ray said. “And we try to help them with that,” Nanette said.

The barn is mostly booked until June 2018, and Nanette said wedding dates in Alachua are in high demand.

Santa Fe River Ranch already has dates booked in 2019, and though other venues are nearby, Hitchcock said the owners don’t view each other as competition. “There seems to be enough business for everybody,” Hitchcock said.

Alachua isn’t just a wedding spot among locals. Couples from Texas, New York, Illinois and Canada have also wed in Alachua.

At Santa Fe River Ranch, the standard cost for access Thursday through Sunday is $9,500. A three-day rental at C Bar Ranch and Organics costs $5,500. Both owners said they strive to go the extra mile for their clients.

“We want to do more than we promised,” Nanette said. “If we are not exceeding their expectations, we have failed.”

Hitchcock provides a house on his property for rehearsal dinners or for bridal parties to spend the night, as Shannon Ingwersen did for her wedding. “It’s a nice place to stay,” she said.

Ingwersen discovered the place from an online wedding video and said she couldn’t believe the ranch was in Florida.

Alsbrook-Stowe expects weddings to help all Alachua businesses grow. She said she has doubled sales every year since opening her dress shop.

“It’s hard to see your small town change, but if you’re seeing it change positively, then it’s a good thing,” Alsbrook-Stowe said. “I feel like we just have so much to offer.”

Grace is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 772-708-5532 or emailing graceokenny@gmail.com.