Jonesboro forming panel for downtown

By Ed Brock

Ed Wise has a few ideas for downtown Jonesboro.

"I'd like to see some more good restaurants come in," Wise said. "We'd like places where we can take our family and sit down for a good meal."

That's why Wise, a long-time resident of the city and employee of Pope Dickson Funeral Home, would be interested in joining the city's proposed downtown development authority.

If the city council gives final approval to the creation of the authority, its mission would be to assure the long-term economic stability of downtown Jonesboro by maintaining its "small town character," according to draft documents presented to the council on Monday.

The seven members of the board would work with the council to attract businesses and promote the downtown area. Modeled on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Main Street Program, the authority would oversee the Main Street Program's four points, organization (building consensus in the community), promotion (marketing the commercial district to customers), design (enhancing the district's physical appearance) and economic restructuring (strengthening the economic base).

Jonesboro's Main Street Director Kathryn Lookofsky is spearheading the development of the board.

"I want people to feel welcome from all walks of the community," Lookofsky said. "I want a diverse board."

Outside the requirements that potential board members be tax-paying residents of the city or residents of Clayton County who own or operate a business within the city, Lookofsky said she wants members of both sexes, all races and ages and any economic stratum.

But she also wants highly motivated and dedicated people "because it's a big job." The authority members would be required to commit to a full day of state-sanctioned training on the authority's operations, roles and responsibility within a year of their appointment.

They will have to attend a monthly board meeting that would typically last an hour to 90 minutes, and then they will be expected to dedicate five to 10 hours a month outside the meeting to authority business. They will be appointed to staggered terms of two, four and six years.

Lookofsky is hoping to have a list of candidates ready to present to the council by November.

Wise's boss, Abb Dickson, said he plans to apply to be on the authority.

"We're looking to try to attract some shops and bring in more businesses for downtown," Dickson said.

Dickson also wants to renovate the rear of the row of historic buildings that line Main Street between West Mill Street and Church Street so the basements of the buildings can also be used for businesses.

Other projects Lookofsky wants the authority to work on would be developing a building inventory, organize a merchant's group, coordinate efforts and build partnerships with other local groups and to develop a "high-quality" logo for the city.

The city of Hampton has had a downtown development authority at least since the city became a Better Hometown in 2002, said Linda Hutchison, Better Hometown manager for Hampton. The Better Hometown designation is related to the Main Street Program but for towns with populations under 5,000.

"The DDAs are probably a great economic tool for a city," Hutchison said.

As a government body formed by the state legislature, the authorities can buy buildings and borrow money at lower interest rates.

"Eventually they can become self-supporting," Hutchison said.

In Hampton's case the authority has the ability to condemn buildings that aren't being maintained and they review and approve the design of signs for new businesses.

"And they're all volunteers," Hutchison said.