Taking its name from the plat that first laid out the city in 1837, Van Buren Original (VBO) was formed two years ago by business and civic leaders.
They realized that revitalizing Van Buren’s downtown required an organized and concerted effort.
Driving VBO is its belief that downtown Van Buren is a highly visible indication of the well-being of the entire community. Nurturing and sustaining its vitality contributes significantly to the city’s overall community and economic development success.
The backbone of Van Buren’s downtown is Main Street, six-blocks long. It is book-ended by the Crawford County Courthouse in the three-hundred block and by the old Frisco Railroad Depot in the eight-hundred block. The courthouse is one of the oldest west of the Mississippi that is still used as a courthouse. The depot houses Van Buren’s visitor center and serves as a passenger loading point for A&M Railroad’s excursion train. Containing over seventy Victorian Era, late nineteenth and early twentieth-century buildings, Main Street is a designated National Historic District.
Progress is underway and apparent. The city’s $1.2 million Freedom Park is across from the depot. Funded by a 2012 special election sales tax, the park features covered pavilions, a splash-pad, covered outdoor stage, restroom facilities and parking. Upon completion, the park will include a commemorative area honoring veterans.
Particularly exciting is the farmers market. It will relocate from the city library parking lot to the new park. The market is expected to be open 2 to 3 days a week through the summer and fall with offerings of local, in-season produce.
The Center for Art & Education (CAE) will be at the other end of Main Street. An existing historic building will be renovated into a new 13,000 square-foot facility that will become the Center’s new home. Adjacent to the city’s fully-restored King Opera House theater, the Center’s new facility will include galleries, workshop space and a coffee shop.
The Center for Art & Education will be a significant cultural addition to downtown, and it will be a positive traffic generator for downtown merchants and eateries. For this huge undertaking, the CAE is well into a $4 million fund-raising capital campaign, with $2 million of it already committed as a challenge grant by the Windgate Foundation.
Another positive for downtown Van Buren is the relocation of the Crawford County Detention Center to the county’s newly constructed detention facility east of town. The county is re-purposing the old Main Street facility into offices and records storage space for county departments--a use more conducive to the downtown revitalization.
Also contributing to downtown revitalization is the new trolley service. The city’s Advertising & Promotion (A&P) Commission acquired and placed into service in 2016 the $145,000 trolley. It currently runs three days a week up and down Main Street and to sites like the Drennen-Scott House and Fairview Cemetery.
“Ridership is running about 200 per day and increasing each month. Based on how well it’s been received by our visitors and the positive comments we’ve been getting, we’re very pleased with our investment,” says A&P director Maryl Purvis.
Most significant of all is the business growth that is occurring downtown. This was a prime objective of VBO. In the last twelve months, nine new businesses have opened with only one closure, representing a 12% boost. More are planned before the end of this year, including a sports grill and a formal dining restaurant. As important, several of downtown’s long-standing store owners are saying they are seeing increases in customer traffic and sales.
All this takes teamwork. Whatever success there’s been and will be for Van Buren downtown’s revitalization--and already there’s been quite a lot--it is because the community’s leaders and stakeholders are on board, and the right people are working together cooperatively toward an agreed-upon, common vision.
By Rusty Myers
Rusty Myers is board chairman of Van Buren Original. Formerly he worked for Western Arkansas Planning & Development District for38 years. He is now retired, teaches a Community Leadership class for the Business College at UAFS, volunteers for various local non-profit organizations, and enjoys traveling with Linda, his wife of 50 years.