Downtown

I’ve received some positive feedback from a column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The theme was that Main Street still matters.

And we’re using ”Main Street” in the generic sense for downtown. It actually might be Front Street. It might be Cherry Street. You get the point.

I had written in part about Arkadelphia’s efforts to restore the old Royal Theater on Main Street. There has not been a movie shown in the Royal since 1976.

In Fayetteville on Saturday, former Sen. David Pryor told my son about how he had worked at the Royal Theater when Pryor was a college student at Henderson. My son and David’s grandson (Mark and Jill’s son) both run track for Catholic High, by the way. That’s why they found themselves at the same indoor track meet on the University of Arkansas campus.

I also received an e-mail from longtime outdoors writer Joe Mosby. He told me about a night he spent in a small apartment in the Royal Theater many decades ago.

When you start talking about things that happened in various downtowns in years gone by, you tend to dredge up good memories.

Downtowns are important. For too long, many communities viewed “economic development” as simply getting enough grants to build an industrial park on the edge of town. They threw up “spec buildings,” some of which still sit empty. Economic development in this century requires a more holistic approach. Thankfully, there are communities across Arkansas that now realize that downtown redevelopment is indeed an important part of the economic development mix.

“Increasing energy prices have made developing in compact, historic commercial areas an important strategy in both community and economic development,” Cathie Matthews, the director of the state Department of Arkansas Heritage, has written. “In fact, more and more we’re seeing that downtown revitalization plays a vital role in large-scale site location. When a technology firm chose Central Arkansas as its new site location, local media reported the firm was impressed with the downtown and what it has become. … When downtown revitalization is cited as a factor in technology recruitment — 21st century economic development — we know we’ve made it.”

Why is downtown still important long after many retail establishments have migrated “out to the highway?”

The Main Street Arkansas program points out that:

– Downtown is a symbol of community economic health, local quality of life, pride and community history.

– A vital downtown retains and creates jobs that strengthen the tax base. Long-term revitalization establishes capable businesses that use public services and provide tax revenues.

– Adaptive reuse of historic buildings means conserving energy and natural resources. Historic buildings typically last longer than new ones.

– Downtown can serve as a business incubator. Attractive storefronts and reasonable rents make downtown a hub for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. Independent businesses support local families and keep profits in town.

– Downtown is where members of the community congregate. Special events and celebrations downtown reinforce a sense of community.

– A vital downtown area reduces sprawl. Downtown concentrates retail in one area and uses community resources wisely.

– According to the National Main Street Center, 80 percent of adult travelers included a historic activity while traveling, and they spend more than the average tourist. Downtown districts can become tourist attractions by virtue of the character of buildings, unique shopping and authentic culinary experiences there.

Who’s doing things right? Certainly El Dorado, as I pointed out in a blog post last year. In fact, downtown El Dorado is featured in the March edition of Southern Living magazine.

Taylor Bruce writes in the magazine: “Fresh from winning a Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, El Dorado is booming. Rumor has it that the downtown recently hit the 100 percent occupancy mark, reminiscent of the 1920s oil rush to the area.

“El Dorado these days is as quaint as pies on a windowsill. The town square is dotted with pear trees, regal street clocks and red English-style phone booths. Antiques sellers, a bustling Mexican restaurant serving rooftop margaritas, a book nook, a pharmacy-turned-bakery and a small hotel that dishes up breakfast in a spiffed-up train car make the rest of south Arkansas envious.”

The article spotlights:

– The Olde Towne Store, which sells health foods and, according to the article, “bakes the best cookies in Union County.”

– The Elm Street Bakery & Coffee Bar.

– The Union Square Guest Quarters.

In the most recent post prior to this one, I talked about downtown Hot Springs. Probably my favorite downtown walk in Arkansas is along Bathhouse Row. The art galleries have helped revitalize downtown (I do miss the old auction galleries I would visit with my aunt as a child), but there definitely must be a focus on improving downtown hotels and perhaps even transforming buildings downtown into condominiums once the economy turns around and developers can again access the credit markets.

It’s important to all Arkansans that downtown Hot Springs — with its history and tradition — do well.

In fact, I just received a call from the new general manager of the Arlington Hotel promising me that improvements are on the way at the Arlington. That’s good news. It’s also good news that there’s finally progress on getting some of the bathhouses leased. The opening of the Quapaw Baths & Spa means there are now two facilities along bathhouse row (the Buckstaff has continued to operate through the years) where one can receive spa services.

Economic development priorities for Hot Springs the next decade should center on improving the downtown hotels, getting more of the bathhouses leased and getting more people to live downtown. Hopefully, the transformation of the old Majestic Hotel into apartments will go forward.

Where are other Arkansas downtowns that are doing things right?

North Little Rock has certainly made strides along its Main Street in recent years.

I’ve always liked the courthouse square at Searcy.

Downtown Batesville has history, charm and a lot of potential.

Cherry Street in Helena (when can we get rid of the official Helena-West Helena name of town?) remains a movie set just waiting on a developer with some capital.

The courthouse square in Harrison is nice, and the reopening of the Hotel Seville has brought a certain panache to the city.

They’ve done a nice job through the years with historic preservation in downtown Rogers and downtown Van Buren.

Conway and Jonesboro have seen significant improvements in the past decade. There are restaurants and life after dark again in those downtowns.

What are your favorite Arkansas downtowns and why?

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3 Responses to “Downtown”

  1. Melissa G. Nelson says:

    David Pryor’s grandson (Mark & Jill’s son) is ADAMS PRYOR. What a great name. He’s both smart and athletic.

  2. Chad says:

    Rex, I love downtowns and this column! As always great job. Thanks for highlighting this important issue for Arkansas.

  3. Gregot Mendel says:

    Good point about Helena and the goofy double name. This does not set a good example when Little Rock and North Little Rock become just “Little Rock” again.

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