Members of a newly formed non-profit group are confident they will reach their goal to revitalize the downtown and historic area of Van Buren with the help of community support, funding and awareness.
Van Buren Original, named after the original platte used to form the historic districts, is comprised of eight community leaders focused on nurturing and sustaining the heritage and history of the Van Buren area.
Revitalizing the downtown district, and surrounding ones including Fairview Cemetery, Drennan-Scott House, the Riverfront, Broadway Street, and East Main Street, is important for the health of the overall community, said Rusty Myers, former assistant executive director of the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District and a VBO organizer.
“The downtown area is integral to the history of our community. We are underutilizing the potential and now have an opportunity to create and restore a part of our history and culture,” said Myers.
The group’s five-year focus is to promote and develop strategic commercial and residential activity, and cultivate dynamic events and entertainment scenes that provide engaging experiences for visitors, shoppers and area residents. The focus was determined by Myers and the other VBO organizers: Fred Williams, Jackie Krutsch, Lisa Huckelbury, Mayor Bob Freeman, Maryl Koeth, Debbie Foliart and Jim Williamson.
Myers said the Van Buren area is ripe for revitalizing, given its unique architecture, history and location.
“Our city is located near an interstate. We have less vehicle traffic on our Main Street than most cities making it ideal for pedestrian traffic, and we have the train service that brings people into our city,” he said.
The train service is operated by Arkansas & Missouri Train and runs two routes three days a week: one to and from Springdale and the other to Winslow and back. The Springdale route deposits tourists to the downtown area each morning then returns for riders once the Winslow run is complete.
“Our downtown district is a very unique setting with more than 70 historic buildings located within a six block area, and most of those are still in good shape. Very few towns have these assets, and we need to take advantage and showcase them,” he said.
Koeth, executive director of Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission, said she expects the Van Buren downtown revitalization to be a slow, long-term process but she fully believes it will happen.
“It will take a lot of hard work to revitalize the downtown district area,” she said. “It will not be quick. The revitalization will need to be constantly evolving to stay current with the needs of current generations. But, it is an exciting time. I know we can do it.”
According to Krutsch, executive director of Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, the group is working on a strategic plan, based on short-term and long-term goals.
“We will be asking some of our larger businesses and organizations such as our hospital what is important to them in the downtown footprint. We know from preliminary conversations with some of these businesses that they want inviting restaurants and shops to help them attract talent to their companies,” she said.
By recruiting unique shops, events and restaurants and restoring the historic value, the group members said Van Buren will attract more visitors to the downtown area and offer a better experience for those who ride the train from Springdale to Van Buren. Myers said more needs to be done to entertain riders who depart the train in Van Buren and are in the downtown district for several hours each day while waiting for their return trip. He calls that ‘captive audience’ an untapped resource for gaining ‘word-of-mouth’ publicity for Van Buren.
“Having a more vibrant downtown area can help recruit residents, work force and businesses,” said Koeth. “More and more communities are recognizing the need to rebuild downtown areas and make them a cornerstone for activities, tourism and shopping.”
The decline of downtowns across the country is centered around the change in economic development, said Myers. Downtown areas had a totally different look 30 to 40 years ago. Mass retailers were not as common so small businesses were relied upon for services and goods. As more mass chains moved in and other shopping options became available, many downtowns have steadily declined.
That is true for Van Buren as well. Further decline followed when the recession hit in the early 2000’s. Tourism declined, leaving fewer visitors to the historic areas of Van Buren. As a result, the downtown area continued to decline at a greater rate and has steadily done so since.
“The downtown belongs to the community and reflects upon the community. We want it to be a source of pride. It just needs a little polish right now.”
When forming plans for Van Buren Original, Myers and other members toured the Northwest Arkansas area. Of particular interest was the Bentonville downtown revitalization. Developers of that renewal effort explained the catalyst for the project was when corporations in the area stepped in because they were having trouble obtaining highly skilled workers who wanted to move to the area. A revitalized downtown with shops, restaurants and activities is a huge draw for potential employees.
“Quality of place is what people and businesses need and want,” said Myers.
He explained that quality of place determines if a person wants to live or visit a particular area, based on what is offered by the community. By improving quality of place, the area is automatically a stronger attraction for more skilled workforces and a wider variety of events and businesses.
Myers was told at one point in the past, seven out of 10 potential employees of major corporations in the Northwest Arkansas area turned down jobs because of the lack of desire to live in an area with no cultural activities or revitalized areas. Revitalizing downtowns and other areas had positive results for residents, small businesses and major corporations. The success of the Northwest Arkansas projects leads VBO members to believe the same can happen in Van Buren.
The VBO group customized their plan to meet the needs of the community and downtown district, including preserving and marketing the area’s history, creating outdoor recreation and events, and recruiting unique businesses. Future plans of the Van Buren Original are to visit community groups to raise awareness and gather ideas. They also will reach out to community stakeholders, investors and business leaders who have an interest in contributing ideas and aid for the cause.
“After awareness, some of the next steps will be developing our strategic goals, defining the area we are calling the downtown footprint, developing a budget and hiring staff,” said Krutsch. “It’s an honor to serve with such a talented and strong board. I am looking forward to all that we can accomplish.”
The group hopes when their goals are accomplished, the image of the historic district and the community will be elevated, making it a more attractive place to visit and live.