Local downtowns experience a business renaissance
By Tristan Bennett
Delta Digital News Service
PARAGOULD – Downtowns in the Delta undergo a renaissance thanks to local businesses.
The resurgence of boutique-style shopping led to a growth in the downtown areas of Jonesboro and Paragould. They became destinations for both local and national businesses that work together to attract customers to the area. Lindsey Wingo, Downtown Jonesboro Alliance executive director, assists downtown business owners by promoting them to the public.
She said, “Downtown is the heart of Jonesboro, in my opinion. Five years ago, the main thing was shopping malls and different things like that, and really you see downtown on the uphill trend of things.”
In both cities, local owners occupy almost all of the downtown buildings; Only one Dollar General sits on the outskirts of downtown Paragould. Gina Jarrett, Main Street Paragould executive director, said local businesses occupied downtown since its beginning.
“Downtown started when Paragould started, and there weren’t franchises then,” Jarrett said. “We’ve always been mom-and-pops.”
While many of downtown Paragould’s businesses continue to survive after decades and ownership changes, Jonesboro’s downtown just flourished in the past 10 years. Many of the businesses followed Gearhead Outfitters and other developers into the area.
From its humble beginnings in Jonesboro, Gearhead owner Ted Herget grew his company into a regional company quickly, and recently, the company bought Rock/Creek Outfitters and Uncle Dan’s Outdoor Store to further expand their reach to Chicagoland, Illinois.
Gearhead marketing director Whitney Eldridge said, “Downtown businesses and the boutique retail format have made a resurgence in recent years. The environment tends to be more personalized and close-knit. While we try to provide this environment whether in a mall setting or not, a downtown or neighborhood business tends to have a more pronounced presence in the community, which contributes to the neighborly and warmer feel that a mall store may not be able to provide.”
National businesses in downtown spaces can be helpful to small businesses. They possess the potential to draw more customers to the area, and hopefully, to the stores around them.
Wingo said, “All of the places that are down here, just like any other business started in a local community. It’s so important to not see people as competition always but also as help.”
Even with all the help chains bring, local downtown owners feel the effects of national business in their stores. Cynthia Allison Jones owns Addie’s Soul Food & Grill located in downtown Jonesboro. She said she sees chain restaurants negatively affecting her business
“I think they take business away from us,” Jones said. “It’s hard, but I’ve cut down on staff and hours of operation.”
Kayla Gramling, owner of The Tiny Twig Boutique, sells homemade gifts and offers services such as flower preservation in her downtown Paragould shop. National businesses caused her to adjust her pricing strategy.
“We charge what we have to have but try to keep it as low as we can, too, and we try to offer different stuff that you can’t find anywhere else,” Gramling said.
Creating an environment like a downtown takes planning and hard work. The DJA and Main Street Paragould exist to ensure these areas continue to draw customers to the businesses there. Walkability and catering to pedestrians continues to be a crucial of a part of the downtown experience.
Jarrett said, “Because downtown is walkable, everything is brought down to the pedestrian’s level. The signage, the window displays, everything is for the pedestrian, and that’s what people want nowadays. They want that comfortable, strolling feel.”
Customers cannot have that comfortable feeling without feeling safe. Recently, Wingo and the JDA took part in an initiative to add lighting to downtown Jonesboro so customers could feel more relaxed while in the area at night.
“We felt like there was definitely a stigma that downtown wasn’t safe,” Wingo said. “We felt that the reason people thought that was because it was dark down here, and when things are dark people don’t feel safe.”
In the past two years, over $20,000 worth of lights came to the downtown Jonesboro area because of the JDA along with $60,000 more from the city of Jonesboro.
The JDA and Main Street Paragould offer a way for owners to work together to promote the area and drive traffic to businesses downtown by planning events to take place in the downtown areas.
Gramling said, “There’s a lot of different events that are held downtown, so that kind of gives us an advantage. People walk around more than if you were just a free-standing building out in the middle of town.”
Both cities belong to the Main Street Arkansas organization, so downtown business owners can take advantage of an interior and exterior designer and small business consultant at any time. Both also receive grant money to help with improvements to the area and certain businesses.
Jarrett said, “We can mini-grant out that grant funding to help people make improvements in their buildings. It’s for what you can see: exterior improvements, and we go as far as the inside of the storefront windows.”
Improvements happening in both downtowns work to preserve the areas’ history. This revitalization of the downtown couples with a revitalization of the two cities’ histories. Downtowns once served as the only marketplace in small towns across the Delta, and this seems to be becoming more common again.
Wingo said, “Whenever you visit somewhere, you want to know what their downtown is like. That’s where the history of the city is, it’s the heart of the town, and in my opinion, for it to be a vibrant community there needs to be a vibrant downtown.”
Editor’s Note: Feature Photo – Main Street Paragould operates out of an old train caboose. Photo by Tristan Bennett