By Gordon Anderson and Billy Liggett
When Birdiana Frausto began seeking out a location for Fonda Lupita in 2019, there wasn’t a whole lot happening in the Jonesboro Heights area of Sanford.
When Frausto discovered that the space formerly occupied by the then recently-relocated Landmark Breakfast Shop was available, it seemed like as good a space as any to put a small Mexican restaurant.
“My parents used to come here when it was the Landmark,” she said. “And I was like, ‘this is a cute little small space.’”
Frausto didn’t know at the time that she would be among the first in a string of new businesses that have been slowly but surely breathing new life into a part of Sanford that had been fairly dormant for a long time.
Merenda’s Soul Food Kitchen. Brick City Boba. Valenti’s. The Eyelight Coffee and Comics. All have sprung up or are set to open soon on Main Street in downtown Jonesboro, and there are plenty of reasons to believe more are on the way.
“I felt like everything was dying here at one point,” Frausto said. “The coffee shop wasn’t there. The boba place wasn’t there. So, for a lot of locals to come into this strip, I think it’s a good thing.”
Chelsey Ruta is one of the owners of Brick City Boba, which opened in May at 104 E. Main St. She said the location jumped out at her for more than one reason.
“Main Street is actually the second busiest street in Sanford,” she said. “They just redid the street and the streetlights and really cleaned the place up. The fact that it’s a standalone building and we didn’t have to share it with anyone, and it came with the park next door. So I cleaned it up and gave people outdoor seating. We’ve also gotten a lot of people knocking on our door, asking if we knew of any vacancies on the street. There’ve been people from Raleigh come in to scout the area, too.”
Jonesboro, once a town of its own, is actually more than a decade older than Sanford, according to Daniel J. Pezzoni’s “The History and Architecture of Lee County.” The book notes the “first real growth (in the town) in 1861, when the Western Railroad established the Jonesboro Depot (named for the road’s engineer, Leonidas C. Jones) and the general merchandise firm of Bryan & Company built a store.”
The town became an industrial center, boasting turpentine distilleries, sawmills, cotton mills, and more, as well as “stores and barrooms clustered around the depot,” according to Pezzoni’s text. Sanford, incorporated in 1874, wouldn’t overtake Jonesboro in size and population until around 1900, and while details on the exact “why” of the two towns’ merger are scarce, they officially became the city of Sanford in 1947.
Still, the neighborhood and downtown strip now dubbed Jonesboro Heights developed into and remained an active center for commerce in subsequent years. The Kendale shopping center was built in the 1960s and had the quaint distinction of being North Carolina’s longest shopping center. Three prominent churches sit along or less than a mile from the intersection of Main Street and Woodland Avenue, all surrounded by close-knit neighborhoods.
“There’s a proud heritage to this day that people who are from that part of Sanford have,” said Mayor Chet Mann, who noted that a good chunk of his own lineage comes from Jonesboro.
By the late 2000s and the early 2010s, however, much of the area had declined significantly. While a few restaurants, barber shops and storefront churches remained, the area had become considerably more sleepy than in prior decades, and Kendale had deteriorated significantly, with boarded up windows in many of the storefronts and the entirety of the southernmost portion closed off by 2017.
So what’s changed in the few short years since then? There are multiple factors, but one of the primary ones is the streetscape project city voters approved in 2013. The messaging around that effort mostly surrounded downtown Sanford, and much has been written about the successes there in the years since. But Mann and others point to the same work being done in Jonesboro as setting the table for the successes being seen today — work that wasn’t always popular when it was first undertaken.
“There was a lot of pushback at the time — people were asking why the city should be making that kind of investment in Jonesboro,” said John Ramsperger, the owner of Sanford Real Estate. “And it’s taken six or seven years, but I’d argue that we’re finally seeing the fruits of that labor. It’s gone from sort of a blighted area to one where we’re starting to see a lot of demand. And that kind of activity and success just breeds more activity and success.”
Another factor is the renovation and reuse of Kendale’s bottom third as the MINA Charter School, which opened its doors to students in August of 2020. The school currently serves nearly 250 children, and expects to add more than 100 more next year, meaning the structure has gone in the space of a year from one which housed nothing and was surrounded by a crumbling parking lot to one which brings hundreds of families to and from the facility each weekday.
“It was central, it had the parking, and while we knew we had to do some upfitting, we knew right away that it had the best potential for us,” said Dr. Shawn Williams, the school’s lead administrator.
Williams said the school had already partnered in some ways with some neighboring businesses, some of whom even send their kids to the school.
“Things seem to be thriving again in this area, and the growth has been exciting,” he said In addition to MINA’s transformation of Kendale’s bottom third — an expansion into the portion that used to house Kendale Cinemas is underway — there’s evidence that the portion still dedicated to commerce is seeing a turnaround. While many of the storefronts remain vacant, the complex was purchased by Moore County-based Par 5 Development purchased the property in 2019. And while the company hasn’t publicly disclosed its plans, some renovations have been done and some sources have indicated seeing more consistency among tenants since.
Ramsperger said he expects growth to continue in the area.
“Downtown Sanford has more foot traffic, but you’re starting to see that spill over into downtown Jonesboro as well,” he said. “And investors are starting to realize that this place is up and coming. “In commercial real estate we talk about anchors. You’re starting to see some new anchors in that area, like the new Valenti’s and (Christians United Outreach Center) occupying the old O’Connell’s Grocery.”
The Jonesboro boom will impact the residential sector as well, with a 200 unit apartment complex on tap near the intersection of Dalrymple and Main streets, and a senior living facility on Woodland Avenue coming in the near future. Mann said these things are all tied together.
“Good leadership looks 10 or 20 years out. We looked at Jonesboro and saw a once vibrant area that we knew could be vibrant again, but if we needed to have some public investment for that to happen,” he said. “Now you’re seeing a coffee shop, these new restaurants that are coming in — it all started with that bond referendum, and it was a very intentional plan.”