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?I'd like to be hopeful'

By Ed Brock

Jo Lynne McEwen has had to close one of her two stores in downtown Jonesboro, and right now she's fighting to keep the other one open.

Business is hard these days, McEwen said.

"I would love to have something that would cause optimism," said McEwen, owner of Simple Pleasures novelty shop. "I'd like to be hopeful."

Down the road the Hardee's restaurant has also closed. At the same time the city, using county work crews, has begun preparing the site for a new two-story parking deck that is supposed to be built behind the Heritage Bank on Main Street.

The parking deck is one of the first stages of the city's Livable Centers Initiative that is intended to transform downtown Jonesboro in the next few years. Using grants from the Atlanta Regional Commission the LCI plan also includes a large "town green" park behind the row of buildings on Main Street between Mill and Church Streets, a bandstand in the park area in front of the old courthouse and another parking deck.

It could also include a station for the planned Atlanta to Lovejoy commuter rail line.

And the loss of two Main Street businesses has done nothing to dampen City Manager Jon Walker's enthusiasm for the project.

"I think that just points out the need to pursue the LCI in earnest," Walker said.

Walker said the city anticipates getting a grant in January to cover the engineering for the parking deck and construction on the deck should begin in 2006.

"We are shooting for September 2006 to be in line for the commuter line station," Walker said.

While Walker said that the plans for the LCI projects do not depend on the commuter rail station, the first parking deck and, more particularly the second parking deck will accommodate some of the rail passengers.

If all goes well, the line will be operational by fall of 2006, said Bert Brantley, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

"We're still talking to Norfolk Southern (Corporation, the owner of the line that currently runs through the town) about use of the track and having them operate it," Brantley said.

The state has the $106 million dollars, mainly in federal grant money, to prepare the tracks and to build the basic infrastructure of the track.

"But you can't spend that until you have some guarantee of operating costs," Brantley said.

It would be easier if Norfolk Southern operates the lines, Brantley said. Also, the local governments in the towns that will have stops, including East Point, Forest Park, Morrow, Jonesboro and Lovejoy, will bear some of the cost of building the station in each city.

Another project that will complement the LCI and further the transformation of downtown is the implementation of the city's streetscape grant for beautifying the sidewalks on Main Street, Walker said. That work will include widening the sidewalks and installing planters.

"We're still working on right-of-way issues with that but we think we'll make the fall 2005 start date," Walker said.

McEwen said she was happy about the work being done to clear the way for the new parking garage.

"I am not glad about the parallel parking on Main Street (that would result from the streetscaping project)," McEwen said.

That project will mean parking spaces will be lost, McEwen said, and she's not sure how many customers will walk to her store from the parking deck.

And yet another city project that blends with the LCI is the Georgia Main Street Program. As part getting the city certified in the program the city's Main Street Director Kathryn Lookofsky has been bringing some attractions to downtown.

That program has already brought the "Jonesboro Jammin'" monthly concerts at the gazebo at McDonough and King streets and on Sept. 25 the city will hold a live blues concert with "Jon Harris & The Blue Ravers" on the lawn in front of the old courthouse.

"We're going to try to set it up so you can dance and also set up your picnic basket and lawn chairs," Lookofsky said.

Lookofsky also is not discouraged by the loss of two businesses and said she is looking forward to new businesses coming in. The city's recent passage of a resolution to allow liquor by the drinks sales will probably help that process.

"We've gotten some phone calls and met with some people," Walker said.

And there's no need to rush to fill the spaces, Lookofsky said.

"We want to be selective. We don't have a lot of physical space so we want whatever comes in to be the best," Lookofsky said.

As for the cost of real estate in downtown Jonesboro, All In One real estate agent Charlotte Baune is asking $89,000 for an empty 13,000 square foot lot on Main and Smith Streets. Baune wouldn't comment on whether she had many buyers interested in the lot.

Lookofsky said she is recruiting members of a planned downtown development authority for the city. To join the 7-member board one must be a Jonesboro resident or business owner.

Also, Lookofsky said she is happy to talk to churches, civic groups and others about the Main Street Program and the LCI.

Lookofsky and Walker said revitalizing the city's downtown is not something the city government can do alone.

"The city is being aggressive, but it is a long term project that will continue to involve the whole community," Walker said.

McEwen also said that if members of the community want something to stay in that community they have to support it, and that means shopping there. People often ask her if she will close Simple Pleasures as well.

"I tell them if we don't have business, this one can't stay open either," McEwen said.