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Rotary Club of Jonesboro: A Centennial Celebration
By Audrey Hanes, Photography by Kayla Broadway

For 100 years, the business, professional and community leaders who make up Rotary Club of Jonesboro have been serving the community by providing humanitarian service, encouraging high ethical standards and helping to build goodwill and peace both locally and worldwide. To commemorate the milestone, the service club gifted Rotary Club of Jonesboro Centennial Plaza to the City of Jonesboro, enhancing downtown and creating a sustainable space for the entire community to enjoy.

Rotary Club of Jonesboro was founded on Aug. 1, 1919, by 25 founding members, becoming the 520th Rotary club chartered worldwide. One hundred years later, the club boasts 150 members who focus on five avenues of service to make an impact on the world around them: club service, which are activities necessary to make the club run successfully; vocational service, which recognizes the worthiness in all useful occupations and uses those occupations to serve; community service, which allows members to make a difference in their own backyard through efforts such as Shop with a Cop, supporting area foster children programs, awarding scholarships and more; international service, which promotes understanding, goodwill and peace through projects such as the Myanmar clean water project; and youth services, such as study-abroad opportunities, sponsoring interact clubs at local schools and promoting youth leadership development and community service.

Those five avenues of service are a large part of what made Beverly Parker want to join Rotary Club of Jonesboro in 2001.

“I was invited by one of the current members to visit, and I enjoyed coming and decided to join,” said Parker. “Rotary is big on service, is very connected in the community and does so much good work. I was very impressed with the club and what it does. I also enjoy Rotary because of the fellowship, and secondary to that, it’s great for information about happenings in the community; we have weekly programs that give us an idea of what’s going on, whether they’re good things, bad things or things that need to be worked on. It’s a good way to stay informed.”

When Parker ended her year as club president in 2016, she was asked to form a centennial committee that would determine what Rotary Club of Jonesboro could gift to the city in celebration of its upcoming centennial milestone. After much deliberation and researching several different possibilities, the members decided on Centennial Plaza, an open-air venue in Downtown Jonesboro across from The Forum. The plaza would serve as a gathering space and would allow for new opportunities for interaction and entertainment for all ages.

“As part of our assessment, several members of the committee went on a bus tour of downtown, and we were struck by the fact that the existing park in front of The Forum had some challenges in terms of layout; it had been there a number of years and had become visually unappealing,” said Parker. “We felt that if certain things could be done there: existing electrical wires had to be taken down and put underground, drainage had to be improved and there had to be the closure of Monroe in front of The Forum, it would be enough room to make sure we could put more into the space than what had been there previously.

“In speaking with the mayor, he worked with City Water & Light, and they were agreeable to help us with the conversion. … We had a memorandum of understanding with the city that we would design and construct the plaza if they took care of those three issues.”

The late Mark Enos, who was a proud Rotary Club of Jonesboro member before passing away in 2016, saw the potential of the area as a gathering place and often reflected that most towns have a place for people to do that in the downtown area. He previously created a pop-up park to demonstrate the underdeveloped potential of an improved park or plaza in front of The Forum. Upcoming Rotary Club of Jonesboro President Brian Rega says Centennial Plaza is the realization of Enos’ dream and was done in tribute to him. Rotary member John Mixon led a volunteer design collaborative based on Enos’ initial work. The team worked for nearly two years designing and redesigning a multiuse area that would fit the space, have a broader appeal and add vibrancy to Downtown Jonesboro.

Rega, who will take his place as president just prior to the club’s 100th anniversary, said that although $750,000 seemed like a lot of money, Rotary Club of Jonesboro knew it was how they wanted to commemorate their centennial milestone.

“We considered a lot of different things and did a needs assessment for the community and worked closely with the mayor to see what we might do,” said Rega, the director of senior housing for St. Bernards Village. “That being said, we decided that this was going to be the project, and everybody got behind it. We knew the community would benefit hugely from this gift.”

Also on the centennial gift committee was longtime Rotary member Jerry Brackett, a retired architect with decades of experience who stepped up to help design the club’s vision for the downtown plaza.

“I joined Rotary in 1977,” said Brackett. “I was invited, and my classification was architect. They had an opening; part of Rotary is business contacts, and when I saw who was in here and what they did, I wanted to join. I ended up being district governor. It was an honor to be invited to join.

“I once went to a big district meeting where they told us, ‘In Rotary, we put aside our personal differences for the common good.’ That stuck with me. There was no social structure – once you’re a Rotarian, you’re a Rotarian. You’re equally committed to service above self, and that’s a nice feeling.”

When the time came to make Centennial Plaza a reality, Brackett said he readily said yes because it was his turn to step up, and that’s part of what it means to be in Rotary.

“Part of Rotary is using our skills and using our vocations to give to the club and community and world; Jerry’s vocation is architect,” said Parker. “Once it was decided we would build this plaza, Jerry happily agreed to assist to help the design team to come up with something that was feasible, along with the budget. All details while it was being constructed were supervised by Jerry.”

There are several notable highlights of the new downtown area, one of which is a historical tribute to the Hotel Noble. The hotel was a gathering place once located at the corner of Jackson and Union that hosted Rotary Club of Jonesboro for several decades. The plaza features a steel structure and mural replica of the entrance to the hotel, which pays homage to the service club’s beginning in Jonesboro.

“The mural and the stage are an artistic interpretation of the old Hotel Noble,” said Brackett, who helped paint part of that mural himself. “It was where the first meeting was 100 years ago. That is why the courthouse is reflecting in the windows – that’s why the mural is there; there is some reference to where we first began.”

“We also wanted to be cognizant of downtown architecture,” said Parker. “We thought we’d be paying homage to the original setting.”

Another standout feature is Harmony Park, comprised of four interactive art sculptures that double as educational tools. They are handicapped accessible and were specifically selected so that people of any age and ability can create music.

Rotary Club of Jonesboro thought about many other small details that would make Centennial Plaza able to accommodate groups and events of all kinds. The plaza includes a small stage structure that can be used for weddings, music performances or other similar functions. A shade structure with electricity will be utilized for farmer’s markets, arts festivals, community celebrations and Downtown Jonesboro Association’s Alive After Five. Electrical outlets will make it easy for pop-up vendors to set up shop, and improvements in the alley, a Rotary medallion and recognition plaques round out the space.

“We are very interested in it being actively used – outdoor movies, concerts, weddings, farmer’s market, art shows, churches – a lot of different things can happen in that space,” said Parker. “It will be a $100 cleanup fee, which is the same as the pavilion at Craighead. It will be very affordable and will be available for booking through the city’s Parks and Recs department. There will, however, be no charge if activities are sponsored by the Rotary Club of Jonesboro, The Forum, local public schools or the DJA.

“Another really big focus was to make it a safer location. With the alley being right there, there was a lot done there to make it safer for everyone. By closing the street and improving the walkway, we have really improved the safety of those children exiting Stage, Too.”

Brackett says that so many others in the community stepped up to help make Rotary Club of Jonesboro Centennial Plaza a reality, from DJA covering the cost of one of the murals to local banks and hospitals helping to fund the project.

“It’s really been very rewarding, because the contractor (Bailey Contractors Inc.) agreed to build it at no cost to the Rotary club,” he said. “Kevin took ownership of the project; his care and personal attention truly made the construction possible. We also contacted select contractors and material suppliers, who very quickly donated their time and material. All the concrete was donated by Hedger Brothers Inc., then Midsouth Steel donated half the steel and the city paid for the rest with a grant. All the landscaping was donated by Ground Crew LLC. Every time we turned around, people were extremely willing to help. They liked the project and quickly stepped up. Because of that, we were able to complete the project when and how we planned.

“… Everywhere we turned around, someone else was donating their time or money. It is a tribute to Rotary, because they know that Rotary truly is totally volunteer and we are doing it for the community. I was almost overwhelmed by the generosity of those who worked on and contributed to the project.”

Other major sponsors include St. Bernards Healthcare, Associated Engineering LLC, Jonesboro Roofing Co., RGB Mechanical Contractors Inc., the Northeast Arkansas Design Collaborative, Mary Ellen and Bob Warner Jr., Widner-Penter Company P.A., Hytrol and Rittwood Farms, along with countless others.

“Rotary has very much worked in the background to do things for communities all over the world, establishing some of the first scholarships at ASU, working with Consolidated Youth Services and helping the food bank when it started,” said Parker. “Rotary’s stamp is throughout the community. Typically we don’t seek attention, but we do want everyone to celebrate 100 years with us. We do it for the community because it’s what we do.”

In honor of their dedication and work on the three-year project, Parker and Brackett were honored with Rotary Club of Jonesboro’s James F. Gramling award, a special designation for “Service above Self” in the local club.

“We don’t give it every year, and it’s not always to a Rotarian, but in honor of their commitment the past three years, the club presented them dually with the award,” said Rega. “We were proud to do so.”

For former members of Rotary who wish to celebrate with the local service club, Rega says there will be a centennial celebration and reunion at Rotary Club of Jonesboro’s Aug. 1 meeting at St. Bernards Auditorium. Rotarians will reminisce and talk about what their time in Rotary means or meant to them. There will also be a time capsule buried at Centennial Plaza that will be opened in 50 years.

Donations are still being accepted for Centennial Plaza. For other ways to support Rotary Club of Jonesboro, the group’s only fundraiser, the annual Arkansas Sportshow, takes place at First National Bank Arena on the Arkansas State University campus every February. The service club uses funds from the event to operate the club, fund scholarships and award small grants to local organizations.

For more information about Rotary Club of Jonesboro, visit jonesbororotary.org or email secretary@jonesbororotary.org.