The True Believers

Ken & Linda McGurn


Ken and Linda McGurn between the Sun Center and Union Street Station.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 2:24 p.m.

The lively downtown Gainesville we enjoy today owes much to a couple of singular vision – Ken and Linda McGurn.

Facts

Downtown affiliation:
Real estate developers, McGurn Management Company
Their contributions to downtown:
This couple had a plan to develop downtown when no one else wanted to — and they stuck with it.
What they expect to see next:
Development of the Power District with high-tech firms, and higher-end condominiums for tech CEOs who want to live and work downtown.

The McGurns made their first investment in downtown in 1978, when they bought the empty office buildings at 108 and 112 South Main Street, now home to Rockey's dueling piano bar.

There was a Western Auto store and the Sears building on the block, and next door was the Commercial Hotel.

The young developers couldn't afford to knock down the buildings, so they reclaimed the space through renovation. It is a formula that has worked for them often in the decades since.

“There are good bones in these old buildings,” Linda McGurn says.

The McGurns got to extend their vision in 1984, when The Gainesville Sun moved out of its building next to the Hippodrome Theatre.

The New York Times Company donated the Sun building to the City of Gainesville for a token fee of $1. City officials called for plans to renovate the property at 101 Southeast Second Place.

The McGurns decided to submit an audacious plan that not only repurposed the Sun build-ing, but called for apartments, retail spaces, a new brick building west of the Hippodrome, streetscaping and a parking garage.

“The gamble for us and for the city was whether or not we could make all of this happen,” Ken McGurn recalls. It took 36 separate public votes to win approval.

They made headlines when they moved four aging wooden houses across from the Sun Center to make space for the Arlington Square apartments. In what was the largest house-moving effort in the state, the four were moved to East University Avenue. Eventually they were torn down.

The plans called for a downtown that offered office and retail space, along with housing for full-time residents. Arlington Square and Union Street Station (which blends retail space and condominiums) brought a whole new demographic to the area.

The McGurns brought the old Opera House, now home to Harry's Seafood, back to life and got it listed on the national register of historic places. “We took a hodgepodge of two-story buildings downtown and tried to develop a scheme for redevelopment that kept the feel of brick walls, green rooftops and awnings, and lamplights along the streets,” Linda McGurn says.

They also built a parking garage linked to Union Street Station by an overhead walkway, put solar panels atop the parking garage, and encouraged the businesses that moved into their retail spaces to focus on connectivity and green energy.

The McGurns have teamed up many times with another developer, Billy Scheel, who has brought many of the retail shops, bars and clubs to downtown. When the first restaurant, Urban Flats, couldn't make a go of it in the Hampton Inn & Suites, Scheel brought in Vellos. When Burger King went under in Union Street Station, he brought in 101 Downtown.

“He steps up when needed,” Linda McGurn says. “We all need a cheerleader. Billy cheered us on and we've done the same for him.”

The latest transformation downtown is a growing community of technology companies. To foster that community, the McGurns have provided incubator space they call the Founders Pad in Union Street Station. Eleven start-ups are currently under the McGurn wing.

“When they get to a point where they can afford to pay rent, they move over to offices in the Sun Center or the Opera House,” Ken McGurn says.

Among the notable successes he lists to date are Gold Standard drug database, Trendy Entertainment video game developer, E-Builder, Prioria Robotics and RegisterPatients.com.

He also notes that Richard Allen, CEO of the medical technology firm Xhale, has been instrumental in starting and attracting a number of companies and with raising some of the first significant funds for local startups, such as Optima Neuroscience, HyGreen, Viewray, OrthoHelix and Chaologix.

In the past three years, new tech firms have added 300 to 350 people to the list of those who work downtown, Ken McGurn estimates.

The basement of the Sun Center is now dedicated rent-free “hacker space,” where young 20- and 30-year-olds can pursue high-tech ideas after putting in an eight-hour work day elsewhere.

On the third Tuesday of each month, there's a get-together where techies can show off what they're working on.

The city's Power District, Gainesville Regional Utilities' old place, is the future of downtown, in the McGurns' view. Prioria Robotics moved in this spring to become the first tenant.

Innovation Square has strong backing from the university, but the McGurns want to see wet labs for commercial biotechnology research in the Power District.

That would bring tech companies downtown that now might look for space at the Progress Center in Alachua.

The next step would be to build higher-end condominiums that would appeal to the tech CEOs of these new companies. “A few years from now, we think that would be a project that will happen,” Ken McGurn says.

“It started out as downtown, the place that we believed in,” Linda McGurn says. “Now that so much is happening, it has become so much more.”

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