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PRESERVING HISTORIC DOWNTOWN

 Downtown Fort Smith’s Garrison Avenue has seen a string of historic renovations and new businesses over the past two years, as well as a splash of color from the “Unexpected Project: Festival of Murals”. [BRIAN D. SANDERFORD // TIMES RECORD]

 Americana hasn’t totally vanished with the advent of big box stores, but the historic downtown areas in Fort Smith and Van Buren share a struggle to preserve history while making progress in a transition period of commercial evolution.

As in many cities across the United States, the two downtowns saw mom-and-pop stores dry up and blow away as new by-pass highways were built across town and well-lit warehouses on the perimeter offered better deals. These days it comes down to a mix of the arts and entertainment, tourism, and commercial/residential mixed-use space to keep things rolling in the downtown quarters.

In the past 10 years, as western Arkansas recovers from the Great Recession, a mindset of recapturing the past has sunken in at the deepest levels and good vibes are resonating in the old bricks of downtown Van Buren and Fort Smith with a more diverse stable of stores and numerous renovation projects that speak to a new era for old spaces.

“My theory is that every town in America is beginning to look the same,” artist Ralph Irwin said at Western Legacy Gallery in downtown Van Buren. “You see your Walmart, your Chili’s, your Dollar General. They’re all beginning to look like you rubber stamped them.”

Preserving downtown has been a long-running agenda with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s Main Street Arkansas and various shop-local campaigns. Taking things one step further may need a bigger plan. And that’s what is being done with the Propelling Downtown Forward initiative.

Vibrant downtowns can provide an entertainment opportunity for area residents, a magnet for tourists from in state as well as out of state and a needed boost to economic development.

Young and restless

Downtown Fort Smith is viewed as the “heartbeat of the city,” and a major piece of the puzzle for economic development is also appealing to younger generations.

Almost every study out there on economic development says people starting out in the job market decide where they want to live first and then go there to find a job, according to Steve Clark, president of Propak Logistics in Fort Smith.

Getting someone to pick Fort Smith over San Francisco, Asheville, N.C., Austin, Texas, or Portand, Ore. is a long shot at best. But it doesn’t mean the city won’t eventually see its youths return after picking up some ideas in their exploration. And it doesn’t mean the city can’t attract top-notch talent, as can be seen with the continued recruitment of physicians for the local regional hospitals and outlying rural areas.

Lots of people who work to develop local economies want to appeal to the younger generations with shopping and job openings, and they face many obstacles. E-commerce has upped the ante for even the strongest brick and mortar stores, but being able to offer something that can be obtained nowhere else offers a solution, Irwin says.

Clark pointed to the arts as being a driving force in Fort Smith’s downtown salvation, and artisan crafts could be an integral part of the zone’s development. Clark has helped lead the way in changing perspectives about downtown when he and others with 64.6 Downtown pulled off the “Unexpected Project: Festival of Murals.”

Guido van Helten’s triptych mural at OK Foods’ feed mill in Fort Smith features Gene “Beck” Beckham, left, Kristina Jones and Edward Paradela of Fort Smith. It was painted between Aug. 30 and Sept. 13 during The Unexpected Project: 2016. [JOHN LOVETT // TIMES RECORD]

The 51-year-old businessman also spent the past three years restoring the Friedman-Mincer Building at Texas Corner downtown for his company’s new headquarters. Clark’s thought on downtown and the city in general is as simple as creating an environment he wants to live in.

“We can’t match the resources of our neighbors to the north, except that we can match wit, intelligence and creativity,” Clark said. “That’s where we need to double down in my opinion. ... This is the second largest city in the state. We have a right to be at the table. ... I think we have made it easy for people to discount us and we are beginning to acknowledge there are minimum prices of admission of being relevant in today’s economy.”

Some of those “admission prices,” Clark mentions are adding a trails system to mandatory infrastructure needs, diverse options in education like Future School of Fort Smith and celebration of the arts.

“If you want to be perceived as a progressive community, you have to do things that progressive communities do,” Clark said.

Diversifying

What’s unique about a town like Van Buren, Irwin said, is that it was able to survive the “supercenters” by learning some important lessons about diversifying its portfolio of stores. Previously saturated with antique stores, Irwin said, downtown Van Buren’s stores have gone through the bubble and come out on the other side with a good education.

A number of new businesses have sprung up in downtown Van Buren to keep Main Street alive with niche markets like Cinders & Smoke general store and gunsmith shop. There are big plans for an arts center next to the Historic King Opera House. A new trolley service was put in gear last month to shuttle people around downtown.

Like a business that has to continually evolve to stay competitive, the downtown areas of Van Buren and Fort Smith are changing with the times.

Customers sit inside Savoy Tea Co. as others enter Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 in downtown Fort Smith. [BRIAN D. SANDERFORD // TIMES RECORD]

It may just be coincidental, but since the Fort Smith nonprofit group 64.6 Downtown sprung up last year to put on the “Festival of Murals” last September, a number of “quality of place” businesses have been created, including the Savoy Tea Shop at the corner of 10th Street and Garrison Avenue. A “pocket park” with a permanent food truck is now in the works nearby, and developers have looked at the abandoned buildings next door for commercial and residential space.

And in January, Greg Burrows and Randy Shock announced they were renovating the historic Ward-Garrison Building at 523 Garrison Ave. in Fort Smith into condos and a restaurant. Sacred Grounds coffee shop also was resurrected by Miss Ellie’s Coffee owners Coffee.org after two years in darkness. It closed July 2014, not long before Bricktown Brewery’s restaurant and craft beer bar revived the sports bars space The Varsity. La Huerta Mexican Restaurant and Neumeier’s Rib Room are other cornerstones of downtown Fort Smith’s entertainment district near several shops and boutiques like Indie, which was opened recently by two college students. Antique stores, clothing resale shops, and an array of businesses operate on what Clark calls the “ribs” of downtown like Second through 10th streets.

Sustainability

Sam T. Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith, also serves on the Central Business Improvement District (CBID) as treasurer. He noted by email that downtown Fort Smith is in a position to stay vital because of the increase in people who “live, work and play” downtown. But there are still a couple things on his wish list.

Greg Smith River Trail along the Fort Smith Riverfront. [TIMES RECORD FILE PHOTO]

No. 1 is riverfront development. No. 2 is “connectivity” in having more accommodations for people to walk and ride bikes throughout downtown.

“If we can get these two things done, I believe it will create the right environment for many other needed amenities to sprout,” Sicard wrote.

Phil White, the man behind the Park at West End and the iconic Ferris Wheel by the river, said more white collar jobs downtown would create the need for more residential space. “More residents create the need for more services. They feed off of each other,” White wrote. “Our big need is more jobs to fill up the remaining square footage of developable space.”

But that also creates another need for more vehicle parking, he said. Some people, however, may opt to just ride a bike and ride public transit. Although there is a farmer’s market downtown on Tuesday and Saturdays, and Twin City Produce on Ninth Street, there are no full-service grocery stores downtown.

‘Walkable city’

The “Downtown Stroll” guided museum visitors on a short walk of the area discussing historic buildings and the introduction of interesting historical figures. [PHOTO COURTESY FORT SMITH MUSEUM OF HISTORY]

Some downtown Van Buren merchants as pushing to make Main Street one-way, at least temporarily, to cut down on vehicle traffic and encourage shopping. In Fort Smith there is talk of returning A and B streets to two-way traffic to cut down on heavy truck traffic on Garrison Avenue.

As local transportation planner Luke Tia points out, a group called Strong Towns argues two-way streets are a big step in the right direction” to creating walkable neighborhoods that “prioritize people over cars” and these adjustments back to “traditional development patterns” lead to higher economic productivity.

In an effort to diversify Towson Avenue and open up space for medical clinics, new rules have already been written by the CBID that keep any more used car lots from being formed along that north-south downtown corridor.

Richard Griffin, chairman of the CBID, said he has given copies of the book “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time” by urban designer Jeff Speck to all of the CBID members.

Ivy Owen, executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, reached out to the CBID in May to say it was “encouraging” to hear about the private sector’s investment in a downtown plan. He said “what is good for downtown is good for Chaffee and vice versa” and offered his assistance in the planning. Chaffee and the city of Fort Smith are joining forces to build more bike trails around the former military post.

Across the Arkansas River, Wes Turner at Main Street Interiors in Van Buren said it has been a dream of his for many years to have a more pedestrian friendly downtown. He and neighboring business owners Steve and Debbie Edward at Cinders & Smoke would like to see the street closed off to vehicle traffic to encourage more walking. Turner even calls for tearing up the asphalt and showing off the old brick streets.

Turner pointed to successes at Branson Landing in Missouri and the Riverwalk at San Antonio as examples of walkable shopping environments. At Branson Landing in particular, a downtown environment was recreated. Turner noted, “We already have that right here.”

“How hard would it be to close off the street?” Debbie Edwards asked. “Just let it be like a shopping park.”

“Most of the traffic here is through-traffic,” Turner added. “They just pass right by and don’t stop.”

Tourism

Van Buren’s downtown has a variety of unique stores, but the eight blocks of historic real estate are also strongly tied to tourism from the Arkansas & Missouri Excursion Train that brings in visitors for shopping and visiting the Drennen-Scott House of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

A new trolley paid for by the Van Buren Advertising and Promotions Commission helps those efforts. On a trolley ride around downtown and other historic sites, Maryl Koeth pointed to a number of things being done to spruce up the downtown area like covering windows of abandoned shops with artistic coverings rather than just paper. Koeth, executive director of the Van Buren A&P, also showed where an old mural is being restored, and another is being revamped with a long panoramic photo from the 1920s.

On the whole, Van Buren is working to improve its image and many other improvements are in the works, Koeth added.

In Fort Smith, downtown has seen progress in “both infrastructure and the creation of major events,” writes Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Advertising and Promotion Commission. Four big new events are the Fort Smith Marathon, Steel Horse Rally, Peacemaker Music and Art festival and the “Unexpected Project: Festival of Murals.” Legris had a laundry list of other downtown amenities like the Compass Park Splash Pad, Park at West End and year-round Downtown Farmers Market.

Motorcycles line the center of Garrison Avenue on Saturday, May 6, 2017, during the second day of the 3rd annual Steel Horse Rally in Fort Smith. [JAMIE MITCHELL // TIMES RECORD]

“The new energy downtown will hopefully mean that ‘downtown Fort Smith’ will never really be finished but continue to evolve,” Legris concluded. “Not only will these developments improve Fort Smith’s quality of place, but it provides additional amenities for attracting visitors for vacations, conventions and meetings -- adding to the economic vitality of our city.”

Riverfront development in Fort Smith is expected to get really rolling in 2018 with the construction of the U.S. Marshals Museum. Organizers bill the museum as much an educational institution as a potential tourist draw. A water taxi to shuttle people between the two historic downtowns is an idea being floated around.

Work to be done

Bicyclists on the new Blue Lion Bikeway, which runs between the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith campus and the downtown area of Fort Smith. [Photo courtesy UAFS]

Fort Smith has seen a series of success stories in the past few years that has created enough momentum for many to believe its historic downtown is sustainable. There is just a lot left to be done.

“We want to build on our progress with more development, more commerce, more people living and working downtown, and we want our downtown to elevate the quality of place of our community ... for the entire Fort Smith region,” Sicard wrote by email.

Sicard also noted the “number of people living, working and playing downtown has increased markedly over the past decade.”

Mitch Minnick, volunteer leader of the Propelling Downtown Forward initiative with Talicia Richardson and Rusty Myers, said “connectivity” of bike and walking paths for downtown Fort Smith is an important element of the future of Fort Smith and its presence as a regional hub for west central Arkansas and east central Oklahoma.

Click here to read an article about Fort Smith Parks and Recreation's approved plan for bike lanes in our city!