North Texas Daily

Changing times on the Denton Square

Changing times on the Denton Square

Denton County held a 170th Anniversary celebration at the Courthouse lawn with activities for the entire family, an anniversary cake and a historical marker unveiling. File

Changing times on the Denton Square
May 31
21:04 2017

Kayleigh Bywater & Rachel Kressin 

The Denton Square’s history extends beyond the Courtyard 

As Julie Glover takes long, drawn out strides down West Hickory Street, she stops, taking in the barren streets and empty shops surrounding her.

One family sits on the Courtyard Lawn, sharing a picnic while surrounded by silence.

An older woman quickly scurries into the Downtown Mini Mall, anxious to see what new trinkets and knick-knacks were added since the day before.

The parking spots are empty.

While these snapshots images are from Glover’s memory, she carries them with her every time she currently sees the Square bustling with people, patrons and parties.

Back in the 1990s, this was a daily sight on the Square. Storefronts were boarded up, visitors were scarce and morale was low. The Square was not the popular tourist attraction that it is today.

Instead, it kept tourists away.

“We would have something planned, and we would be so excited for it to get started,” Glover said. “And then nothing happened for another seven or eight years after that.”

From the ground up

Since the mid-1800s, the Square and the Courthouse have been focal points in Denton – through both good and bad times.

Just like many towns, the Square has gone through trial and error alongside cosmetic mishaps and unfinished projects.
While Glover didn’t begin to step foot into the everyday actions of the Square until 1994, the desire for a new and improved Square was already felt among many.

“The thing about revitalization in downtowns everywhere is that they didn’t deteriorate overnight and they won’t come back overnight,” Glover said. “It was a long, slow process to get from where we were in the late 80s, when there was hardly anyone downtown and we were only about 50 percent occupied, to where we were when I joined.”

When Glover joined in the mid 90s, only about 85 percent of the storefronts housed some sort of business.

And while 85 percent may seem like a good percentage of occupancy, what really matters is what type of stores called the Square home.

Glover said that 95 percent of the businesses then were some sort of retail shop, mainly antique shops. Out of all the opportunities for business ventures back then, the Square only housed two restaurants.

“People were using the businesses for ridiculous things,” Glover said. “For the longest time, there was a room next to the pawn shop that was actually a storefront, but they were using it as a store room. They could have been making so much more money leasing that spot.”

Making changes

The biggest shift to the Square’s business came in the early 2000s, when a Houston-based developer bought the block known popularly as “Fry Street.”

“He wanted certain things that he couldn’t get, so he just had a fit and tore everything down,” Glover said. “He ran tenants out.”

The developer shut down local favorites on Fry Street, including what is now known as The Abbey Inn and More Fun Comics and  Games. Popular businesses at that time, like the beloved pizza restaurant The Tomato, were left with nowhere to go.

Slowly, business started making its way to the Square. Restaurants and shops that were run out by the developer made their way to a permanent home downtown.

When one door closed, another one right down the street opened.

“It’s kind of a sad thing that Fry Street had to fail for us to thrive,” Glover said. “But it was a big boost to Downtown because the kids had to find a new place to eat, drink and hang out.”

Now, the Square is home to 30 restaurants and bars, allowing people to immerse themselves in the shop and dine experience that the Square desperately needed to offer.

And while the restaurants and shops on the Square seemed to be packed, things aren’t always easy on the other side.

Because of the boom of the Square, businesses are thriving and suffering in unison. Rent has skyrocketed, competition is high and space is limited.

The Chestnut Tree Teahouse and Bistro is one of the longest running shops on the Square. The retail space turned restaurant has been in business for 23 years, coming in at a time where the Square wasn’t as known and trying to thrive in a time where it’s the focal point of North Texas.

“We’ve been here before there were more than 15 restaurants downtown,” owner Suzanne Johnson said. “Because there was nothing downtown, rent was cheap. Now, rent is [too] expensive.”

Glover said some restaurants pay around $17 per square foot per year, with retail and office spaces coming in a little less. Some larger spaces on the Square can cost more than $5,000 a month in rent alone. That doesn’t include other utilities, content, product or money to keep running every day.

“There’s numbers when you’re writing your business plan – 30 percent of cost will be rent and utilities,” Johnson said. “There are businesses downtown that pay $8,000 a month in rent, and so if you’re talking $8,000 times 12, you have to do a lot of sales to cover rent [alone].”

That’s why properties along the Square and Fry Street, especially pertaining to restaurants, have a hard time staying afloat.

“We have these businesses come in downtown, and after a year they close,” she said. “And that’s incredibly sad. But we’re in the hospitality program, and it takes at least two years to recoup your money. At least 75 percent of all restaurants fail within two years of business.”

Looking forward

As the second Twilight Tunes festival of the year kicked off, Andy’s bartender Mae Baugh waited anxiously for the night of music to begin. Sitting in a blue lawn chair with a beer in her hand and her friends by her side, it was a typical Thursday night on the Square for her.

Baugh has been coming downtown almost every day for 10 years and has seen both the downtown area and the numbers of visitors grow every year.

She said it’s hard to tell on a normal day, but events that bring the city together really showcase the variety of people that gravitate towards the Square.

“A lot of stuff has changed,” Baugh said. “But all of it has been relatively good. I think the Square is moving in a good direction.”

Sitting next to Baugh was someone with much less experience at the Square but just as much admiration for it.

Esme Baker traveled from their home in the south of London for a few weeks, making it a priority to come to the Square every day she was in town.

“You can walk a few feet and there’s always something interesting happening,” Baker said.

Baker, who lives in England but visits Denton every year, said the city provides something unique that you don’t always get.

Even though she hasn’t been there to see the changes, she said she appreciates everything she gets to experience while she’s here.

“In the evenings I like to go to Andy’s,” Baker said. “I [also] really like the mini malls. We don’t have anything really like that; it’s nowhere near the same. I haven’t been anywhere [on the Square] that I don’t like.”

With new faces, however, come seasoned Dentonites.

Carolyn Trussell has lived in Denton for more than 50 years and has experienced every stage of the Square’s “new beginnings.”

“I’ve seen the good and the ugly,” Trussell said.

She’s watched all the buildings be covered with slipcovers in order to “modernize” the Square. She’s seen the boarded up stores. She’s witnessed the changes.

And although Trussell said she isn’t a huge fan of all the improvements, she knows they were necessary.

“I miss some of the older shops from back in the day and the closeness of the community,” Trussell said. “When I came to Denton in the early 60s, the city did not have near the population we have now. But luckily the Square has grown alongside Denton while keeping us in mind.”

While the Square has experienced its ups and downs, Glover said that it all lead to where the Square is today.

Glover said they have big plans in the works for the Square – some that will make residents happy and others that may cause frustration. But in the end, she said it’s about doing what’s best for the community.

They’re still taking down the slip covers, they’ve just managed to get all the boards of the windows and they’ve still got a lot of changes to make.

“There are some people who don’t appreciate it,” Glover said. “There are always people who wish things never change and things could go back to how they were. None of that looks good to me in the rearview mirror. the Square isn’t a museum, it’s ever-changing.”

View our Sound Slide over the Square here.

Featured Image: Denton County Courthouse. File

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Kayleigh Bywater

Kayleigh Bywater

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