Progress noted in downtown Siloam Springs, but ‘not done by any means’

by Rose Ann Pearce ([email protected]) 1,530 views 

When it comes to news about downtown renewal in several Northwest Arkansas cities, don’t forget about Siloam Springs. Business owners and city officials made noteworthy progress in recent years.

Historic brick buildings, which line a three-block section of Broadway Street, have changed in recent years as second story windows, once boarded or covered other material, have been opened and many converted to loft-style apartments. Canvas has been ripped off facades to expose historic brick storefronts.

More importantly, new businesses, restaurants, boutiques, gathering places have opened on both sides of the street and around corner heading west on University Avenue. In fact, in the past eight years, more than 20 buildings have been renovated, more than 25 businesses have opened (adding a net of nearly 100 new jobs), and an estimated $11 million has been reinvested in property purchases, building renovation, and public improvement projects, according to the Main Street Siloam website.

The revitalization began several years ago and gained momentum in recent years with a major boost from supporters, like Shelley Simmons and Main Street Siloam Springs, an affiliate of Main Street Arkansas. Since 1984, Main Street Arkansas has helped some cities with downtown revitalization.

Shelley Simmons, who with her husband Todd owns 28 Springs Restaurant on University Avenue at Mt. Olive Street, recalls the local Main Street organization in Siloam Springs was nearly defunct when she stepped in as a volunteer director. Todd Simmons is the CEO of Simmons Foods, a major and longtime employer in the city.

“I worked pro bono for the first six months to strengthen the organization and the budget to really be revitalizing the downtown,” she recalled. “We were able to get our feet under ourselves.”

Part of the revitalization of the downtown started in 2008 when some in this small, tight-knit community lost jobs and reinvented themselves by opening a small business in a vacant building on Main Street. Café on Broadway was the first new business to open on Broadway in 2007, Simmons said. The Café became a popular gathering spot for local residents and as it succeeded, other businesses began considering downtown.

In 2011, Main Street Siloam Springs hired Meredith Bergstrom as the first full-time executive director. Bergstrom came to Siloam Springs to attend John Brown University all the way from Kenya where her parents were missionaries.

“Siloam Springs is the best kept secret in Northwest Arkansas but we don’t want it to be a secret anymore,” Bergstrom said.

Bergstrom said the Café on Broadway brought new life to downtown and encouraged downtown living. Two apartments were renovated over the café during remodeling.

A new seven-year downtown and connectivity master plan, developed by Main Street, was adopted by the city in August 2014, bringing the city into the partnership that Main Street was forming with local businesses and stakeholders.

“We wanted a plan that we could see improvements immediately,” Bergstrom said.

A five-mile mountain bike trail is being developed by JBU with financial assistance from the Walton Family Foundation. The Sager Creek Arts organization is partnering with Main Street in the creation of public art installation, the first of which is a mural in vintage postcard style on the side of the TC Screen-printing building. The mural, “Greetings from Siloam Springs,” was funded by the Walton Family Foundation and community support from the city, Maples Electric, Arvest Bank and the screen-printing business.

Artist Kirk Demarais, who was born in the old city hospital, calls the mural “a love letter to my hometown.” It is visible from Mt. Olive Street as drivers enter the downtown area.

Bergstrom said a 2014 Parade Magazine survey to find the best main street in the U.S. added momentum to the downtown revitalization. Local residents took the time to vote in the contest and landed Siloam Springs in fourth place at the end of voting.

“It was a testament about the excitement being generated about our downtown,” Bergstrom said, noting other JBU graduates like her are choosing to stay in Siloam Springs to begin their careers with businesses in Northwest Arkansas or to open a business on Broadway.

Casey Letellier also stayed in Siloam Springs after he graduated with a broadcasting degree from JBU. He found his place as the Head Drinks Enthusiast at the 28 Springs restaurant. He has been in the city since 1996.

“This is a place in transition, a place doing good work that matters,” Letellier said. “Siloam Springs has turned the corner. It’s also a place that attracts people. You no longer have to leave to do anything.”

Shelley Simmons agrees. She recalled first moving to Siloam Springs as a young bride after meeting her husband while both were students at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. She no longer has to travel to Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers or Bentonville for shopping, dining or entertainment.

The restaurant, 28 Springs and other businesses in the downtown area have “really filled a niche,” Bergstrom said. “All the places have a passion for being in the space they are in. These are people who are passionate about what they do.”

Rosemary Ryan Junkermann used to visit her older sister, Leigh Lee, in Siloam Springs to get away from hustle and bustle of her job and life in Los Angeles. She and her family moved to Siloam Springs and she and her three sisters, Leigh, Carol and Barbara, spent six months renovating and restoring the Inn at the Springs on University Street. It is operated as a bed and breakfast with four rooms on the second floor and as a dining room, bar and patio. The Inn is one of the oldest buildings in the city, dating to 1897. The sisters were attracted to the inn as a dilapidated but beautiful building, a neglected treasure, in need of some tender loving care.

“We were on our hands and knees for six months,” she said. “It’s been challenging but incredibly fulfilling to be so embraced by the community, to create a product this community would embrace.”

Across the street and down a block is Pour Jon’s coffee house, owned and operated by Chris Moore, a transplant from Norman, Okla., and his wife, Emily. He assumed ownership in 2012, calling it a “rash decision.” He heard about the availability while on a mission trip to Thailand.

“I didn’t know anything about coffee,” said Moore, a former construction worker. “I got a crash course from a former employee.”

The best part is seeing the same faces every day, he said.

“I have made so many friends and this is a fairly small community.”

He has lived in Siloam Springs since 2003, and his family lives downtown, just a 10-minute walk from the coffee house.

“I don’t hardly leave downtown,” he quipped.

Bergstrom said the work in revitalizing downtown isn’t finished but has come a long way in the last few years.

“We’re not done by any means,” Simmons added.

Wayne Mays, executive director of the Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce, praised the efforts of Simmons and the Main Street organization for the revitalization of downtown.

“We’ll partner with them. Let them carve out Main Street and we’ll focus on the rest of the trade area, which extends 20 to 30 miles around Siloam Springs. Downtown is the heart of the community and is very important to the whole community,” Mays said.

While Siloam Springs may be a well-kept secret for some, the word apparently is getting out. A man recently stopped Bergstrom as she walked down Broadway, saying he and his wife were “vacationing for a couple of days” in Siloam from Rogers.

“Enjoy yourselves,” Bergstrom said, as she continued on her walk.