By Rebecca Maccardini
The name “Butler” is deeply rooted in the Gainesville community. While most associate the iconic tag with Butler Plaza – where thousands gather each day for groceries, dining and shopping – some have long related the name with Clark Butler, who was an active part of the business community for 70 years.
Today, the name that comes to mind is Deborah Butler. As the president of Butler Enterprises, she holds a vision that not only includes the current improvements to Butler Plaza, but also the addition of Butler Town Center and the development of the property north of the existing shopping center.
“Vision, that’s a fairly lofty word,” Butler said. “I might be more comfortable with ‘viewpoint.’ And my viewpoint is that, in addition to being a successful business, Butler Plaza meets – and will continue to meet – a real and important need for Gainesville in terms of employment, providing access to things people want and need for their everyday lives, and as a tax base for the city.”
Call it “viewpoint” or call it “vision” but in the mid-1980s, when Deborah Butler joined the company, it was beginning a transition from residential to retail real estate. “Though I considered some other options,” Butler said, “Dad asked me where else I would have the opportunity to put everything I’d learned to work immediately. There really wasn’t a Butler Plaza when I came on board. It was just the beginning with an 80,000-square-foot strip center. We did it together—Dad, Bob and me.”
Bob Bratcher provided the engineering and technical expertise. As Butler said, “Bob knows every square inch of Butler Plaza.”
According to Bratcher, working side by side with Clark Butler was a privilege. What one knew, the other one did; they could almost finish each other’s thoughts. “Deborah provided a fresh new direction and lots of determination,” Bratcher added.
Jerry Jones, manager of Butler Plaza since 2000 said, “Clark once told me that he never would have been able to grow the project to its current size without Deborah. She was the one who pushed forward with Butler Plaza Central in the mid-90s.”
From that 80,000-square-foot beginning to nearly one million square feet, Butler Plaza today stretches nearly a mile along Archer Road from I-75 to SW 34th Street, the most highly travelled highway in Gainesville.
“And we’re not done yet,” Butler asserted. In 2008, she and her father began to look at an additional expansion for Butler Plaza, on the land to the north of the existing center. “Dad and I had a dream, and we wanted to bring the team back together to fulfill it.”
Though Clark Butler passed away in 2008, the dream continues.
“Deborah asked me to come back, and I promised Clark I’d worked with Deborah through the transition period,” Bob remembered.
He said business today is much different than before. What once required a few people now demands a team of professionals.
“That [team] is just what Deborah has assembled,” he continued. “If she needs to know how Clark would look at a particular problem, I can fill in that gap. And if she needs to know why the level changes in a particular building, I can tell her that too. But most of all, as I was with Clark, I’m occasionally a sounding board. Deborah is a special person—a strong person. She has pressed forward with Butler determination, but also with an understanding of today’s retailer and today’s customer, and the complexity of dealing with things as they are now. I’m proud of her; Clark would be proud of her.”
As the expansion of Butler Plaza moved forward, Butler brought Richard Kane on board after Bratcher indicated he’d like to be out of the day-to-day. With 30 years experience in analyzing and coordinating construction projects of all sizes, Kane is best known in Florida for his work as project executive for the Mall at Millenia in Orlando and the remodel of Waterside Shops in Naples.
“Rick is a perfect fit for our organization,” Butler said. “And he’s not the only one we’re lucky to have added.”
Kathy Ward-Darin was named the director of leasing for the entire project. With experience leasing hundreds of thousands of feet of space in shopping centers in the Midwest and the Southeast, she said she is excited about working on a project with the potential to remake the face of retail on the entire market.
“Retailers know Butler Plaza and want to hear about our upcoming changes,” Ward-Darin said. “Butler Plaza has been a major factor in northern and central Florida retail for a long time, and retailers are aware of the sales volumes produced here.”
The expansion of Butler Plaza (on the vacant property north of the existing shopping center) and the creation of Butler Town Center are projected to be the largest construction project in greater Gainesville. Noted economist Fishkind and Associates estimated the development –upon completion – will trigger an additional annual $331 million for the Gainesville economy, including 3,300 permanent new jobs. Gainesville-based Causseaux, Hewett & Walpole (CHW), the project’s engineering firm of record, has been instrumental in working toward achieving the planning flexibility that a complicated development like this requires for execution and success.
“Her passion for this project and her unwavering determination are two of the things I admire most about Deborah,” said Gerry Dedenbach, director of planning for CHW. “I’ve seen her challenged, and I’ve seen her incredible determination. I don’t think ‘walking away’ is a part of her mindset. Deborah’s vision for the redevelopment of Butler Plaza will result in a tremendous advantage for the community as a whole; one that we don’t want to lose. We’re very lucky she’s so diligent.”
According to Butler, the simplest and most practical next step for the shopping center would be to operate as it is, renovating stores as leases turn over. That route, she said, would be a lot less risk and a lot less stress.
“But that’s not how I see it,” she explained. “We need to grow with Gainesville. Butler Plaza can be successful on so many other levels than it already is. For that to happen, our new development needs to work for Butler Enterprises, the city government of Gainesville, the retailers who will come here and most of all for our customers—if it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work for anyone.”
Few would deny the importance of the Butler Town Center and the Butler Plaza expansion to Gainesville; however, some have indicated that her work is far from the only contribution Butler makes to the community.
“Seeing Deborah take such an active role in the community and the overall development of the Gainesville area helps ensure successful growth moving forward,” said Mitch Glaeser, the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman of the Board. “For generations, the Butlers have helped shape the growth of southwest Gainesville, but that is just part of her overall impact on the community.”
“Looking for supporters for risk children is very hard,” said Chief of Police Tony Jones of Butler’s involvement with the Reichert House, “especially when some of the kids have made some mistakes in their early lives. But I really feel like these kids can be redeemed with positive leadership and experiences.”
“Deborah’s continued support over the years at the Reichert House has made this a reality for so many of these kids,” Chief Jones continued. “Education in the classroom is one thing, but providing academics with practicality is a better mix. Her contributions to our annual Christmas charity have made it possible to give each child a gift! Her father, Clark, was always giving back to the community, especially to children, and Deborah has carried on that legacy. Her generosity makes their dreams a reality. She touches their lives and mine.”
Butler also believes that art and the performing arts enrich the life of the entire community.
“Deborah’s engagement with the performing arts of North Central Florida has been a wonderful asset for all in our region,” said Michael Blachly, director of the University of Florida Performing Arts. “Under Deborah’s leadership, Butler Enterprises has been the presenting sponsor for the University of Florida Performing Arts Annual Gala for the past few years. In addition, Deborah also gives her time, for example, she served a two-year term as president of the University Of Florida Advisory Board Of Directors.
In regards to all of her professional and personal contributions to the community, Butler simply states that “this is the contribution I can make to the city where I grew up.”
Butler Plaza and the expansion represent not only years of working alongside her father to create a highly successful business entity for Deborah Butler, but also the belief in what it can become as a part of an evolving Gainesville. As she would say, in her often charming and understated way, “That’s just my viewpoint.”