Pioneer women: Is there gold across the tracks?

Head south on Second Street S.E., cross the railroad tracks, and you may find yourself in Charlottesville's new XX-rated district. But don't worry, there won't be any pasties or poles: That's XX as in chromosomes, and the women who own the businesses in a new development called the Downtown Design Center can be spotted at trade shows, not peep shows.

Alana Woerpel is the proprietor of what was Gleason's lawnmower repair warehouse, now the Design Center; she's also the owner of Alana's, a fabric store in the building's frontmost and largest space. The shop also offers custom window treatments, slipcovers, and the like.

Woerpel says buying the building and expanding her business have long been dreams. They came true when she purchased the property from Colorado-based developers Audrey, Richard, and Randy Haisfield last year. Alana took half of the 10,000 square-foot building for her own store (more than double the space of her former Water Street location) and split the remaining 5,000 square feet into four other spaces.

But can businesses thrive on the "wrong" side of the tracks?

Woerpel and her tenants, who have also staked a business claim south of the CSX train tracks say the answer is yes.

"The reaction has been positive to the whole building," Woerpel says.

Her goal of filling each space with a design-themed business has also been a success, though she says the fact that every one of them is woman-owned is simply coincidence.

Next door to Alana's is soon-to-open Quince LLC, a home furnishing and garden d├ęcor shop owned by Sharon Manering, who spent the past 15 years on the road in medical and biotech sales. She says that though bad times have hit the country as a whole, she's not worried about starting a new business here.

"This area is recession proof," she says. "I wouldn't even consider doing this anywhere else."

With ample parking of its own, the Design Center offers convenient access to its shops, say Victoria Gardner and Janice Wood, the sister duo behind Posh, a jewelry and custom clothing shop. Opening their store provided an opportunity for the creative sibs to work together a longtime dream. Gardner travels the country looking for perfect jewelry and accessories, including rare 1950s Lucite purses. "It's like an Easter egg hunt," Gardner says.

Wood, who spent years in the fashion industry in West Palm Beach, Florida and also worked at Alana's for six years, says her goal is to make perfect-fitting custom clothing an affordable option for every woman. Her blouses (starting at $45) and lined skirts (from $75) offer "classic design in more updated fabric," she says.

The remaining two stores, Angus Bull Antiques and Two French Hens, are toward the back of the building and can be difficult to see from the road. But that's not stopping customers, says Kelly Gentry, who owns Two French Hens with Miles Andrews (one time owner of Terracottage).

Mixing old and new to create a unique style is the goal of Two French Hens, says Gentry. The duo hopes to be a "creative inspiration" to their customers, and Gentry says they've had ample opportunity to be just that.

On a recent rainy Friday, Gentry's news is good. "People have been constantly in here since 10am," she says late that afternoon. "They are finding us."

And Brenda Arrington, owner of Angus Bull Antiques, agrees that the location has thus far been fertile.

"We've had lots of people stroll in," she says.

Formerly a history teacher in various area schools, Brenda is also working on her doctorate in education. Her love of history is apparent in her detailed descriptions and knowledge of nearly every piece in her shop.

She sells period pieces and traditional antiques, as well as primitives, African sculptures, and African American pieces; she also accepts consignments. Arrington says she believes she is the only local African American antiques purveyor.

Arrington says her husband, Angus, the minister at Zion Baptist Church in North Garden, started collecting antiques as a hobby, but the two quickly realized it could be more. "We have storage sheds full of antiques," Arrington reports. And, she notes proudly, "We started this business without any kind of loan."

While the owners of the Design Center businesses might be considered "pioneer women" of sorts, they are certainly not alone. The Glass Building across the street, which houses Bittersweet and the Bluegrass Grill, among other emporia, is the true trailblazer of the area, having opened in 2001. And new developments are springing up every which way.

The Gleason's building on Garrett Street has been renovated and will soon house not only its namesake business (in a more compact space) but also a variety of retail shops, including Sammy's Snacks, the upscale dog food and treat business. Meanwhile, another nearby building, one some old-timers still call Norcross Storage, by the train tracks on Fourth Street, is also being developed for retail and office space.

Oliver Kuttner, a developing force behind the massive Terraces Project on Water Street and The Glass Building, says the addition of these new developments won't harm existing downtown businesses in fact, he says, quite the contrary.

"You have to make downtown Charlottesville a 'shopping destination'," he says, "in order to attract enough consumers to keep all businesses afloat."