Downtown boosters see opportunities ahead for Northwest Arkansas cities’ urban cores

by David Edmark ([email protected]) 430 views 

Karen Wagaman (far right), Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce vice president for downtown development, addreses a forum Monday in Fayetteville about the region's downtowns. Also participating were (from left) Misty Murphy, executive director of the Downtown Springdale Alliance; Billy Waite, Fayetteville Dickson Street Merchants Association secretary, and Meghan Feyerabend, Main Street Siloam Springs president.

Leaders in Northwest Arkansas cities continue to pursue downtown improvements combined with new options for entertainment and residency, according to city officials gathered Monday (Sept. 19) in Fayetteville for a chamber forum.

Rogers wants to expand night life in the district along with the enhanced recreational opportunities that will accompany the reopening of Lake Atalanta this fall. Siloam Springs aims for more foot traffic at its businesses downtown and more residences there as loft apartments fill up. Fayetteville’s Dickson Street merchants hope to tie in with efforts by their counterparts on Block Avenue and to partner more with the Walton Arts Center and the University of Arkansas. Springdale is renovating public facilities along Emma Avenue while encouraging private efforts such as Tyson Foods’ new offices.

The four cities were represented at a forum sponsored by the construction and developers committee of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. A representative from Bentonville was invited but had to cancel because of a last-minute commitment.

Anyone who wants to develop property in downtown Rogers might need to see Karen Wagaman to get a lead because, she said, “there aren’t a lot of real estate signs. People need to know who to talk to.” Wagaman, vice president of downtown development at the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, noted that it’s a busy time for transactions on the public and private fronts.

Since 2011, investors have poured about $60 million into property development in the downtown area, including Lake Atalanta just east of the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad tracks. Wagaman said that figure splits into half from private sources and half from the city and the Walton Family Foundation. Buyers associated with the Walton Family Foundation recently purchased the Lane Hotel which has been vacant since 2003 when it last served as an assisted living facility. It is being converted into a school, although details about that effort haven’t yet been announced.

Improvements to the lake should be finished by November, Wagaman said. The improvements will include new fishing piers and bike trails. The nearby Railyard Bike Park is being used by about 1,000 cyclists a week, she said.

Employees who work downtown want to see more dining opportunities within walking distance and people who live in residential areas near downtown are interested in expanded night life in that area.

“We have a lot of younger families moving into homes nearby and they like to have places to go,” Wagaman said, adding that live music is available at three downtown venues.

The resurging downtown is a popular destination for people looking for things to buy and places to live. Meghan Feyerabend, president of Main Street Siloam Springs, said 30 new businesses have been established in recent years. Meanwhile, 50 loft apartments opened and are occupied. It’s not easy for the supply to keep up with the continuing demand as only a couple of rental retail spaces are available and eight loft apartments are being created by retrofitting a former hotel at University Street and Broadway, she said.

“Rental rates have been going up, and that’s a good thing,” Feyerabend said, noting the positive impact on the local economy.

Some downtown merchants want to be more than just daytime businesses. Feyerabend said Thursday evenings will become Girls Night Out downtown with merchants staying open later.

The city implemented a master plan for the downtown area and already has some accomplishments to report. Feyerabend said a bridge on Mount Olive Street was redesigned to narrow the driving lanes for vehicles and to widen the sidewalks for pedestrians. More parking areas and crosswalks were also added to the street. New trees are being planted this fall on the street’s downtown blocks.

Feyerabend said the downtown restaurant scene is expanding. Recent additions include a tap room that serves only Arkansas-made beer and an outdoor area that hosts three food trucks. A restaurant specializing in German food will open soon. Recreational opportunites will expand for the city’s annual Homegrown Festival on Oct. 8 as kayaks will be rented for use on Sager Creek.

With a long-established but evolving entertainment district, Fayetteville’s Dickson Street Merchants Association has been operating since 2013 as a voluntary group of business owners, said Billy Waite, association secretary.

Waite said one of its accomplishments was to work with the City Council to get an appropriation for expanding Lights of the Ozarks activities from just the downtown square to include Dickson Street. He cited other recent achievements as promoting the Oktoberfest Festival and Slide the City event, improvements in the street’s crosswalks and improved cooperation with the UA and the Walton Arts Center during its expansion.

Waite said the merchants requested a $100,000 study of the overall downtown parking situation for Dickson Street and the area around the square. He said merchants would like to know what to expect in parking policies in the future and the prospects for developing uniform parking policies for both Dickson Street and the square. Waite also said the Dickson Street merchants would like to tie in with the merchants on Block Avenue and the square.

“We all try to promote things that are good for business,” he said.

The role of the Downtown Springdale Alliance, which was established three years ago by a coalition of groups including the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, Historic Springdale and the city government, “is to kick start the revitalization of downtown,” said Misty Murphy, executive director of the alliance. Activity is moving ahead on several fronts.

“Downtown has been significantly underutilized in recent decades,” she said.

Murphy credited the presence of the Razorback Greenway, which crosses Emma Avenue in the downtown area, with facilitating much of the momentum.

“The decision to run the greenway through downtown instead of by Interstate 49 was really helpful,” she said.

The downtown master plan covers 675 acres that includes areas beyond the immediate Emma Avenue commercial corridor. It extends east to the city airport and the Jones Center and southwest to include the Arts Center of the Ozarks. Projects include improving the streetscape along Emma Avenue. New water and sewer lines are being installed east of the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad tracks prior to the installation of lighting, trees and benches. When that part of the work is complete activity will shift west of the tracks.

The public investment also includes the city’s construction of Walter Turnbow Park along Spring Creek just north of Emma Avenue. Murphy said the park “will be a good front lawn for downtown Springdale.” Nearby Shiloh Square will be renovated to serve as more of a public square, she said.

Luther George Park, which fronts Meadow Avenue on the north and Park Street on the east, lies south of the downtown commercial corridor. Murphy said it will be expanded so downtown parks will include about 20 acres and that its north front will be on Emma Avenue.

Murphy also noted Tyson Foods building activity on Emma Avenue that will bring 300 employees downtown when complete. About 100 are already there at the structure at 516 E. Emma Ave. that formerly served as an Orscheln Farm and Home store, offices of The Springdale News and a terminal for Jones Truck Lines. To the west on the other side of Emma Avenue, Tyson is building a new structure that extends south to Meadow Avenue.

Murphy said Springdale needs to develop more downtown residential facilities, mentioning that middle-priced apartments in the $850-$1,150 monthly rental range would benefit young families.