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Main Street matters

by Rex Nelson | February 20, 2010 at 2:18 a.m.

— I’ve had Main Street on my mind. In Arkansas’ capital city, where I’ve lived the past 20 years, the Downtown Little Rock Partnership is studying ways to revitalize Main Street. During a meeting in August, the board of the nonprofit organization determined that this should be a priority in 2010.

A revitalization committee was formed under the leadership of Little Rock construction executive Bob East. Mayor Mark Stodola invited the Mayors’ Institute on City Design to develop an overview plan. The institute is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Architectural Foundation and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. More than 800 mayors from 600 cities have participated since the program was established in 1986.

The Downtown Little Rock Partnership, created in March 1984, recently conducted an online survey of people who are in the area on a daily basis. Stodola has said that Main Street must “re-emerge as a cultural nexus” and that the River Market area is “living proof that Little Rock is capable of remarkable revitalization projects.”

Meanwhile, in the town where I grew up, the Arkadelphia Board of Directors is trying to determine which of four architectural firms will be chosen to draw up renovation plans for the old Royal Theater on Main Street.

The way Arkadelphia City Manager Jimmy Bolt sees it, a municipality that can provide baseball fields and swimming pools for public use also should be allowed to operate a theater when there are no private ones. He views it as a key part of Arkadelphia’s attempt to revitalize its Main Street.

The city’s plan calls for using the theater each week from Thursday through Sunday for first-run movies at a ticket price of $6. The theater could be rented out for other events from Monday through Wednesday.

Living in Arkadelphia from birth through college graduation, I attended hundreds of movies at the Royal. The ornate theater was opened in January 1932. A story in the Daily Siftings Herald that ran two days before the opening said, “The theater is handsome outside and elegant inside. . . . The front is modernistic in design. The wall is of pale yellow brick and vertical gray concrete trimmings.”

The theater was a mainstay of downtown Arkadelphia until it closed in 1976.

My father was a Main Street business owner in the days when downtown Arkadelphia was the home of four drugstores, several department stores, men’s and women’s clothing stores, shoe stores, hardware stores, newsstands and other retailers. I have fond memories of summer days spent at his store. There were trips to theSterling five-and-dime to buy popcorn, to Ben Franklin’s to buy mixed nuts, to Red’s Newsstand to buy soft drinks and to the Royal for the Wednesday afternoon matinees.

It’s easy to sink into a sea of nostalgia, but it’s foolish to believe thatwe can turn back the clock to the days when downtown retail reigned in places as large as Little Rock and as small as Arkadelphia.

Still, leaders in Arkansas cities of all sizes would be wise to realize that downtowns are the heart of their communities. Downtowns may, in fact, no longer be driven by retail stores. Through a combination of some retail, entertainment venues, libraries, offices, government buildings and perhaps even loft apartments, downtown again can become essential to a community’s quality of place long after most retail establishments have migrated “out to the highway.”

Downtowns become symbols of a community’s economic health and the pride its residents have. A prominent Arkansas business leader who travels widely to large and small towns across the region once told me, “I can tell a lot in the first 10 to 15 minutes as I try to decide whether a community will be a good one in which to do business.”

While this state has more than its share of dying downtowns, Arkansas is fortunate to have one of the country’s strongest downtown development programs. Main Street Arkansas is operated by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. The program is affiliated with the National Main Street Center, which provides access to consulting and training services for downtown revitalization. Main Street Arkansas provides technical assistance, while policy decisions are left to the local nonprofit organization that operates each city’s program.

Main Street Arkansas cities are as varied as Batesville, El Dorado and Hardy. The state would benefit if many more cities were added to the list. Main Street still matters.

Free-lance columnist Rex Nelson is the senior vice president for government relations and public outreach at The Communications Group in Little Rock.

Editorial, Pages 19 on 02/20/2010

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