by Patrick Evans-Hylton
Once a plantation of orange groves and sugar cane, and the land of Native Americans before that, the bucolic stretch of land along the Halifax River drew the attention of Mathias Day Jr. in 1871.
He saw promise there, and built a hotel on what was once the Orange Grove Plantation, in an area now known as the Daytona Beach Historical District. Others came, and the core of what is now downtown Daytona Beach, a city named in Day’s honor, grew from an epicenter around the corner of Orange Avenue and Beach Street.
At its center is Riverfront Park, the crown jewel of the community. It’s the community that Al Smith, 63, has embraced since his youth.
“My memories of downtown were of it being the heartbeat of the community. I remember the hustle and bustle of the downtown, especially during the Christmas season and going to see Santa and his village in the park,” said Smith.
“I fell in love with the area for sure,” said Smith, owner of Al Smith Productions, which runs events in the area throughout the year. “It’s a beautiful area. It’s a place for us all.”
Downtown Daytona Beach is now under a major revival, which Smith is a part of, but his., and his family’s interest goes back decades.
“We always saw the potential in this area,” he said. “The architecture of the buildings, the history of the space, the beauty, all of it sitting right on the river. And it wasn’t transient, it wasn’t touristy. It was community.”
Smith’s father, who was a physician, had always admired Angell and Phelps Chocolate Factory which was located downtown. In 1983 he took a leap of faith, purchasing the factory, which had been established in 1925.
“Buying Angell and Phelps came with a great deal of pride and responsibility,” said Smith. “It was my father’s dream to own it and the rest of the family’s job to figure out how to run it.
While Smith’s brother, Chuck, runs Angell and Phelps to this day, Smith took a different approach to remaining connected to his beloved downtown.
About a decade ago he began organizing special events, becoming a cheerleader of sorts as he took on marketing what was then a fledgling area.
“I believe the best way to market downtown is to give people reasons to come downtown,” he said. “Let’s get them down here and show off the area and what all is here. Give them an experience.”
Smith’s events have included New Year’s Eve on Main Street, a massive block party with a ball drop, fireworks, and six stages of music that attracts more than 20,000 folks and Red, White & Brew, an Independence Day event with music, food trucks and more. Another popular event is the Island Rum Festival held on Labor Day weekend with a pirate parade, pirate village, live music, and pub crawl.
These events have been a boon to the area and Al’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. “Al has shown unwavering commitment to creating additional reasons for people to enjoy our downtown. Over his career he has introduced many residents and tourists to this special area and continues to support the community and merchants with his efforts. His work is much appreciated,” said Glenn Ritchey, former Daytona Beach Mayor and business leader.
Since last March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been no events, but Smith said they will return in 2021.
“Events are so important,” he said. “People spend their money while they are downtown. People come back later to the restaurants and shops afterwards. Overwhelmingly I hear from attendees that they never realized how many cool restaurants and shops are down here.”
With the revitalization efforts, downtown as a destination will be even more amplified, said Smith.
The centerpiece is a makeover of Riverfront Park as well as renovations along Beach Street. Investments from Brown & Brown Insurance, including the construction of a new corporate headquarters and the planning and construction of new apartments, restaurants, retail stores and more are all in the works.
Smith gives much credit to Hyatt Brown, of Brown & Brown Insurance, and his wife, CiCi.
“What they are doing is game-changing,” he said.”
And, like the events that bring folks downtown for a while several times a year, Smith said the revitalization will bring folks downtown for good.
“If we get upscale workers, like the ones that will be at Brown & Brown and other employers, living downtown…the parks will become a magnet for people,” Smith said.
“Most people can’t wrap their heads around what a game changer this park will be to not just the downtown but the whole community.”
“Creating events that will effectively use the park while also involving the downtown merchants will be the goal. Also creating events that will attract the younger workforce coming to the downtown is a challenge to embrace and I look forward to doing.”
Smith envisions events ranging from small concerts with food trucks held weekly, to major events accenting red letter days, perhaps dozens in a calendar year.
“It’s going to become a place where people can live, work and play, a beautiful spot in our community. There’s no better use of the riverfront. All of these things from years of planning are now coming to fruition.”
Patrick Evans-Hylton is an award-winning journalist who has covered a wide variety of topics in broadcast, electronic, and print media since 1995.