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Downtown Gilbert focuses on small business, area thrives

GILBERT, Ariz. —
As Arizona cities figure out new paths to economic success, downtowns look at reinvention.

One model could be downtown Gilbert and its focus on small business. The city may be an example of how one man can make a difference.

The Liberty Market has been a fixture along Gilbert Road in downtown Gilbert since 1935. It was a grocery store until seven years ago, when Joe Johnston bought it and changed it to a restaurant.

Johnston has owned the popular Joe’s Barbecue across the street for 15 years, and is credited with turning around the town.

“Before Joe came to town, it was almost a ghost town downtown, quite frankly,” said Kathy Tilque, president and CEO of the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce. “We had a very few small businesses left over from the 1960s and ’70’s when this was the business community in Gilbert. There was one small restaurant. It definitely not a destination point at that point.”

Then Johnston arrived. “He turned the market around,” said Tilque. “He had a vision.”

Johnston grew up in Gilbert in the 1960s-’70s, when the population was about 5,000. (Over 250,000 people now call Gilbert home.) He owned the Coffee Plantation in Phoenix, but sold it. He opened his barbeque place after being attracted by downtown Gilbert’s charm.

“If you think about some of the better retail streets in the country, including the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, they’re always short, basically three to four blocks long.

“Basically the Heritage District in downtown Glendale is three blocks long, so it’s a walkable scale and a defined area” said Johnston. “The nice thing is that it’s been preserved pretty much intact since day one.”

The success of Joe’s Barbeque and Liberty Market caused other restaurant owners to set up shop nearby. Among them are Postino and Romeo’s Euro Café. Downtown Gilbert will soon be home to St. Xavier University and its 600 students.

Tilque said downtown Gilbert’s future is bright.

“We’ve got some great projects coming downtown, and I think it’s going to offer new density opportunities, said Tilque. “Why that’s important is because now you’re going to have a place where people can live, work, and play. I think that’s very attractive.”