Brian Simmons has seen his native Gainesville grow from a small, rural town into something else entirely.
“When I was born, where we’re standing right now was a cow pasture,” Simmons, 51, who works in sales, said the other day outside of the Whole Foods Market in Butler Town Center.
He was in bustling Butler Plaza: cars, shops and restaurants in almost every direction. To his right was The Cheesecake Factory – set to open to the public Tuesday on Southwest 35th Drive.
Cheesecake Factory has 16 other locations in Florida.
“It’s nice having a place that’s a little more like home,” said Kaylen McLean, 23, a student at Sante Fe College, who has enjoyed eating at the restaurant growing up in Fort Lauderdale.
Alethea Rowe, Cheesecake Factory’s senior director of public relations, said recent successful developments in Gainesville helped to lead the California-based company to open in the city.
“There are a lot of different variables that we’re looking for when we choose a new location,” Rowe said, “anything from daytime and nighttime foot traffic, accessibility, parking, to a certain amount of population density.”
Butler Plaza has over 2 million square feet of retail space along Archer Road – and Whole Foods has catalyzed development there, said Mary Reichardt, corporate director of marketing for the complex’s parent company, Butler Enterprises.
More than 2,000 people turned out for Whole Foods’ local opening in May 2018.
“We had the strongest grand opening in the state for any Whole Foods Market ever,” Reichardt said. “That really was the thing that caught people’s attention. That allowed us to get a seat at the table with the larger retailers that like to follow Whole Foods.”
Alachua County residents have mixed feelings about the evolution.
“Oh, it sucks,” Telma Rodriguez, 61, of High Springs, said outside Whole Foods. The real estate investor said she worries that the mix of nature and culture she loves in Gainesville might be lost.
Gladis Barrios, 26, who moved to Gainesville 10 years ago, agreed.
“When I moved here, this was all woods,” Barrios said before entering the Publix two blocks away from Whole Foods. “Sometimes it makes me sad.”
New stores and restaurants, of course, bring hundreds of new jobs to a city. Cheesecake Factory itself had over 4,800 applicants vying for 303 positions, Rowe said.
According to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 125,244 people were employed in the Gainesville metropolitan area in June 2009. By June 2019, the number increased to 137,651.
Butler Plaza isn’t the only part of Gainesville experiencing such rapid expansion. Celebration Pointe now has over 1 million square feet of dining, entertainment and shopping, according to its website. Located next to Interstate 75, the shopping center now has stores like Bass Pro Shops, Tommy Hilfiger and a Nike outlet. Soon, a Dave and Buster’s will draw in crowds, too.
Mike Mangus, 28, has lived in northwest Gainesville for a year and a half. He’s general manager of MidiCi, a pizza restaurant in Celebration Pointe, and hails from Buffalo, New York.
“People will come by and tell me, ‘I feel like I just stepped in to New York,’” he said.
Delphine Lampert, 50, attended the University of Florida close to 30 years ago. Since then, she said, she has witnessed a “complete change” of the city – not just physically but also demographically. It used to be only students and older people living here; now it seems more people have come back or stayed to raise families, Lampert said while at Celebration Pointe.
She worries, though, whether the roads can sustain the increased population.
“I’m for it as long as it is controlled,” Lampert said.
Reichardt said Archer Road has a street count rivaling many metro areas: 60,000 cars per day.
Gainesville Commissioner David Arreola said other shopping areas across the city, including along Newberry Road and The Oaks Mall, will soon go through transitions.
“There is some change coming,” Arreola said.