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Tower District Blooms With Change E-mail
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Monday, 12 June 2006

Tower District Blooms With Change


Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA);

By Robert Rodriguez

Fresno neighborhood's newest tenants offer Thai and Lao food, organic veggies and other wares.  Daniel Wilson enjoys sinking his hands into a compost heap of wiggling earthworms. And he hopes you will, too. Wilson and his wife, Cheryl, recently opened Grandma's All Natural Vegetable Market & Herb Nursery on Olive Avenue in the former Miller-Clark Landscape and Nursery building. "The Tower District is a great place to start a business like this," said Daniel Wilson, who also owns Tower Garden Supply. Others agree and are reviving vacant Tower District buildings or buying existing businesses, adding to the mix of shops and restaurants that gives the neighborhood its eclectic flavor. For years, the area's lower rents, smaller retail spaces and foot traffic have attracted entrepreneurs. "We are the hub of locally owned and operated businesses," said Bill Kuebler, director of the Tower District Marketing Committee. "Things are always changing around here." The Wilsons are devout about their mission to use what nature provides to offer organically grown herbs, vegetables and native plants. They sell more than 150 varieties of herbs, offer various nursery products and will hold classes on composting other environmentally friendly gardening practices.

T & D Willey Farms in Madera, one of the central San Joaquin Valley's leading organic growers, will supply them with fresh vegetables.

Change is also happening down the street. Gone is J Ho's Bar & Grill. In its place is the Million Elephant Cafe and Bar, featuring Thai and Lao cuisine. Owner Paulith Boutah said he was searching for more than a year for a location to open his restaurant. He initially wanted to open in the River Park area but said rents were too high and most of the surrounding businesses close at midnight. "I wanted to stay open a little later, and the Tower turned out to be a good spot," he said. The restaurant is open seven days a week and will stay open until 2 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. He said he will keep his day job as an interpreter, explaining that he likes working hard. Another entrepreneur who is no stranger to long days and nights is Maggie Gee, the new owner of the Tower Bay Fish Co. Over the years, Gee has been a hairdresser, truck driver, grocery store owner and bookkeeper. Most recently, she operated a mobile food vending business and frequented Renaissance fairs, selling fish and chips and shaved ice. "As long as it's legal, fun and makes money I've probably done it," Gee said with a laugh. Gee liked the Tower Bay Fish Co. because of its location and its potential.

"I have painted, cleaned and fixed the place up, and now we are trying to get the customers back in," Gee said. Tower Bay serves a variety of fish dishes, including Gee's fish and chips. Nearby, Steve Lipari is putting the finishing touches on his new restaurant, Lipari's Italian Grill on Fern Avenue, near the Starline night club.

Lipari expects to open in about a week and describes the interior as comfortable and slightly masculine with plenty of wood detail and booths. "It's going to be the kind of place where people can come out, grab a bite and relax," Lipari said. "It's not going be a restaurant where you are going to pay $25 for a plate of pasta. I believe Italian food is better simple." Delia and Bob Hardin, owners of Picket Fence Antiques and Collectibles, are leaving the district after four years. The former Bay Area couple chose to close the store after Delia Hardin's father died in January. "Everything happened so fast that it really made me change my priorities," Delia Hardin said. "I still love collecting. I just won't have a storefront. I really want to take more time and spend it with family." Fortunately for the Hardins, another pair of antique collectors crossed their paths and offered to lease their antique store, a restored vintage home.

"I think they will love it the same way we did," Hardin said.

The new owners of Picket Fence are Kathi Bringuel and Sharon Garnica, two longtime friends and avid collectors. Bringuel, who recently relocated from Gilroy, expects to re-open the store the weekend of April 22. "We were so excited to be able to get that space," Bringuel said. "We have wanted to open up our own shop for a long time, and now we are doing it."


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