I was raised in a Southern town of about 45,000 people and our town square had a big statue of Revolutionary War hero Daniel Morgan, a string of restaurants, a bank, the newspaper building, department stores, a few junk shops and the big red brick county courthouse a few blocks off the square.
The big old rambling two-story white house where I was raised was only a few blocks off Main Street and so rather than large wooded areas or neatly trimmed suburbs, my backyard was downtown.
I love downtowns. And when I first came to Jonesboro I noticed some things about it that seemed strange. First downtown Jonesboro doesn't really have any cohesion. If you go to the neighboring county seat, McDonough, it has a monument on a patch of grassy land with giant oak trees around it and circling that is a series of buildings, antique shops, craft shops, restaurants. Off to the side of the square is the courthouse.
But when I started surveying Jonesboro I realized that hey, there are no restaurants downtown, no junk shops, no book stores. It has a beautiful old historic courthouse set off to the side but it doesn't anchor the downtown. A strip of disconnected buildings, mostly law offices and insurance companies form the downtown.
So as Jonesboro begins the process of trying to revitalize its downtown so when people step off a commuter train they have something to do, where do the planners begin?
I think the hope is that when all the law offices move out of town closer to the new law enforcement and courthouse facilities that this would free up all those offices for shops. Here is the problem, most downtowns have both law offices, courthouses and shops. So when lunchtime comes, there is a ready supply of hungry people to walk a couple of blocks to eat. Add in tourists and others just stopping in town and you have business.
Jonesboro does have a museum dedicated to Gone With the Wind and did have a little gift shop across the street. But it shut down.
So you get off the train, can't find any place to eat and you shop at the couple of shops there and then you are ready to get the heck out of town. Downtown Jonesboro needs a theme. It needs to look like a downtown. The rail line running right through downtown, knocking out the possibility of having shops on both sides doesn't help.
The area does have some pretty good restaurants. It has Dean's barbecue and Harold's barbecue, My Sister's Place and Butch's. But who is going to hoof it for blocks and blocks to get there if you step off the train in downtown. It has a Goodwill Store and a couple of other cheap but interesting places to shop but they also are too far away from the train stop.
So after figuring out how to make the center look like a town by coordinating the shops and after taking any available land and putting in cute buildings, then you have to figure out how to get the people stepping off the train around the expanded downtown. See that's the problem. Everything is exploded out from the center. So you have to have nice little trolleys making the rounds. It will have to head over to My Sister's Place and Butch's and up and down to the barbecue restaurants. Then it will have to swing over to the Goodwill store and the few shops in that strip shopping center. You've got to get the people up to Southlake either by train or trolley and stop them at the Farmer's Market. How about a stop at Fort Gillem so they can see what goes on there? You have the draw of two archives, state and federal, side by side.
If you think about things like the antebellum plantation homes nearby, coupled with the Gone With the Wind museum, you have the beginnings of a fun adventure for someone riding the train up to Jonesboro. But it has to all be pulled together.
That is what is going to drive the success of the train, a fun day of shopping, visiting, chugging back to yesteryear. There will be some who just want to get to Atlanta or Hartsfield-Jackson without having to drive. But in this fast-paced world you are not going to get enough of these people if you don't load the train down with local people wanting to have a fun day away from home.
I'm not saying it can't be done but it is going to require a lot of imagination and a lot of coordination and hard work.
Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor of the News Daily and Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .