Downtown denominators

The Jonesboro Sun recently ran a curious guest column titled “Is downtown revitalization necessary after 16 years?”

Curious, because the whole piece read like a classic non sequitur. “Downtown” was narrowly defined in the very first sentence to only a couple of blocks, and the entire piece then focused on labeling “revitalization” a failure based exclusively on retail and restaurant turnover in that two-block space.

As a resident of downtown Jonesboro for two decades, and a business owner in the area for even longer, I can unequivocally say that the proper definition encompasses a much larger area. And constant revitalization isn’t merely necessary—it’s imperative.

If there’s a single indicator that is a common denominator among all up-and-coming cities and towns, it’s the shape of the local historic “business district.”

Places with downtowns undergoing continuous revitalization are enjoying more population growth, accelerated economic development, rising property values and a host of other intangible benefits. Places with downtowns in disrepair and dominated by vacant buildings are losing population, struggling financially, suffering depressed property values, and are plagued with other social ills.

Consider the five fastest-growing cities in Arkansas with populations larger than 50,000: Rogers, Springdale, Conway, Fayetteville and Jonesboro.

Revitalization is alive, well and thriving in every single downtown on that list, each of which enjoyed double-digit population growth, ranging from 13 to 19 percent, since the 2010 Census.

In looking across all cities and towns that grew by 10 percent or more, they each have active, energetic downtown organizations that promote dining, arts, entertainment, shopping and other lifestyle enhancements like parks and recreation. There’s not a lethargic, boarded-up downtown in the bunch.

The posed op-ed question resonated even more oddly at this particular point in time, when downtown Jonesboro revitalization is highly visible and conspicuously vibrant.

“Can someone inform me,” the guest columnist wrote, “what exactly there is ‘downtown’ to draw people other than the hype and misleading information perpetuated through the media …”

To borrow from E. Barrett Browning, let us count the ways.

For starters, several hundred Jonesboro business leaders and residents gathered to attend and support “The Main Event” fundraiser in February, hosted by the Downtown Jonesboro Association. The occasion presented a dual purpose: celebrating DJA successes of 2018 and highlighting coming events and developments in 2019.

The function was held in the Glass Factory, an impressive, newly remodeled industrial-themed event venue built as part of a downtown redevelopment project. Its schedule stays full with weddings, receptions, corporate meetings and other gatherings.

Local downtown restaurants collaborated on the catering (the banana pudding from Addie’s Soul Food was some of the best I ever tasted), and independent eateries are prime attractions downtown.

St. Bernards Healthcare was one of the event sponsors, and its $100 million hospital tower project is literally changing the landscape of downtown. The 245,000-square-foot addition will also change the scope of community medical care by immediately adding 14 new surgical suites and a 46-bed critical-care unit, with the ability to expand to 20 suites and 60 CCU beds.

Patients, families and friends flock daily to St. Bernards, one of the city’s largest employers, which in addition to occupying numerous buildings downtown also serves as a medical magnet for clinics, specialists, diagnostic facilities, pharmacies and more.

The Forum is a municipally owned theater building which houses the Foundation of Arts. FOA community theatrical productions bring thousands of people downtown during show times, and its complement of dance, acting, drawing and other classes in the Art Center draw hundreds more every week.

Just across from The Forum, The Rotary Club of Jonesboro is dedicating its new Centennial Plaza today in honor of the club’s 100th birthday.

The $750,000 project involved a collaboration of multiple local partnerships, and transformed an outdated, unattractive area into a stylistic public outdoor gathering space designed for art shows, small concerts and other well -attended events downtown.

You can barely stroll the wide sidewalks of downtown Jonesboro without bumping into a major project like the St. Bernards tower, a new public space like Centennial Plaza, a new restaurant, a new residential development, a renovated office or structure, or a new facelift on old, classic building facades.

Just up from St. Bernards, a large church is building a big addition. Just over from there some old houses are being fixed up. A couple of blocks and a few more weeks further, and the public library will be kicking off its annual Summer Concert Series, which packs crowds on the front lawn for local bands and musicians.

Giving the Sun guest columnist the broadest benefit of the doubt, it might be time to alter the verbiage slightly about what’s happening in downtown Jonesboro. Maybe “revitalization” is no longer the right word, since that suggests vitality is in need of being regained. I suggest ditching the “re-” prefix and using the present participle of the root word. “Vitalizing Downtown” is more active-tense, and implies a perpetual effort to give strength and energy to the historic area in the heart of Jonesboro.

And when downtown is booming, here and elsewhere, the entire city benefits.

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