When Gina Jarrett became the Main Street Paragould executive director in 2005, the heart of Greene County’s largest city was in a transition phase.
Many of the store fronts were owned by families who’d run businesses for generations, and some of those families were ready to sell. Other store fronts were covered in siding and desperately needed repair.
Paragould’s downtown has become an economic engine in Northeast Arkansas’ second largest city – population of more than 27,000 – after many years of hard work and private investment, Jarrett told Talk Business & Politics. These efforts have one goal – profits for the businesses in and around the downtown area.
“We want to make those cash registers sing,” she said.
More than 1,000 people are employed in the downtown Paragould area, according to estimates. There are 110 “front doors,” but not all of them house viable businesses, Jarrett said. In 2016, more than $863,000 worth of property was sold in downtown, and private investors spent $1.56 million in building improvements. Those expenditures might include electrical, plumbing, and other construction work.
In 2015, more than $941,350 was spent on downtown properties, and another $1.148 million in improvements. During that year four businesses moved into the area, and five others expanded their operations, according to Main Street. Foot traffic numbers have not been accurately calculated, but an effort is underway to develop more reliable economic data from the businesses in the service area, Jarrett said.
Entrepreneurs are hard pressed to find available commercial space in this part of the city, Jarrett said. One prospective business owner had to wait two years before a desired store front became available, she said.
Main Street Paragould was formed in 1998. It is a non-profit, 501-C3 organization. It’s one of 15 such organizations across the state, according to its Web site. The organization is a Main Street Arkansas member and a National Main Street member. It’s an economic development program that enacts restructuring through historical preservation, according to information released. The organization is housed in an ornate, original train caboose in the downtown district.
Jarrett faced an uphill climb when she became the executive director. Downtown Paragould had deteriorated through the years, and a new generation of potential customers didn’t know it even existed, Jarrett said. Many of the buildings were covered in siding, and bland colors – a byproduct of the 1960s and 1970s.
The organization helped many store front owners remove the siding and meet the historic preservation criteria. New paint and color was added to the downtown area, and last year the city of Paragould spent $1.2 million to build ADA compliant sidewalks, replace street lights, and plant trees.
The year may have just begun, but four businesses have already approached Downtown Paragould with store front development plans. Those plans will cost about $110,000, and the organization will provide a 50/50 match for approved projects. This year the organization only received $15,000 worth of grants from the state to use on the specific projects which includes things like painting. Jarrett said she’ll work with the business owners and try to find less expensive ways to move this work forward.
Retail sales has changed a lot in the last 15 years, and the approach for locally owned, downtown stores has to change, too, Jarrett said. Most products can be bought online from a phone, she said. Brick and mortar retailers have to provide a unique shopping experience, she added.
“It has to be the kind of thing you do with your mom, daughter, or your friends,” she said. “It’s an outing.”
Moving forward, Main Street Paragould has a number of objectives to improve foot traffic. Several restaurants and attracted 20-30-years olds, a demographic that spends little time in the downtown area, she said. Reaching this core spending group has been a challenge, but the eateries are helping them to make in roads, she said.
North of Paragould, there are many towns such as Marmaduke, Rector, Kennett, and others. Finding the right kind of advertising and marketing strategy to lure residents from those towns to the heart of Paragould will be a priority this year, she said.
“We’ve made significant gains since 1998 … Paragould is a great place to shop, dine, and own your own business,” Jarrett said.