Monticello is reaping the rewards of its revitalization efforts in its downtown area. The town square is buzzing with new activity, renovated buildings, a renovated civic center, and four new businesses: a coffee-house, an upscale dress shop, a children’s resale clothing shop, and in just a few weeks, an authentic Italian restaurant.
While driving through Monticello from Little Rock to Louisiana, where they have an Italian restaurant, Johnny Belsu and his brother got lost and stopped on the town square for a cup of coffee. That cup of coffee led to plans for an authentic Italian restaurant in Monticello.
Belsu said he struck up a conversation with someone from Monticello while having coffee and learned that the city did not have an Italian restaurant. “We contacted the City Hall and got some information about the town, how big it is, what they have here, what they needed and actually we just thought let’s put in an Italian restaurant because this town needs it,” Belsu said.
Belsu, a native of Sicily, owns three restaurants, one in Louisiana, one in Texas and one in New York. He will be closing the New York restaurant due to astronomical rent and will open Panorama here in Monticello.
The restaurant will be located in the southernmost building on the east side of the town square which is being renovated to the tune of $100,000, according to Richard Akin, owner of the building.
Akin, who will lease the building to Belsu after he completes the renovations, said he came in contact with Belsu indirectly through the Monticello Economic Development Commission.
“The MEDC put him in touch with (local contractor) Larry Kling and Larry contacted me because he knew I had a building and I had always wanted to see an upscale restaurant on the town square,” Akin said.
The Northern Italian restaurant will feature veal, pasta, fish, chicken, seafood and steaks served in a large indoor seating area as well as an outdoor seating area with patio tables.
Belsu is planning a December 5 opening date.
The Square Cup
Earlier this year, Monticello native Steve Davis opened the Square Cup, a gourmet coffee shop, on the town square. In addition to a variety of gourmet coffees, the Square Cup serves lunch specials, specialty sandwiches, desserts and smoothies.
The Square Cup is available for parties, reunions and other events and provides a catering service.
Located at 113 West Gaines, the Square Cup is housed in a historic building restored last year by Richard Akin.
Davis will also use the venue to showcase local talent. Upcoming entertainment includes a performance by members of the University of Arkansas-Monticello Jazz Band and other entertainment during the Christmas holidays.
Suzi Paige 2
Suzi Paige 2, an upscale dress shop on North Main in the building south of Cockrell’s Shoe Store, is filling a need for those who would rather not have to drive at least an hour to a larger metropolitan area to find fashionable clothing, shoes, purses and accessories.
“We carry several upscale brands and I would say that our prices are very competitive but a lot of times lower than the prices you will see in larger areas,” said store manager Amber Evans.
Suzi Paige 2, an addition of the original Suzi Paige in Greenville, Miss., opened in early November and carries Miss Me, IT, and Big Star jeans, TOMS shoes, Corral and Dan Post boots, Ronaldo designer jewelry, Hobo purses, and other upscale items.
Many small-town retail shops are open only during business hours making shopping difficult for customers who work and for those in school but Suzi Paige 2 has hours that fit most lifestyles.
“We open at 11 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. during the week and on Saturdays we are open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.,” Evans said. “If we see that being open a few hours on Sunday afternoons during the holidays would be beneficial to our customers, we will do so.”
So far, business has been good at Suzi Paige 2, Evans said.
“I have been extremely pleased with business so far,” she said. “I have seen many new faces in the last two weeks and hope to continue as the time passes. With a small town like Monticello, I feel it is great help when the community helps advertise a new business like so many of our customers have. When we have community support, it is easier for us as business owners and managers to keep things up and running.”
Evans believes the town square is an ideal location for shopping.
“When people shop the square, they have several different places to shop and it is convenient for them,” she said. “Also, they can easily grab lunch from the nearby food locations like City Drug, the Square Cup and very soon, the Italian restaurant.”
In August, Brittany Washington opened Mini Dreams, a children’s clothing resale shop on the town square at 113 West Gaines Street.
Washington grew up in a single-parent household where her mother shopped at resale stores to clothe her family affordably. She realized Monticello-area families needed a place to buy and sell gently used children’s clothing and baby items.
Washington decided to start her own business to meet the need for affordable children’s clothing.
The store is packed with kids’ fashions from toddlers to pre-teens and is open Wednesday through Saturday. Mini Dreams’ Facebook page shares items the business is selling or seeking to purchase.
Last year, the city celebrated the completion of a major building renovation project and the renovation of the town square’s civic center.
The 80-year-old Ridgeway Hotel, located a block east of the town square, was converted into a 32-unit apartment complex for low-income senior citizens and the town square got a face-lift with new brickwork, landscaping and lighting.
In 2005, while working on strategic planning for the community, the Monticello Economic Development Commission (MEDC) hired the University of Arkansas Community Design Center to study Monticello and make recommendations for possible development strategies for the community. The downtown square and the surrounding area is the centerpiece of that study.
The Monticello Economic Development Commission contracted with Neighborhood Builders Inc., a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, to develop the Ridgeway Hotel and surrounding property into 32 senior apartments. The hotel had been abandoned for a number of years and had become a liability to the central business district of Monticello.
Meanwhile, the Monticello-Drew County Chamber of Commerce and its Downtown Revitalization Committee was working on phase by phase renovations to the town square. Phase I of the renovations began in 2003 with the burying of utility lines, sidewalk upgrades and new street lamps. Phase II, which included new brickwork, landscaping and lighting on the civic center, was completed last year.
And private landowners, particularly Richard Akin, who owns a number of buildings on the town square, have invested personal funds to improve the appearance and revitalize Monticello’s town square.