Over the past several years, downtown Jonesboro has seen significant growth with multi-million-dollar redevelopment projects, the emergence of new businesses and an influx of residents.
Photography by Ashlee Nobel
T en years ago, a group of Arkansas State University graduate students created a strategic plan for downtown Jonesboro as part of their final MBA strategic-management project.
They identified the area’s strengths, most prominently the city’s receptiveness to new ideas, despite operating a downtown association with no full-time staff. They also identified problems: ongoing speeding on Main Street, a perceived lack of parking and the lack of promotion of downtown, and offered recommendations for solving these problems.
A decade later, it’s evident that many of the students’ suggestions for improvements and developments have been made to downtown Jonesboro.
“What we learn from this is that downtown Jonesboro has been a great example of having people committed and open to [redevelopment],” said Melodie Philhours, associate professor of marketing and chair of the department of management and marketing at ASU’s College of Business.
“You’ve just got to keep at it. Ten years has made a tremendous amount of difference.”
Downtown Jonesboro encompasses the areas surrounding Main Street, bordered by West Cate and East Matthews avenues. Much has changed in the area over the past 10 years, even the past five years. The area has seen multi-million-dollar investments, massive renovations and the arrival of businesses and residences. And, the driving force behind most of this economic redevelopment has been the private sector.
Hailey Knight joined the nonprofit Downtown Jonesboro Association in 2013 as full-time executive director. Under Knight’s leadership, downtown Jonesboro is finally receiving the marketing and promotion that the ASU students recommended back in 2005.
Last year, downtown Jonesboro was designated a nationally accredited Main Street program by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This distinction is given only to downtown organizations and programs meeting 10 performance standards, including a strong revitalization strategy, a broadly based community network and a leader dedicated to the downtown movement. Downtown Jonesboro also received a Main Street Arkansas designation from the Arkansas Preservation Program.
In March 2015, the team was invited to present at the National Main Street Conference. This proves that the dedication to redevelopment in downtown Jonesboro is paying off and gaining recognition, Knight said.
Main Street Improvements
Knight said that 2014 was a big year for downtown Jonesboro. Through the Main Street programs, $18,200 in grants was received, $5,000 of which the association awarded to two downtown businesses. The remaining portion went toward landscaping, signage and downtown events. The program also has allowed for technical assistance for local businesses to help them stay competitive, she said.
Also, in 2014, 18 new businesses opened, adding 110 jobs downtown. Investments for that year alone totaled $1.8 million, according to the association’s annual report.
In May 2015, downtown Jonesboro had 72 commercial units (with eight vacancies) and 86 residential lofts, which are nearly all occupied, and more than 100 downtown residents, Knight said.
To further promote downtown, DJA hosts two regular events, which Knight said have been successful in drawing crowds to Main Street. One event, Alive After Five, is an open-air street festival held on the third Thursday of the month. And, during ASU football home games, it hosts Pack Pride Weekends, featuring a variety of activities such as “Brunch and Browse,” when downtown restaurants and retailers open their normally closed Sunday doors.
In 2014, 27 events, with more than 7,000 people attending, were held downtown, Knight said.
A Jonesboro native and ASU alum, Knight said she’s proud to spearhead the thriving downtown development of her hometown.
“I just love the feel of a downtown; you get a feeling of what the community is,” she said. “It’s a big deal to leave your footprint on the community.”
Knight said several visionaries have been an ongoing part of downtown Jonesboro’s renewal. A few longtime downtown businesses helped establish Main Street, including the Sara Howell Studio & Gallery and popular retailer Gearhead Outfitters, which moved to Main Street in 2003 and has opened multiple locations in central and Northwest Arkansas, and Shreveport, Louisiana.
“Since the early 2000s, several leaders pushed the revitalization movement in our downtown because they saw the amazing vision of what our downtown could be,” Knight said. “And, that’s exactly what it is today. We’ve got big projects on the horizon since our community is growing at a rapid rate, and our locals are extremely supportive and loyal to our downtown merchants.”
Investing In Downtown
Clay Young of Young Investment Co., who began development projects downtown in 1999, is one of those visionaries. He has invested about $17 million in downtown Jonesboro, where he owns 62 residential and 38 commercial spaces.
Though Young was born and grew up in Jonesboro, he said his role in downtown happened by accident. His father was a local financial adviser whose office was downtown. When Young’s father died in 1995, he inherited two vacant buildings on Church Street.
He decided to renovate those properties, and once they were completed and the space was rented, he purchased another building and then another. In all, he’s completed 38 renovations. His properties include Cregeen’s Irish Pub, Skinny J’s, Prospect Lofts and more.
“I believe people make their own happiness,” Young said. “If something is missing in a town, you can sit around and moan or get out and change it. I’d seen cool downtowns [elsewhere] and wondered ‘why can’t we have that here?’”
Because most of the buildings in downtown Jonesboro are 100 or more years old, renovations can be tricky, Young said. Most involve gutting the buildings and starting over.
Nonetheless, Young said he’s seeing a return on his investment and is making money with his properties. He said all of his buildings are developed and rented, and he has no developments currently in the works. Instead, he’s in “heavy maintenance mode.”
Prices were good when Young purchased most of his properties. But, he said, with all of the redevelopment, property values have increased. “We ran the price up on ourselves,” he said.
Dan Johnson, a neuropsychologist in Jonesboro, is another downtown developer. He has invested about $4 million in eight residential and 12 commercial spaces, including those occupied by Brickhouse Grill and Fringe Clothing. In the eight years since he first got involved with downtown, he said he’s seen property values increase from $35 to about $110 per square foot.
“It builds on momentum,” he said. “It’s a labor of love. Downtown is the bastion of locally owned businesses.”
Johnson, who lives downtown with his family, said the cluster of unique, small businesses downtown is what sets Jonesboro apart from other cities. But, unlike Young, Johnson said he is still waiting for a return on his investment, but he knew going in it would be long term. He calls the investments his 401K plan.
Young and Johnson say their investments have been wholly funded by the private sector. They have not applied for any grant funding and say the city of Jonesboro has not provided incentives for downtown developments.
Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin said the city has participated in downtown’s revitalization by making road, beautification and infrastructure improvements, including signage, planters and lighting. The city also purchased the former Mercantile Center downtown on Church Street and relocated its administrative offices and city hall there.
According to Philhours at ASU, city involvement at any level is critical. She said anything the city provides is one less expense for business owners, and the visual appearance of an area impacts both the number of visitors and the potential for new businesses.
Looking To The Future
Interestingly, Philhours said many of the ASU students’ recommendations back in 2005 have been put into place by either the city of Jonesboro or the downtown association. This includes adding speed screens, making facade improvements and creating marketing campaigns.
“I’ve seen downtown go from nothing but banks and law offices to vibrant areas,” she said. “Downtown gives [the city] more character. It’s a great way of saying that we care about this community and having something that’s unique. It’s been a real boon for marketing Jonesboro, which translates to growth in the economy.”
Philhours, who has been at ASU for more than 30 years, said that having two hospitals downtown — NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital and St. Bernards Medical Center — and the university less than 2 miles away, have been beneficial for growth.
Keeping downtown and ASU connected will bring Jonesboro into the future, as both the city and university grow, she said. The Jonesboro Economical Transportation System runs from ASU to downtown, and Philhours said the university is studying the possibility of expanding it.
The Jonesboro Chamber of Commerce is also conducting a survey of residents on the potential economic development for the city’s future. While results had not been released at press time, Perrin said the response rate was good.
Further, the population of Jonesboro as a whole continues to grow. While the 2010 U.S. Census determined the population of the Craighead County city to be around 67,000, Perrin said it’s likely up to about 73,000 now.
Perrin said the city is working with ASU to provide the school with more connectivity to downtown, including roadwork, bike trails and adding medians to main thoroughfares. He said this is a long-term plan, but some projects may be completed as soon as two years.
When it comes to the future of downtown, Johnson said perception is everything. He said one challenge is that many residents think the area solely caters to the late-night crowd. Now, he said, businesses often “live and die on the weekends.”
Another issue is parking. Johnson said some residents often cite lack of parking as a reason to avoid the area, but according to the “Downtown Jonesboro 2014: A Year of Progress” report, there are more than 780 parking spaces downtown.
Knight of the downtown association said its #ImADowntowner marketing campaign, featuring residents and business owners describing what they love about the area, is attracting attention by showing the vibrancy of downtown.
The economic development of downtown Jonesboro is ongoing and continuous, Knight said. She expects to add more retail and to diversify the business base in the future.
Downtown developer Young said there’s still great opportunity for development east and west of Main Street. He said the area needs hotels and more family-oriented entertainment, such as a children’s museum or movie theater.
Since he was one of the first to begin development in downtown, Young said he’s honored to be a part of it all, especially since investing in downtown was a risky move.
“It worked,” he said. “It’s cool to see the transformation, but it’s not instant gratification. I’m more humbled and honored that the community embraced it.”