“This is you, honey. This is gorgeous,” downtown business owner Rita Watson said as she zipped a customer into a floor-length sapphire ball gown on Wednesday.
“I always told people, ‘If you don’t look good, we don’t look good,’” she said, emphasizing the value of customer interaction.
Watson, whose personal attention to customers has served the community for 29 years, will clearance out her inventory and close the doors of Rita’s Formal and Bridal Shop within the next few weeks.
While looking back on her career Wednesday, Watson began to reminisce about other stores that have come and gone — Elam’s Photography, the Optical Shop and the Rogers Company — that offered the same small-town service.
“We don’t have that many (family-owned businesses) down here now,” the former president of the Hinesville/Downtown Business Association said. “But they’re coming back.”
Across the street from Watson’s South Main Street shop, doors on once-closed storefronts that housed Nottingham’s Café, B & S Tax Service and Uniforms & More have been opened and renovation crews are working inside.
Many curious passersby have been popping in and asking the L&B Construction workers what will happen to the buildings, employee Robert Lee said.
The future of each property has yet to be determined, but owners felt that it was time to renovate the spaces, he added.
Next door, an “open” sign and floral arrangements adorn the windows at Adams Flowers & Gifts, which opened Aug. 1.
“It’s good to get back to work,” owner Cheri Adams said. Adams owned KC Flowers & Gifts for a number of years before retiring, and the company met some turbulence when it was sold to another owner.
Now, Adams wants to let her previous customers and new shoppers know that she is back in business and will provide personalized service.
“We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from people. They’re glad we’re back,” Adams said. “It was so sad to see all the closed buildings on this side of the street. I hated even coming by here.”
For Vicki Davis, executive director of the Hinesville Downtown Development Authority, the changes are a leap toward the organization’s goal of having a pedestrian-friendly downtown with full occupancy.
And one change spurs another in a cohesive manner, she added. Government investments in new facilities and renovations like the one being done on the Liberty County Courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, often inspire private owners to upgrade their properties.
The HDDA offers assistance to entrepreneurs and existing businesses, and finding available property downtown is a common challenge for prospective businesses, she added.
“The more business that we have in our community, the more money will stay in our community,” she said, adding that new businesses often create new jobs.
The old Liberty County Jail, currently home to the HDDA, also will undergo some changes in the near future, Davis added. The site’s security wall and portico will be restored, and new steel fencing and a gate will replicate the building’s original exterior.
Renovation crews also have been working in the building at the southeast corner of West Court Street and South Main Street, still painted with “Joy Marie’s & The Frame Gallery.”
The Hinesville Area Arts Council will move into a downtown storefront once renovations to the county-owned former Division of Elections facility are complete. The group will use the space as a venue for arts classes, exhibitions and special events.
Sweet treats also may be in store downtown. Jeff Davis, a farmers market vendor who sells candies as Jeff’s Confections, announced on Facebook on Wednesday that he hopes to open a candy kitchen at 112 S. Commerce Street this fall.
Back at Rita’s Formal and Bridal Shop, brides and former pageant queens who have taken the plunge into motherhood still may find items they need at the location, which will become Coastal Kids Clothing and Gifts.
Coastal Kids will feature clothing, toys and sentimental items for infants to teens, owner Wendy Merritt said.
When her store opens this fall, Merritt plans to sell custom and premade gift baskets for baby showers and special occasions with items such as growth charts, hand-printing kits and blankets, she added.
Throughout her time downtown, Watson has seen change all around her. She even watched in wonder as the building on the south side of hers — once a theater — collapsed.
“That was an interesting day,” she said. “I was out back … and all of a sudden, I heard this noise and the back of the building was waving, and I thought, ‘That roof is caving in.’”
After decades of success downtown, retirement perks of golf and golden sun are on Watson’s horizon, though she said she’ll look back fondly on her days working alongside her daughter, Gail Poulsen, and grandchildren to bring out each shopper’s beauty.
“Owning your own business will not make you rich but will enrich your life with memories that money cannot buy,” Watson said.