Van Buren downtown sees 12% growth in new businesses, more planned

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 2,654 views 

Construction is underway on Freedom Park, a venue for live music, a farmer's market, and other family-friendly activities.

Almost one year has passed since Van Buren Original (VBO) – a group consisting of business owners, city leaders, and citizens – formed to revitalize the city’s downtown district.

Prior to 2016, a walk down these historic streets would have revealed only a handful of businesses with set, predictable hours in what group organizers acknowledged as ineffective. The sporadic visitor could pull front-first into any parallel parking spot of their choice and likely have no trouble — after the day’s business was complete — putting the car in Drive and plowing forward into traffic without hesitation.

Today, it’s a different story.

Thanks in large part to a $2 million “challenge grant” from the Windgate Foundation, a planned $4 million Center for Arts and Education facility next to King Opera House is progressing steadily. Construction is underway on Freedom Park, a venue for live music, a farmer’s market, and other family-friendly activities. The facility consists of two pavilions, open green-space, a soundstage, benches, and picnic tables. It also features a splash pad with Gold Star design to honor families of U.S. Armed Forces members, who lost their lives in service to their country.

The $1.7 million park – funded in part by a July 2012 special election – is a gateway to downtown and a symbol of the paradigm shift prevalent as you drive across the bridge from Fort Smith for a day of shopping.

Visitors now are not likely to be disappointed to find favorite shops or businesses closed at the whim of the owner. Business hours mean business hours. Parking isn’t impossible, but one must think twice about passing a spot because you may not get another chance for a few blocks.

New businesses are also being developed, and if it feels like you-the-consumer have more shopping options than before, it’s because you do.

Since VBO began promoting its vision for downtown Van Buren, there have been nine new businesses open with only one closure. In all, the 65 businesses here last May — when VBO started planning sessions – have grown to 73 (a boost of 12%) with more planned before the end of 2017, including a sports bar and a formal dining restaurant.
Both sites will hold “private club” status, allowing them to serve alcohol in order to navigate Crawford County’s “dry county” liquor laws.

One of the new businesses to open in the last year is Metro Gallery, a home goods furnishing store akin to Pier One Imports, “but about half the price,” jokes owner Mark Shaffer.

“This past Saturday was a record-setting day for us,” Shaffer said, adding that VBO “has been nothing but awesome to us.”

Shaffer is a native of Van Buren. He remembers what the city’s downtown was like during the “booming” years of the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, he also remembers the hard times.

“It had started to fade before I moved off to Dallas, but it was not as bad as its lowest point. I remember coming home to visit family and saying to my mom, ‘Hey, let’s go check this store out,’ and she would say, ‘Well, it’s not there anymore.’ Or I would say, ‘Let’s go eat downtown,’ and it would be, ‘Well, there’s nothing to eat downtown anymore.’ Now we’ve got two great restaurants down here and one, two, possibly three, more coming.”

Shaffer told Talk Business & Politics he was especially encouraged with his business considering the popular Arkansas-Missouri Railroad excursion train that makes daylong stops downtown every Wednesday and Saturday (in-season) has yet to launch. The first this year pulls into the station on Saturday (March 25).

“That’s a huge deal for small business owners. It’s 600 people that will be down here on our streets for the day.”

Momentum for downtown Van Buren started to build in early 2016 when the city’s Advertising and Promotion (A&P) Commission acquired and put into service a $145,000 trolley to use in conjunction with tourism efforts (i.e. 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 runs around $6,000 with another $20,000 slotted for drivers. The trolley operates free to passengers, but it has proven to be an investment in spreading the word about downtown, according to VBO organizer Rusty Myers. When first launched, only a handful of the handful who visited downtown Van Buren on a daily basis made use of it, but eight months later – in November 2016, Myers said – the trolley transported over 6,000 passengers (approximately 200 per day).

“It’s become something of an icon for what is going on down here,” Myers told Talk Business & Politics in a recent interview.

Myers, along with Chapters bookstore owner Debbie Foliart, were instrumental in setting up a freshman business program last September branded “Living Local.” The pilot program did not get 100% participation from the district’s 34 merchants, Foliart acknowledged, but it did attract 17 and this year’s participants have grown to 20.

The inaugural Living Local was promoted as a festival-style event from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. each Thursday evening. In addition to late night shopping, there was entertainment on each block, food, music, and a monthly theme. Foliart admitted there were “some nerves” in how the first Living Local would be received, but by the second week, “it had just exploded (in popularity).”

This year, VBO is working with The Old Town Merchants Association (TOTMA) and the city of Van Buren to extend the program from April 6 through the end of the year, and VBO is hoping to work with A&P to identify funds for possibly hiring an event planning coordinator to keep it all on track.

Shaffer, a TOTMA member, calls the partnership with VBO “welcomed,” noting that “We’re (TOTMA) all busy running our businesses, so it’s hard to constantly go out and look for entertainment and plan and coordinate these different events. This frees up more time for us to run our stores. It’s a real win-win situation, and from my own experience and the experience of those on my block, business has just flourished.”

This year’s Living Local schedule will kick off April 6 with an Easter promotion that will run through Saturday (April 8). Businesses will have Easter eggs inside their stores filled with random coupons and deals to stores within the downtown area. The rest of the schedule is a work-in-progress, but thus far VBO has at least one event planned for each month through the end of 2017.