Monday, December 30, 2013

TOP STORY >> Push to preserve downtown Beebe

Leader staff writer

Beebe resident Leslie Richardson is working to garner support to preserve and revitalize the historic buildings of downtown Beebe before they crumble into ruins.

Richardson, a 1998 Beebe High School graduate, is an agent with John Hayes Shelter Insurance. She recently moved back to Beebe.

She gave a presentation during the recent Beebe City Council meeting on the Arkansas Downtown Network, a program of Main Street Arkansas that is under the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. The Arkansas Downtown Network provides downtown revitalization assistance to communities that cannot participate on a large scale.

The program provides grants, designs, organization and promotes community efforts.

Cities with a Downtown Network are Arkadelphia, Clarksville, Dewitt, Fort Smith, Heber Springs, Monticello, Morrilton, Pine Bluff, Rector, Warren and Wynne.

“I feel like there is a lot of history. It makes me sad to see the heart of the city drying up. This is where I plan to live, where I want to be. There is a lot of potential for downtown, an opportunity to grow our community,” Richardson said.

After her presentation, the city council passed a resolution supporting Beebe’s participation in the Arkansas Downtown Network program.

Richardson received an associate’s degree in art from Arkansas State University before earning a bachelor’s degree in organizational management and a minor in marketing from John Brown University.

Her family moved to Beebe when she was in the seventh grade.

“My first experience moving to Beebe was going downtown shopping. The Powell building was still open. Everybody used to shop downtown. It was the center of the community. There’s where I want things to be again,” Richardson said.

She had worked downtown at the former Citizens Bank, the red brick building where the Wilbur Mills Educational Services Cooperative is located now.

“When people drive through a town with downtown buildings, it makes an impression, if people want to work and live here,” Richardson said.

Decades have passed since Beebe’s downtown district was a bustling center of commerce.

Over the years, the city has had nine groceries stores, including a Kroger; two small hospitals, a motel, a bank, four doctors’ offices, dentists’ offices, two restaurants, a furniture store, a Chevy, a Ford and a DeSoto and Plymouth car dealerships, a John Deere tractor dealership, beauty shops, clothing stores, hardware stores, gas stations, a Firestone tire shop, a Western Auto store, a meat market, a movie theater and motor courts with cabins.

Richardson would like to bring people and activity back to make downtown a destination by using the historic buildings for retail, special events, retaining current businesses and attracting new uses for vacant buildings.

She is a past executive director for the Heber Springs Arkansas Downtown Network and served in that position for two years. Richardson worked on the application process and served on a committee for the Searcy Main Street project.

To get a Beebe Downtown Network started, Richardson is seeking volunteers for committees and monetary donations for the program.

She also needs letters of support from community leaders to continue with the Downtown Network application process.

Richardson said it will take a year for the application process, since applications are only accepted from January through March.

She explained that Beebe’s commitment to the Downtown Network program would be for three years. The city’s support doesn’t need to be financial. It can simply help by keep downtown clean or flowers watered, Richardson said. She also said she already has support from local business owners.

Richardson is trying to come up with ideas for a fundraising event to support the fledgling program’s annual budget. She said a triathlon held in Heber Springs funds the city’s entire Heber Springs Downtown Network budget for the year.

The minimum annual budget required by the Main Street Arkansas program is $4,750. The budget includes a $1,000 mini-grant to help a local business with designs or painting the exteriors of a building. Richardson said there are other grants available to help businesses with restoration projects.

The Downtown Network also offers free advice from a design team to help revitalize buildings in downtown.

“Business owners also get a 40 percent (state) tax credit for anything they do to the building for participating in this project,” Richardson said.

She and chamber of commerce director Kristen Boswell have volunteered to help with the project.

Richardson said, “We have a college here, and it would be nice for people to look at downtown as the heart of the community. You have to drive through there to get to most places.”

Her proposal comes at a time when, over the past year, Mayor Mike Robertson and the city council having been pushing for the condemnation of the two-story Powell and Company building at 201 N. Main St.

It was built in 1885. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. It is one of the first buildings in White County to have an elevator and have air conditioning. The department store closed its doors in 1999 and was later sold.

City officials were concerned about bricks falling off the facade and pigeons living inside the building.

The Powell building’s owner, Patrice Madesclaire, lives in France. He has hired architect Robert Schelle of Cabot to oversee building repairs.

Schelle said he is in the process of getting contractor estimates on putting in new mortar for the bricks and binding the bricks to the walls. The broken windows are boarded up, and the birds have been eradicated. Schelle said Madesclaire plans to restore the building to the way it was originally built, with its balcony and stairs intact.

For more information or to get involved with the Beebe Downtown Network program, contact Leslie Richardson at 501-882-3348 or e-mail her at