Van Buren group moving forward with plans, ideas on renovation in and around historic downtown

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 346 views 

The bus trolley in downtown Van Buren.

Van Buren Original (VBO) will hold its kickoff meeting on Tuesday (May 10) at 3:30 p.m. from the second floor of the King Opera House in downtown Van Buren. The location is fitting for a group that has spent the last two years mobilizing an effort to revitalize many of the city’s historic assets.

For VBO Chairman Rusty Myers and Van Buren Advertising and Planning Commission Head Maryl Koeth, the challenge has been expanding interest beyond Main Street to the community at large.

“Main Street programs are local merchant and government-driven, and that’s really the kiss of death. We need the medical community and the corporate world involved,” Koeth said in comments to Talk Business & Politics on Thursday (May 5).

Quality of place, Koeth said, “speaks to how well they will be able to recruit doctors, nurses, and other professionals to the area, and until we can get this turned around, it’s a hard sell. Our job (VBO/A&P) is to convince them to get involved with this.”

She continued: “We have Sparks with an investment here, Cooper Clinic … there are a lot of people with investments in this community, and it’s the fact the corporate world is getting on board that has made all the difference.”

VBO was created in 2014 to turn Van Buren’s downtown historic district into a “thriving, vibrant and exciting place filled with unique, quality shops, restaurants, businesses, residences and public spaces,” according to the group’s mission statement. Koeth and Myers knew from the beginning that would be easier said than done with approximately 90 separate buildings downtown and only “a minority of them” occupied by businesses, Myers said, adding that “about a fourth or a third of the buildings are vacant or underutilized at present.”

Clean up work has begun in Lee Creek Park, which sits adjacent to the Arkansas River near downtown Van Buren.
Clean up work has begun in Lee Creek Park, which sits adjacent to the Arkansas River near downtown Van Buren.

Koeth believes this issue could be solved with better business education resources and by recruiting “current trend businesses” to Main Street rather than merely relying on Van Buren’s history to sell the downtown area.

“The way it has been in the past, anybody who wanted to rent a building and had a knickknack thought, ‘I’m down here on a train day with hundreds of people on the street, I could make a fortune selling this and only have to be open two days a week.’ Well, that’s not true, but there is no one counseling people on what the latest trends are and what it takes to make it in a small retail business. I see that as a responsibility being shared between the Chamber of Commerce and VBO in the future.”

Of this part-time business owner mentality Koeth described, Myers said VBO’s goal would not be to dictate to downtown businesses but that fosters a new approach to operating a downtown business.

“With downtown revitalization, we can’t get wrapped up in the negatives,” he said. “We should not try to do what we can’t do. We want to focus on creating an environment where merchants and investors will want to be here.”

To assist, Myers and Koeth have brought together a number of individuals on VBO who share that vision – individuals such as Jackie Krutsch (Van Buren Chamber of Commerce president), Lisa Huckelbury of Hawkins-Weir Engineers, Jim Williamson (chairman of Citizens Bank & Trust) and local merchant Debbie Foliart. There has also been interest from representatives at USA Truck and Bekaert Steel, Myers said.

Myers also acknowledged most of the investment “will have to be made by the private sector” and that the best thing VBO can do is “enhance curb appeal to add to the statement there are really good things happening, that we’re being progressive and moving things along on Main Street.”

He continued: “The engine that is going to drive this is not going to be A&P or city government. It’s going to be the private sector putting money into these buildings to bring them up to where they need to be, and we’re beginning to see that.”

One development Koeth and Myers are hoping will trigger more interest in the downtown revitalization effort is the upcoming groundbreaking ceremony on Veterans Memorial Plaza and Freedom Plaza – side-by-side parks at the 800 block of Main Street. The city will hold the ceremony a week before Memorial day with a target completion date sometime in the spring of 2017. The parks will contain ample green space and will likely be used for a variety of functions from farmers’ markets to a live music venue.

Also, there is the Center for Arts and Education, which will occupy two buildings at the 400 block, just west of the King Opera House. The Center was recently granted $2 million through a private donation that it must match through fundraising. Myers said a third is already raised and should be successfully completed by the end of 2016 “with construction starting next year.” Plans for the inside of the Center include galleries and a cafe, while a park with a series of gardens will be reserved for the back exterior.

And two weeks ago, the A&P acquired and put into service a trolley for the sum of $145,000 to use in conjunction with tourism efforts, such as trips up and down Main Street as well as to locations like the Drennen-Scott Historic Site. The trolley was acquired from National Bus Sales and is the handiwork of Hometown Trolleys. Yearly maintenance is expected to run around $6,000 with another $20,000 slotted for drivers, though Koeth admitted the figures could be too low and she would know more about costs with time and experience. The trolley is free to passengers, and operates on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, which could expand in the future.

Overarching plans for VBO are to tie in these efforts to the in-process development of Van Buren’s riverfront area, which is a mix of city-owned property and property leased from the Corps of Engineers. There have been no specific plans or a time schedule for this related effort, but Koeth and Myers foresee “limitless” uses for that part of Van Buren’s quality-of-place initiatives, including picnic areas, exercise trails and spaces for larger venue events.

• The Knox Street Mural will be replaced with photo panels depicting a Strawberry Festival from 1920s Van Buren, which will complement the butcher paper replacement project A&P is undertaking along the fronts of downtown buildings, where vacant buildings shrouded in butcher paper will receive photographic facelifts depicting various historic images from Van Buren’s past.

• Also lining Main Street will be a Hometown Heroes Banner Series depicting Van Buren natives, who have served in the military. There will be 45 posters in all with a range of representation from active duty military personnel to both living and deceased veterans.

• On the commercial side, Jim Petty of Strategic Realty recently purchased the large building across the street from the train depot which includes the former Cottage Café location. Petty intends the building to be for commercial use, but has not released specifics.

• The restaurant Oliver’s is already open for business in the old Sisters location.

• Firefly Boutique and Gifts continues to grow from its location at 609 Main, taking up two fully restored buildings.