Jami Mullen remembers riding a tricycle on downtown Russellville sidewalks near her family’s business. Now she’s overseeing the area as the new executive director of the city’s Main Street program.
“I grew up downtown,” Mullen said. “My family was co-owners in Leonard’s Hardware; it’s the oldest business in Russellville.” Her great-great-grandfather, Jesse Franklin Leonard, started the business.
“I grew up on Commerce Street riding tricycles,” Mullen said.
When Mullen’s mother went to pick up her father from work, they’d park and wait for him, along with the other mothers and kids.
“We all just had one car back then,” the 51-year-old said.
Mullen said she and the other children would ride their tricycles or pull one of the wagons that were displayed for sale outside the hardware store.
“I loved being downtown. My dad would bring me to work on Saturdays, and I would do all the gift-wrapping at Leonard’s hardware, and I was terrible. I can’t imagine what those gifts looked like,” she said, laughing. Mullen recalled how she once wrapped an upright vacuum cleaner that wasn’t in a box.
“My cousin, Johnny, (J.P. Leonard) and I would wrap together in the summer and on the holidays,” she said.
She didn’t go into the family hardware business, though. Mullen went to Arkansas Tech University in Russellville and earned a degree in elementary education.
“I just always had a love for kids, and I had great teachers growing up. I loved the Russellville School District and everything about it, and I wanted to be a part of that. It’s a great mama job. With kids and being a working woman, it’s a fantastic career,” she said.
She taught for 4 1/2 years, second and third grades, until Mitchell, her first of two sons, was born. She then taught preschool part time for nine years.
When her second son, Michael, started to kindergarten, she started teaching again in the Russellville School District.
“When the little one went to kindergarten, I went to kindergarten, too,” Mullen said.
The Mullens were involved in the community and their sons’ school.
“My husband’s always coached their baseball teams; whatever our kids did, we did,” she said. “Football Booster Club was a big part of my life.”
In 2005, she and her husband, Jim, opened Mullen Team Sports and Screenprinting in downtown Russellville.
“Downtown has always been a special place to me, so that’s where I wanted my business,” she said.
Mullen said she made the hard decision to quit teaching in 2006 to help make the business successful, which she says it has been.
Being with her husband almost 24 hours a day has been “interesting,” she said with a laugh. “We have a really good working relationship and a good mutual respect for each other’s opinions,” she said.
“I was involved through having our business downtown, involved in different [Main Street] activities … the art walk and fall festival and just day-to-day
She was well-acquainted with Betsy McGuire, longtime executive director of Main Street Russellville.
“I kind of had in the back of my mind if Betsy McGuire ever retired, that’s a position I might be interested in,” Mullen said. McGuire announced her retirement in January. McGuire was the organization’s second executive director and served 25 years.
“I talked to my husband and said, ‘What do you think?’” Mullen said. “He said, ‘You’ve talked about it a long time,” and he encouraged her to apply.
Mullen was hired in March, and on April 1, she started shadowing McGuire.
“I tried to keep my mouth shut and ears open,”
She worked with McGuire on the Taste of the Valley, “a large event showcasing our local restaurants and eateries and wineries,” Mullen said. Proceeds go to Main Street Russellville, a nonprofit organization.
Mullen said she has big shoes to fill because of McGuire’s legacy.
“She did amazing things — she and the board. We had boarded-up windows in our storefronts. We had empty store after empty store, and we’re really close to being completely full downtown. We have had project after project of restoration.
“The big thing was purchase and restoration of our train depot,” she said, which houses the Main Street Russellville office. The Friends of the Depot partnered on the project. The
Russellville Depot is also used as a community event center, which is managed and scheduled through the Main Street office.
“We have a contract with the city to help maintain the depot and schedule it and operate the Main Street office. It’s rented out all the time for parties. … It’s a meeting space — there are class reunions here; we’ve had weddings here. It’s just a nice public space.”
The downtown has been landscaped, too, with greenery and crape myrtle trees.
“Across the street, they took old lots and have created a beautiful Depot Park. They have done expensive, labor-intensive projects for which you had to be patient and hard-working and have a lot of foresight,” she said.
McGuire said Mullen is the “perfect successor” for her.
“I think she will be even better, because I think she brings a depth of experience, and because she brings that downtown-business-owner perspective to the job,” McGuire said.
“I think she is so well prepared to continue the good work of the Main Street organization,” McGuire said, adding that the Main Street program is a good economic-development engine. She said investors in downtown Russellville have made a “huge difference” in the area.
“I feel comfortable and confident, … leaving it in her hands and working with the board of directors she has,” McGuire said.
Mullen said being Main Street’s executive director is a full-time job, “plus, plus.”
And she still helps out in the family screenprinting business, which is across the street from the Main Street Russellville office in the historic train depot.
“My husband has the store, and one of my sons goes to Tech, and he helps fill in in the afternoons,” she said. “It’s been an adjustment. There were things only I did over there. There are times when I might have to go over to the store and work at 8 before I come over here at 9. On Saturday afternoons, I’m at the shop.”
Mullen has continued to be active in the community, too. In June, she became president of the Russellville School Board.
“Even though I gave up teaching, it’s just so important to our society that we have a strong educational system. We do in Russellville; our school system is phenomenal. My kids have been so blessed — it just makes me so emotional — by incredible teachers. If I can give back a little bit and help give them the tools they need, I want to,” she said.
“There are so many funny stories, and I wish I’d written them all down; I could write a book. It’s hilarious the things [the students] tell us that their parents would just be mortified if they knew,” Mullen said. “There were always great families that I met — great kids and the opportunity to do special things for kids.
“I worked with amazing educators who had big hearts for the kids and did everything and anything to help them, in school and out of school. I don’t know if they get the credit they deserve for the things they do … the coats they passed down out of their own kids’ closets, buying groceries for parents, the rides they gave kids who didn’t have one.”
Mullen said her goals as Main Street director are to “unify downtown — the stakeholders — get everybody in a place where we’re excited to work together, working toward the same goals of driving business downtown, growing the heart of our city as a destination.
“We’ve turned a corner where we have strong retail, strong dining. Our courthouse is downtown, so there are a lot of attorneys and financial institutions. We’re at a really great place where if we can work together a little bit more, a more unified push, we’ll be in a better place.”
She said the downtown buildings are almost full.
“We have a few available spaces, but not very many. We have a couple of buildings currently under restoration, so they’re going to be amazing when they’re ready,” Mullen said.
“We have some great property
owners who take a lot of pride in how it looks and how rentable it is … and want to make the properties viable. That’s huge,” she said.
Leonard’s Hardware is no longer downtown, but the happy memories and feelings of community are still there, she said.
Her cousin J.P. Leonard, who lives in Dallas, owns one of the downtown buildings and plans to move back to Russellville, renovate the building and live upstairs, she said.
Nothing would make this downtown-loving Main Street executive director happier.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.