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Updated Aug 27, 2013 - 7:28 am

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."

About the Author


Years with the company: I started on January 2, 2006.

Education: I was born in San Antonio, Texas, but we moved to Phoenix when I was one-year-old in 1957. I grew up here and graduated from Alhambra High School and attended Phoenix College.

Family: I am married to my wife Rene', who is a librarian in the Washington school district. During free time, I may be found playing basketball in the driveway with my son, Devin. He's also keeping me busy with school, Little League, and playing in chess tournaments around the Valley.

Favorite food: Lots of favorite food, but our favorite restaurant is Fajitas.

Favorite spot in Arizona: The Little America Hotel in Flagstaff.

Favorite news memory: We have to go back to October 15, 1979. I was a country music air personality at KROP Radio in Brawley, California, when we had a 6.7 earthquake. Thankfully, there were no deaths and only minor injuries, but the entire community was pretty freaked out and listening to the station on their transistor radios. I would not want to go through an earthquake again, but it sure was a great night to work in radio and see how it can make a difference in people's lives.

First job: Working as a stringer for 'The Arizona Republic' at high school football games. My first real job was flipping burgers at the old Sandy's Hamburgers at 51st Avenue and Indian School Road. My first radio job was as announcer at KALJ radio in Yuma in 1977.

First concert: Doug Oldham gospel concert in the 1970s at the old East High School in Phoenix.

Favorite sports team: Phoenix Roadrunners minor league hockey. My dad took me to a game when I was in grade school, and I was hooked. I wanted to be a radio hockey play-by-play man. I used to take my cassette recorder and sit up in the rafters of the Coliseum and do play-by-play. It was great later in life to also take my son to Roadrunners games. Too bad the team just folded, I'll miss them. (Going to the Coyotes is fun, but they're not "my" team.)

Outside interests: My family and I are active in our church - Northern Hills Community Church in Phoenix. We enjoy going to movies, sporting events, and like to vacation at the Beach Cottages in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. And I love to play catch, basketball, football with my son.

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