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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This means war!

It happened at twilight on one of those most uncharacteristic July evenings this week, when the cooler air coaxed me outside beyond the unspoken Delta curfew.

I saw the sunset sky in the west, and the descending darkness told me the time without glancing at my smartphone. Still I lingered.

Perhaps I thought that this unseasonable temperature, which had made for such an enchanting late afternoon, might also possess uncanny repellent characteristics…

Without warning, the scourge of summer was upon me in what almost seemed an organized fashion.

A swarm of mosquitoes suddenly struck like a squadron under air command, attacking and alighting on every exposed skin surface. As the cloud enveloped me I couldn’t help but recall Wordsworth’s familiar line: “there are forty feeding like one!”

The Infinite Monkey Theorem contends that a chimp at a typewriter hitting random keys would ultimately replicate Shakespeare. Why wouldn’t it be a similar inevitability that a flock of typically weak-flying random mosquitoes would eventually emulate the coordinated flight paths of dive-bombing Japanese Zeros at Pearl Harbor?

The episode left me brooding over this curse that Arkansas Delta populations perennially endure, and its especially dire effects this year.

Just a week ago, my mother described an almost identical swarm attack while working in her garden in Walnut Ridge. Facebook is abuzz with anecdotes describing abnormal anopheles aggressiveness.

I normally frown on the use of “war” rhetoric as employed against causes or movements (i.e., the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs), because they aren’t actually fighting wars and can’t be won in the military sense.

This conflict between man and mosquito is different.

It’s an ongoing battle by all accounts, including the loss of blood (albeit one mosquito bellyful at a time) the occupation of territory (most of Eastern Arkansas) and the oppression of liberty (the flying beasts declare martial law at dark).

It’s time to declare a War on Mosquitoes.

Like all real wars, that means death. The only good mosquito is a dead one; preferably one that perishes as a larva.

That’s the beauty of a War on Mosquitoes—we are guaranteed victory before we start. We have the technology to wipe them out. We have broken their codes in every sense.

We know their positions and their weaknesses. They have strength in numbers, but we can rain mass destruction on them from afar. A military comparison would be matching sticks and stones against nuclear missiles.

The only obstacle to waging a short-lived and utterly successful campaign to obliterate the enemy mosquito is money.

Fortunately, we’ve got that, too.

Our state’s fiscal-year surplus is nearly $79 million. It wouldn’t take too many of those millions to make mosquitoes merely a bad memory.

Plus, Arkansans in infested areas already spend significant sums in personal protection against mosquitoes, all of which leaves our state economy and even our nation (popular brand OFF! is produced in Finland).

Those local dollars would be preserved if mosquitoes were eradicated.

People who haven’t spent time in the Delta at a baseball or softball game after dark cannot fully realize the casualties already being suffered at the wings of mosquitoes.

FEMA considers mosquitoes in certain quantities to be a health and safety hazard in emergency situations.

This time of year, Arkansas rice fields essentially create flood conditions as far as mosquito-surveillance data standards are concerned.

FEMA’s established mosquito risk threshold is 25 landings per minute. I challenge any investigator to find a Delta flatland community with a rate that low!

I personally experienced 25 landings in about 15 seconds the other night. I swatted four or five on my retreat into the house (and could’ve killed more had I had more hands).

Years ago, I wondered aloud whether Toyota’s decision to locate its plant in Mississippi was affected in part by Marion’s annual mosquito epidemic.

Just as the bloodsuckers chase us into our homes at sundown, I readily believe they chase away any outsiders who might tour the area during summer.

Were I a company executive considering plant locations—analyzing every quality-of-life dimension—it wouldn’t take more than one hyper-FEMA-level mosquito attack to move Arkansas down the short list.

Who wants to live where mosquitoes make it impossible to grill out at night? Or swim at night? Or simply enjoy a surprise burst of cool evening air in July?

Those of us who have grown up with this abominable curfew accept it. It’s a mistake to assume newcomers will.

Winning a War on Mosquitoes would have a transformative effect on an entire region of the state in addition to increasing its appeal to visitors.

Every community is strengthened when a mosquito-free environment allows the expansion of green spaces and parks, and gathering at ballgames and fairs and other outdoor events.

My fingers and shins still itch as I contemplate the tipping point to which vampire skeeters have finally brought us, and recall Bugs Bunny’s inimitable expression: This means war!

The sooner we begin it, the sooner we will win it.

And a statewide victory over mosquitoes will be worth far, far more than its cost.