Riff Raff: The ‘good vibe’ in downtown Van Buren

by Michael Tilley (mtilley@talkbusiness.net) 905 views 

Mass and velocity help determine momentum. Learned years ago from Miss Ada Mills over in Johnson County that pressure and time were keys to success in politics and civic projects. A recent refresher on downtown Van Buren brought reminders of momentum and Miss Ada’s maxim.

Development in downtown Van Buren during the past 30-plus years I’ve been watching has, at best, been a frustrating on-again, off-again story. Some have joked that a sure way to end up with $1 million was to make a $2 million investment in downtown Van Buren. Shopping and eating in the downtown area has, historically, been hit-and-miss. The restaurant open Monday might be closed Saturday, and the antique shop owner kept hours more erratic than Arkansas weather. Storefront upkeep was sparse. Efforts to address the aforementioned issues and others would roll out with limited fanfare and often limited results.

More than five years ago the approach began to change. Fundamental, rather than superficial, change was needed, and Van Buren Original was formed by a handful of folks to approach downtown development with a long-term, strategic focus. Patience and persistence are vital with this approach because early wins are rare, and often behind the scenes. Creating an environment was vital that garners attention from investors, encourages property owners to seek the property’s best use, persuade absentee landlords to get in or get out, and convince all involved to buy in to higher expectations, hard work and longer-term success horizons.

Pressure and time.

But pressure and time is a hard sell when magic, murals, music and movie festivals transform downtowns in Bentonville, Fort Smith, Siloam Springs, Springdale and elsewhere in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas metro areas. Folks want momentum. Substance. At speed. What might be different this time is that folks wanting mass and velocity aren’t just sitting on their hands waiting for someone else to do it.

“People first thought we were nuts to try and revitalize downtown. but now, more and more people are asking, ‘How can we help?,’” Maryl Koeth, director of the Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission, and a leader with Van Buren Original, said during a recent interview.

The economy has not been a friend to the effort. The Fort Smith metro has been the slowest in Arkansas to recover from the Great Recession. The annual average employment per month showed signs of growth in 2016 (rising to 115,699), but dipped to 114,798 in 2017, and fell again to 113,329 in 2018. (December numbers are preliminary, meaning the 2018 average could change.) Van Buren’s hotel and prepared food tax generated $605,748 in 2018, up just 0.64% compared with 2017. Revenue from the 2% state tourism tax in Crawford County was $172,207 in 2018, down 4.3%.

Rusty Myers, also an active part of Van Buren Original, believes cities and districts should prepare for the economy they want. It’s a strategy that seeks to make the pie bigger instead of fighting for a piece of the existing pie.

“It’s true. We might not have the (job) base we’d like, but on the other hand, having that base of activities and amenities is what builds the economy,” Myers said, adding later in the interview, “If you want to build a viable economy, it has to be built upon your intellectual capital, which is why you build those amenities … that attract that demographic (younger generations, higher income, higher education) you talked about. … It’s up to each one of us as a community to posture ourselves to take advantage of that.”

Myers believes a “huge opportunity” is to be an attractive dining and shopping destination for the growing number of employees at ArcBest, and the students and faculty at the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education. Koeth said the medical school has been a “motivating factor” to make real change in downtown Van Buren.

“We knew, that to be able to compete, that people with that education level and that age level, what they would expect. … We know we have to market Van Buren as a great place to dine, and once we get them downtown to eat, they are going to see the shops,” she said.

They are going to see more than shops. There have been a few wins. Rewards are coming for some of the patient. Veterans Memorial Plaza and the Freedom Plaza are now open on the east end of the downtown, and represent an investment of more than $2.2 million. That area will soon be home to a farmers market including classes on agribusiness, gardening classes and other small events to draw crowds.

Most importantly, the 80% storefront vacancy is now down to 20%, with Koeth saying the downtown is “not antique row any more, but has a much broader variety of retail.” Two new restaurants – Pasta Grill and The Vault – will soon open. The Center for Arts and Education was awarded a $2 million “challenge grant” from the Windgate Foundation for a planned $4 million facility next to the King Opera House in downtown Van Buren. Stay tuned for more news on that project.

Pressure and time continues with efforts to add residential living in and near the downtown. Streetscape plans are in the works. Van Buren Original members continue the work to attract developers interested in significant investments and not just nickel-and-dime patchwork.

Fred Williams, who owns property and businesses in downtown Fort Smith and Van Buren and is a Van Buren Original member has for more than several decades seen the momentum wax and wane – along with the value of his investments.

“There is just a good vibe over here. … It’s real,” Williams said recently of what is beginning to happen in downtown Van Buren.

We at Talk Business & Politics are going to do a better job keeping tabs on Van Buren Original to see if the vibe reflects sustainable momentum. Time, and pressure, will tell.

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