Friday, January 03, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Revitalizing Downtowns

Leslie Richardson, a Beebe resident who is concerned about the future of her city’s charmingly all-American downtown, recently asked city officials to approve her application to join the Arkansas Downtown Network. The organization awards local businesses grants to improve their storefronts, supports other beautification projects and even offers general business advice to help revitalize downtown areas that were once the heart of economic activity before big-box stores changed things forever.

The council supported the plan, but did not provide the $4,750 membership fee. So she will have to raise the money to get her city access to all of the services that the preservation group provides, like helping businesses get grants for restoration projects, suggesting looks for stores, beautification projects, guidance about how to bring new life to downtown and even general business consultancy for owners who are willing to make a go of it in the old part of town.

Richardson’s unique qualifications offer Beebe a strong chance of getting the most out of the program: She was the executive director of the Heber Springs Arkansas Downtown Network for two years and was also involved with the Searcy Main Street project.

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

With insider know-how, she touted that “business owners also get a 40 percent (state) tax credit for anything they do to the building for participating in this project.”

Simply put, she wants downtown to again be a destination for shopping, restaurants and special events and attract new businesses to vacant buildings.

To get there, she needs volunteers and donations to start a Beebe Downtown Network. (To get involved, call her at 501-882-3348 or e-mail

With Richardson’s experience and Beebe’s recent sales-tax windfall from the new Walmart Supercenter, the Beebe City Council should pay the reasonable annual fee to join the Arkansas Downtown Network and feel confident in supporting the endeavor.


Jacksonville, too, should join the Arkansas Downtown Network, which is part of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.Perhaps if led by the city’s chamber of commerce and with money from the advertising and promotions commission — an organization that has long struggled to find meaningful programs to pursue — Jacksonville could begin a new chapter in boosting the appeal of downtown.

It would be a logical continuation of the beautification projects and economic development already taking place here, while countering the urban blight that has been underway for some time. It also offers a chance for the city and chamber to find common goals and work together again.

Though downtown Jacksonville lacks the turn of the 20th Century buildings that distinguish Beebe, Samantha Evans, assistant director of Main Street Arkansas, said Jacksonville would be a strong candidate for the program.

A city does not need to have historic buildings to join, she said. Any city interested in urban renewal can join, and local business owners would have access to a variety of expertise — from making storefronts more appealing to improving retail displays and more.

Evans said any resident or civic group can form a downtown network as a first step in applying to the program and that the chamber of commerce would be a good place to initiate the process.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher oversaw a beautification project at Main and James streets when he first took office. We hope that expensive project hasn’t discouraged him or other officials from undertaking similar efforts. But, while the city’s budget problems continue, the Arkansas Downtown Network might be a thrifty and efficient alternative.