Wednesday, June 08, 2016

TOP STORY >> Jacksonville is ready for its renaissance

Leader staff writer

This is the second story in a three-part series about revitalizing downtown Jacksonville.

It’s nothing more than a strip of brick buildings, others badly painted, running north to south under Main Street’s viaduct.

The area is largely a drive-by as First Street, also known as state Hwy. 161, cuts close to the pre-1970s storefronts with metal awnings, charming but in need of repair.

A few old signs from various business reincarnations remain—Angel’s Place, boasting of great food and good times, the Knights of Columbus and Jim’s Pawn Shop.

Most of the large windows are papered or curtains pulled tight.

About the only thing the block of nearly vacant buildings has going for it, well, there’s plenty of parking, an unending cool breeze that sweeps from under the viaduct and an excellent view of the train tracks.

Oh yes, there’s the recently rehabbed “old jail” across the tracks.

While most residents speed by, taking little note, and despite its warts and chipped paint, Jacksonville Alderman Barbara Mashburn sees a Jacksonville art district, peppered with eateries, coffee and other shops.

Instead of just dreaming, she set about doing the extensive legwork and paperwork needed to document the area from north Hickory to Mulberry Street, including 19 buildings, a vacant lot and the spot where the Missouri Pacific Railroad depot had been.

She also wrote about its history and significance in order to make a plea for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Her research took about six months, and her ad hoc group applied for the historic designation in 2014. Mashburn says she has uncovered a colorful history and believes the structures are worth saving.

Mashburn’s efforts paid off and the buildings can now be found on the National Register and officially make up a large portion of the Jacksonville Historic District. The area is already zoned commercial and is ready for investment and developers, she says.

It’s the oldest area in the city, dating back to about 1872 with the construction of the Cairo and Fulton rail line.

Ralph Wilcox, National Register and Survey Coordi-nator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, says the district earned the coveted status because it’s an excellent example of the commercial growth that started in the mid-1920s and continued until the early 1960s.

First Street was originally Front Street and several businesses sprang up with the railroad’s construction.

Like many other Arkansas towns, rail gave birth to Jacksonville and continued as its bloodline—carrying freight and passengers in and out—until the widespread use of trucks and passenger cars after post-World War II.

Now, it’s a one-of-a-kind, walkable neighborhood that pre-dates the urban sprawl created by the automobile, Wilcox says.

The ultimate goal is to save a number of the district’s old homes and businesses “that are in disrepair and to keep them from falling down,” Mashburn says.


While technically not inside the Historic District, Mashburn recently scheduled a cleanup day at the city’s original jail at 408 E. Center St. (now Spring Street), but it was rained out.

Nonetheless, about a dozen members of the Jacksonville Police Department answered her call. By day’s end, the officers had not only cleared out decades of debris but had painted the jail inside and out.

Besides being used to working in all types of weather, Police Chief Kenny Boyd says the group was happy to help and felt it only fitting to be part of the old jail’s makeover.

In fact, Boyd supports the renovation of the entire downtown area, especially with the coming of the new Jacksonville High School near the Hwy. 67/167 Main Street exit.

“It’s a matter of community pride,” he says.

Wilcox says the jail is also eligible for placement on the National Register.


The Jacksonville Historical District Board, made up of 15 members, is working hand-in-hand with the city on development of the district, and now, with the National Register status, it is eligible for federal and state grants that the district otherwise would not have been able to obtain.

Next on her list is to raise the money to build a replica of the original train depot from an old picture she found. It will cost about $100,000, she estimates, and will be built on the original depot’s spot on Spring Street.

But for now, she hopes to host some activities in the Historic District this summer, perhaps live music and food trucks.

At 118 First St., Roberta McGrath operates a hair salon/art gallery. McGrath is a member of the Jacksonville Historic District Board who supports Mashburn’s vision.

She has also developed her own ideas and features a hand-drawn blueprint of the Jacksonville Center for the Arts in her art gallery. It includes art and music schools and a performance hall and museum and would take up several buildings along First Street.

She says, “We need this in Jacksonville.”

Mashburn said that tourism was one of the reasons for revamping the district and there are people around the country who seek out National Register listings to visit.

She hopes they’ll stop in Jacksonville.

Mayor Gary Fletcher believes the rehabilitation of the Historic District will complement the redevelopment of the downtown area.

“The Historic District would tie together Jacksonville’s past to its future,” he says.

Instead of whizzing by, Fletcher says with a little development “people will have a reason to get out of their cars and stay awhile.”

Don’t ask businessman and developer Tommy Dupree about tourism’s potential in Jacksonville unless you have a couple hours.

The former Keep America Beautiful chairman and a Jacksonville Museum of Military History board member comes armed with aerial maps, booklets, both printed locally and by the state, a decade old master plan, and he doesn’t mince words.

“The area is rundown looking,” he says.


The Main Street area lacks “ambience and a charm factor,” and he asks, “Who’s going to want to be around without that?”

And like others, he sees the construction of a new high school and the widening of Hwy. 67/167 as an opportunity.

Within the downtown district, Dupree wants to see an overlapping tourist district that includes the museum, its aircraft and other buildings, as well as the Historic District and perhaps there would be opportunity to develop more attractions nearby.

Like the mayor, Dupree would like to see a “beautification effort,” perhaps more trees and pots brimming with colorful flowers, sidewalks and public art.

He feels there’s a need for an events and conference center and upscale hotels. In turn, this would attract shops and restaurants, he says.

Dupree touts the benefits of developing a master plan, which he says would create excitement and give people a vision.

Fletcher also wants the city to control what’s built and have neatly developed districts for shopping, dining, arts, instead of a hodgepodge of poorly designed strip malls.

But Cary Bradburn says that may not be possible when it comes to investors. Bradburn is an Arkansas historian, author who wrote for the North Little Rock Times before and after the rebirth of Argenta. He now works for the North Little Rock History Commission.

He says a master plan offers people direction, but that he would draw the features in pencil instead of permanent ink.

“Investors will have their own ideas,” and money talks, he says.

So keep an eraser handy, he advises.

“Embrace and highlight your own history and make those buildings relevant to revitalization. I believe Jacksonville has an opportunity to make positive changes,” he says.

That’s exactly what Dupree wants to do.


There’s an old saying that Arkansans didn’t know when the Great Depression began and got no relief when it ended, so it’s no surprise that folks traveled from around the state to work at the Arkansas Ordnance Plant when it opened in 1942.

Employees and their families lived in tents and other makeshift shelters, but it put food in their bellies at a time when work was scarce.

“The Arkansas Ordnance Plant was a big, big deal,” Dupree says.

DannaKay Dugger, the military museum’s director, say that without the ordnance plant, Jacksonville probably wouldn’t exist today.

“The population jumped from 400 to 42,000 overnight,” Duggar says. Workers brought their entire families, and of the 13,000 people who worked at the plant, perhaps 75 percent were women — so it’s not surprising that Rosie the Riveter posters are for sale at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History.

Duggar says they have Rosie the Riveter action figures for sale, too.

“Women get overlooked for their efforts during (World War II),” Dupree says.

It’s a fact that the museum highlights. Since opening 10 years ago and not counting this year’s numbers, Duggar says they’ve had about 39,000 museum visitors.

Many of those signing the museum’s guest book come from out of town.

Like Dupree, she feels the city and state are missing an opportunity to “tap into the Civil War and World War II history. It’s not being developed like it should be.”

Recently, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he wants to focus more on tourism, and according to the Arkansas Hospitality Association, tourism tax collections at the state level were up again in 2015 by 7 percent.

The Hospitality Assoc-iation’s executive director Montine McNulty says tourism is leading the state’s economy in growth.

It rates as the state’s number two moneymaker, behind agriculture.

The military remains a strong presence in Jacksonville — the Air Force base is worth about $800 million to the local economy.

Nearby Camp Robinson has the Arkansas National Guard Museum and often the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in downtown Little Rock features art from the World War II Japanese-American internments camps at Rohwer and Jerome. Both museums are easy drives for those interested in military history.

Closer to home, there’s the Reed’s Bridge Civil War Battlefield on Hwy. 161, which is recognized as part of the Trail of Tears, Dupree says. “The military is a big part of our story.”

As a matter of fact, the Jacksonville area has been involved in a number of war efforts, like manufacturing Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and housing the Titan missiles during the Cold War, Fletcher says.

While not exactly military, there’s the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission Foundation Shooting Sports Complex on Graham Road.

According to city Parks Director Kevin House, the first year the complex was opened, they threw 1 million clay pigeons and last year, they threw about 1.2 million.

It’s drawing individuals and competitors from around the state and the country, he expects to beat their 2015 number this year.

Still, Dupree says the city is missing a great opportunity to take advantage of “free advertisement” when it comes to its tourist attractions. There are state-printed brochures that could be made available around town and state websites that could be linked to the city’s website.

In addition, there are a number of Jacksonville sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Jacksonville Historic District, the Jacksonville Commercial District, Reed’s Bridge on Bayou Meto, Arkansas Ordnance Plant Guard House and McCraw Cemetery that could be used to entice more visitors.

Highway signs would help, too, he says. “It’s free advertisement. We need to take advantage of these,” he says.

Dupree says, “The city has a story that needs to be told.”

Next: A look at various ways to aid in the financing of the development of downtown Jacksonville.