Downtown Van Buren group priority list includes ‘locals first’ marketing and more housing options

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 101 views 

Downtown Van Buren

Van Buren Original (VBO), a group of business and city leaders intent on revitalizing downtown Van Buren, held their second meeting on Wednesday (June 22), identifying four key areas for growth to kickoff what will likely be a years-long effort.

Included in the VBO “to-do list” were the scheduling of more regular events in the historic district; better marketing and programming with a locals-first emphasis; an aggressive business recruitment program; and an increase in housing options throughout the downtown area.

Regarding activities, Maryl Koeth, head of Van Buren’s Advertising and Promotion (A&P), said that activity planning was something VBO could implement immediately, suggesting ideas like “Food Truck Friday” or “Wind Down Wednesday” promotions at downtown-established restaurants.

The historic district has only two active sit-down restaurants – Boomerang Diner and Oliver’s Southern Cuisine – and Koeth believes the number will have to grow to encourage more locals to visit downtown and stay around for the shopping. She also emphasized an increase in activities for children, recommending things like a skate park or playground equipment to attract more families.

“We need to do a lot of events, and they don’t have to be anything expensive. But we need to try things every day on Main Street that are special,” she said during the meeting held at the King Opera House in downtown Van Buren.

Koeth’s suggestion on restaurants tied into VBO organizer Rusty Myers’ belief that the downtown area would not only need to attract more businesses, “but the right types of businesses.”

Those in attendance believed that business-friendly “form-based coding” — in contrast to the traditional zoning Fort Smith uses — would help prospective businesses know exactly what was expected of them and incentivize locating (or relocating) in the downtown district, thus helping VBO’s business recruitment goals. Form-based coding, according to Tim Varner of MAHG Architecture, helps to “define an experience for visitors.”

“It’s the form of the building that matters most rather than what you’re allowing inside,” Varner explained to Talk Business & Politics at the May kickoff meeting.

Additionally, an increase in housing options would help business recruitment, the group agreed, sparking more life downtown and pushing rent for commercial businesses upward to the point that “businesses open only four hours a day would have to adjust or else they couldn’t afford to operate here,” Koeth said.

Another point of emphasis for VBO in the coming months — marketing and programming — would include better utilization of existing assets. Van Buren Planning Director Joe Hurst, who along with Mayor Bob Freeman was in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting, said existing assets like the King Opera House were under utilized and would need to be a priority moving forward. Freeman emphasized doing a better job of marketing the city’s assets to locals.

“Tourists are a bonus,” Freeman said, “but they should not be our main focus.”

Regarding increased use of the King Opera House and many of the city’s other existing assets, Koeth believed it would come once the district started placing a heavier emphasis on the arts — something Myers said would pick up with the opening of the Center for Arts and Education, which will occupy two buildings at the 400 block just west of the opera house.

The Center is one of Van Buren’s most heavily anticipated attractions. It was recently granted $2 million through a private donation that it must match through fundraising. Myers said in May that a third of the money was already raised and said on Wednesday he would “not be a bit surprised if it was under construction sometime 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.

Galen Hunter, also of MAHG (VBO’s consulting firm on the project), said he was encouraged by what downtown Van Buren already had going for it, telling VBO members it was “further along than many other cities that have made positive changes to revitalize their downtown.” Only 17 building vacancies remain, Hunter added.

VBO will hold its third meeting in July, but will begin assigning committees to develop more specific action plans for the four identified areas of growth over the next few days.

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