The Trailblazer

William “Billy” Scheel

Billy Scheel looks over Southeast First Street from Union Street Station.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:40 p.m.

From his second-floor corner office on Southeast First Street, Billy Scheel gestures to the view of downtown Gainesville he's helped to shape.


Downtown affiliation:
Downtown developer and entrepreneur, owner of Scheel Enterprises.
His contributions to downtown:
Working with Ken and Linda McGurn, Billy Scheel has shaped the retail mix of downtown Gainesville.
What he expects to see next:
A growth in retail and upscale residential space to serve high-tech companies locating in the area.

Scheel, a 1973 University of Florida graduate, began his real estate career in Jacksonville. His first foray into Gainesville redevelopment came when he bought Richenbacher's, a local bar that featured live music, back in the early 1980s.

“It was a little spot that I'd enjoyed going to, so when it came on the market, I purchased it.” Scheel recalls. The spot he really had his eye on, however, was Lillian's Music Store, already established as a bar just down the block from courthouse square. So he bought the building Lillian's was in, and when the business became available around 1991, he bought it, too.

“If Lillian's hadn't been there, I couldn't have recruited the Harry's guys in Jacksonville to open in the Opera House,” he says. He then bought that building from Ken McGurn.

Charged with filling the retail space in the McGurns' Union Street Station, Scheel brought in Hooters, a Starbucks and Mark's Prime Steakhouse. When Hooters moved out, the space was occupied by Dragonfly. Scheel now owns most of the block between Southeast First and South Main Street, making him the landlord to a variety of businesses.

The McGurns and Scheel have worked together for years to populate downtown with businesses that complement each other. Each credits the others with being instrumental in their success.

An investor in the Hampton Inn, Scheel has filled the first-floor retail space in the hotel. When Urban Flats couldn't make a go of it in the restaurant space, Scheel brought in Vellos Brickstreet Grill.

A dedicated cigar smoker, he's opened Havana's Downtown Cigars in a corner of the hotel. A nook with 150 varieties of cigars and seating for about 15, Havana's is the perfect addition to an evening downtown, in Scheel's view. For those who define “cool” otherwise, there's Mochi frozen yogurt next door.

So how does he choose his tenants?

“You can't just throw things together and hope they stick,” he says. “You have to plan what you want.” He and the McGurns have had success because they have always looked at the long term. “I am reaping the benefits now of investments I made 20, 15 or five years ago.”

In the next five or 10 years, he looks to see the increasing number of high-tech companies drive downtown growth. He'd also like to see additional upscale residential development to the southeast and southwest, “since we are pretty much at the epicenter (of downtown) right here.” Scheel believes a new era for downtown growth will benefit the whole Gainesville area. And he plans to have a hand in it.

“As Robert Frost said, ‘Make your avocation your vocation,'” he concludes with a puff on his cigar. “And I enjoy this.”

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