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REX NELSON: A downtown reborn

It's only 11:30 a.m., and a steady stream of customers already is coming through the door of the restaurant named The Parsonage 322 in downtown Jonesboro. The business at 322 S. Main St. serves lunch Monday through Friday, dinner on Fridays, and brunch on weekends. In January 2016, the ongoing revitalization of downtown Jonesboro attracted John and Ramey Myers from Marion in Crittenden County, where the married couple's restaurant was in a former parsonage.

John worked for five years at the University Club in St. Louis. As a member of a competition culinary team that traveled the country, he says he had "a sense of what I wanted to do when we owned our own restaurant. It was just a matter of finding the right place."

He was the chef at Meadowbrook Country Club in West Memphis for a time, and worked at the downtown Memphis location of Gus's Famous Fried Chicken.

"I wanted to do something healthy," John says. "I wanted to do something sustainable."

Though their restaurant named The Parsonage was popular in Marion, the couple was drawn to the growth of Jonesboro, which more than tripled in population from 21,418 in the 1960 census to 67,263 in the 2010 census. That growth continues with more than 70,000 residents now calling Jonesboro home. While many Arkansans have been stuck in traffic jams on Red Wolf Boulevard, most from outside Jonesboro aren't aware of the rebirth of the city's downtown, which was down on its luck just a few years ago.

"We did lots of research on the best city in which to operate our restaurant, and the folks here reeled us in," Ramey says. "We thought about going to Fayetteville. We even thought about going to Nashville, Tenn. But we saw how Jonesboro had held its own even during the housing crunch several years ago."

An early pioneer in the rebirth of downtown was Ted Herget, who started Gearhead Outfitters in a friend's living room at Jonesboro in 1997, the same year he graduated from Arkansas State University. What started as a bike shop grew into an outdoor specialty retailer. Gearhead moved to its location on Main Street in 2003 and helped bring life back to the street. In 2011, Herget purchased a building across the street and opened the separate Gearhead Cycle House. Gearhead now has nine locations in Arkansas and one each in Missouri and Louisiana.

Herget was the obvious choice last month for the first installment of ASU's Entrepreneurship & Innovation Speaker Series.

A Herget housing development just off East Street will have 13 lofts for those who wish to live downtown. Herget says he hopes to build more townhouses soon in addition to a dog park. He recently told Jonesboro Occasions magazine: "We don't have enough housing downtown. You could put another 200 units there and keep them full. That's what makes those areas thrive--heads and beds. You just have to have people living in the area."

Other developers are answering the call for more housing units downtown. George Stem purchased the building on Union Street that housed Massanelli Laundry & Cleaners from 1947 until 2015 and transformed it into 11 lofts with two rooftop decks. Stem said: "We've done a lot of construction projects around Jonesboro. We decided we wanted to be a part of the growth of the downtown community, and we couldn't think of a better way to do that when this property became available."

At 411 Union Street, Mike and Kristina Ebbert took the building that once housed City Water & Light and renovated it with loft apartments upstairs and offices on the first floor. Along nearby Huntington Street, Mat and Heather Clark are developing a complex of row houses known as Madison Place. There are now more than 100 places to live--ranging from loft apartments to single-family homes--downtown with dozens more planned. The demand for living spaces is being fueled by a $135 million expansion of nearby St. Bernards Medical Center and the continued growth of ASU.

Murals are being added downtown, and the neighborhood has become the home of events such as the Pack Pride Weekends when ASU has home football games.

"This is the heart of the community," Hailey Knight, the former executive director of the Downtown Jonesboro Association, told me during a summer visit to the neighborhood. "We were fortunate that we had people who saw this unpolished gem, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They were determined to take back downtown. They saw that malls were becoming a thing of the past and that younger people wanted to be able to walk to work, restaurants and shops. Now this is where people want to go. There's this mix of college students, retired people and doctors at St. Bernards who are living downtown."

The Pack Pride Weekend events, which run from Friday nights through Sunday brunches, are important because they introduce college students to the various attractions downtown.

Attorney Scott Emerson moved his offices to Main Street almost eight years ago. "The buildings were in disrepair when we got here," he says. "We've really seen a change in those eight years."

Back at The Parsonage 322, John Myers says: "We weren't sure at the start, but the people of Jonesboro have really impressed us. They started coming in the first week we were open and saying things like, 'I hope you make it.' We keep it simple. You don't need 100 seats or 100 items on the menu. Downtown Jonesboro has proved to be a good fit."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/11/2017

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