Friday, October 23, 2015

EDITORIAL >> New group encouraging

The Downtown Jacksonville Business Association held its first meeting in August. Since then, it has quickly made its mark on the community by providing a venue for local business owners and residents to discuss ways to improve the city’s economic prospects and the community overall.

The civic group is a gold mine of ideas about the ways in which Jacksonville can improve. It hopes to collect signatures to reform the city’s liquor laws and attracting new restaurants, which will bring jobs and keep diners in town who often hit the road to North Little Rock to have a cocktail with their meals.

Where else can people in Jacksonville brainstorm about the city’s future? City council meetings are devoted entirely to routine municipal business and seldom include broad discussions about the needs of the community.

The club asks that participants have a positive attitude. It’s mostly designed for business owners, but open to everyone who lives or works in Jacksonville, if they want to help. It’s obvious the city faces challenges, and they don’t need to be itemized again and again. The group is interested in solutions in order to keep young families in Jacksonville and return a sense of vibrancy to downtown and other areas of the city.

Mayor Gary Fletcher, Alderman Barbara Mashburn, as well as Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce president Roger Sundermeier, have attended the meetings, which are held twice a month on Mondays at The Game Store in the old Hastings building on Main Street. It’s a fitting location, too.

We miss the old video rental, music store and bookstore that shut down a while back, but the Game Store is a locally owned independent fantasy board and tabletop game, video game and comic book store that is now the launching pad of the most serious community-revitalization effort in Jacksonville’s recent history.

At the last meeting of the Downtown Jacksonville Business Association, a speaker from Main Street Arkansas explained how his organization can provide advice to businesses on how to boost curb appeal, store layout, general management tips, beautification projects and much more.

Mark Miller of Main Street Arkansas told the Jacksonville business association that he will evaluate store operations, branding, conduct a market and sales analysis and teach workshops on a variety of topics.

Miller said he “preaches” about having exceptional customer service because it’s the one thing owners have 100 percent control over.

Main Street Arkansas is a great opportunity that first came to The Leader’s attention when a Beebe resident asked that city’s council pay for the modest annual $5,000 fee to join and help improve downtown Beebe. Alderman declined, and their downtown continues to be neglected.

Jacksonville seems poised to join the Main Street program. If business owners take advantage of the services that it offers, it will pay off in the long run. Just think of how the program could have helped the old Chamber’s Fountain and Grill to remain open. Luckily, it’s not too late for others to benefit.

Businesses can only do so much, though, to bring life back to some parts of the city. The city needs to work double time to improve streets by adding lights, drains and revamping intersections where needed.

Since the Downtown Jacksonville Business Association has the attention of the mayor and other city officials, it should explore those kinds of options with him.

Jacksonville has already done some beautification projects, like spending $1 million adding landscaping and brick crosswalks at the James and Main street intersection. One of Mayor Fletcher’s often overlooked accomplishments was major improvements to the drainage at Redmond Road along Dupree Park. We can’t recall the last time the road was closed because of flooding.

An expensive, but attractive project, would be to relocate the power lines along Main Street. It would give it a more modern look.

Cabot is moving power lines underground on several blocks downtown as part of its Main Street StreetScape beautification program that began when Sen. Eddie Joe Williams was mayor and had heard that a $200,000 grant was available to spruce up the city.

The project, from Fourth to Ninth Streets, was budgeted for $724,771, but costs will rise before the work is extended to 10th Street. Plans call for sidewalks on both sides of Main, covering the ditches, decorative banner poles with lights and landscaping. Residents may find this work cumbersome and too expensive, but it will improve quality of life and attract businesses.

We look forward to hearing more good ideas from the Downtown Jacksonville Business Association and encourage people to attend its meetings. We also encourage other cities in the area to join Main Street Arkansas and help keep downtowns alive and make them great again.