Entrepreneur: Jonesboro needs to attract, keep young professionals

by George Jared (gjared@talkbusiness.net) 2,190 views 

Livability will be a top priority for the upcoming crop of young professionals, and Jonesboro businessman Ted Herget hopes civic and business leaders are ready to take proactive steps to make the region’s largest city thrive.

Herget told Talk Business & Politics he’s invested millions of dollars and bought more than 100 houses and properties in and around the city’s downtown area.

“Our next generation workforce isn’t only driven by salaries. … They want to work in places they want to live,” he said. “We have a fluid economy. If our city doesn’t move with it, the outlook is grim. As a city we compete against other cities for talent, so what are these other communities doing to attract and retain the best? It’s simple … just copy the other community successes.”

Herget owns Gearhead Outfitters, a company he started in a friend’s living room more than 20 years ago. The Arkansas State University graduate owns 11 stores in three states and employs about 80 workers. Talking to his employees drove home the point about quality of place.

“They want to live in a place that’s cool,” he said. “So I wanted them to define ‘cool’.”

The first step is to create a vibrant downtown, he said. Bars, restaurants, bike and walking trails, coffee shops, specialty stores, events and others help create a revitalized downtown. Places to live in downtown also are key. Young professionals want to be within walking distance of amenities offered in the city’s former core. Art and culture offerings must be expanded, he said.

Business partner Josh Olson with Jonesboro Realty helps place new physician residents, students and new physicians. Olsen identified the need for developing close to the center of town. The customers typically want something close to work, walkable and in the heart of the action, Herget said.

National surveys have identified this trend. A 2013 study by the National Association of Realtors revealed convenient alternatives to driving such walking, biking or public transportation were the second most important factor to perspective homebuyers under the age of 40.

Herget brought in consultants from Northwest Arkansas and many are impressed with the dynamics in and around downtown. His goal is to transform the area into something similar to Dickson Street in Fayetteville and Bentonville Square. He bought most of his properties in the area with the intention of razing blighted houses and restoring those that can be salvaged. By doing this, property values for the entire area are increased and it will ultimately lead to more home ownership, he said. Roughly half the city’s residents rent, which means they are less invested in the city, he said.

“We need bright people who want to work and live here long term,” he said.

Another element that would help are a beltway and trails that are part of a greenway plan. City officials are developing a master greenway plan. An initial concept for a Jonesboro bike and pedestrian plan was presented, and a group is now charged with researching the benefits of such a plan and potentially building public support. Herget, along with representatives of city government, the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce, the hospitals and others compose the group.

A proposed beltway would loop around the entire city. It would connect downtown with ASU, Craighead Forest Park and other city points. It would have beltways to interconnect around the city. Herget believes the beltway would enhance property values along the route, promote more economic growth along its pathways, would reduce traffic counts, and would become a powerful lure for professionals who might want to locate in the city.

The beltway project is a preliminary idea, and cost estimates are hard to tabulate, said Herget. It’s a 10- to 20-year estimated project, and it will likely cost tens of millions of dollars, Herget said. The goal right now is to create the civic and political will to move forward with a idea of this magnitude.

He also asserts that old ways of thinking about recruitment and ways to attract business and talented workers need to be reassessed. Sales tax increases for infrastructure improvements are necessary, he said, but some of that money should be dedicated to the development of a beltway. In the coming years, the economy will be driven by professional workers and other sectors such as manufacturing will be in decline, he predicted.

Housing is another issue the city needs to tackle, with parts of the city looking like a “hodge podge” of houses and apartments, he said. The city needs stricter zoning codes to protect home owners and the investment they make in their homes, he said. Nobody wants to buy a house and then see an apartment complex built next to it, Herget said.

“A city our size needs better and stricter long term planning measures. Housing is such a big part of the equation. We can’t afford to keep building out. … It puts a huge financial burden on the city. Addressing these concerns now is critical for long-term longevity and financial success. The city is going broke with the direction of housing.”

Herget has been instrumental in the redevelopment of the city’s downtown. There was a time when vacant buildings were the majority, but now there are people eating, drinking and shopping in the area each day. He and his wife lived downtown for several years, and it was a good experience, he said. The downtown component of the plan is coming together, and now he believes it’s time to advance on some other fronts.

“I believe in our people to do what’s right. … I believe in Jonesboro,” he said.