BY LEANN DILBECK –
They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words and that definitely proved to be true during the closing meeting of the Arkansas Regional Coalition of the Ouachitas (ARCO) last week following a three-day charrette with Ed Levy and his team from Cromwell Architects. With just approximately 30 business leaders present, Levy presented amazing visual images of aesthetic improvements to actual photos taken of specific areas of Mena’s downtown. The dramatic “before and after” photos provided an instant visualization of the untapped potential in the downtown area that, if developed, could help to attract more businesses and customers.
Perhaps the most dramatic was of the north side of Mena Street. Levy recommended a “road diet” concept that has proven instrumental in other small rural communities that have been successful in downtown revitalization. The concept cuts the road down to three lanes, two-lane traffic with a “TWTL” (two-way turn lane) in the center. It would allow for wider sidewalks and allow for additions of trees and planters helping to increase pedestrian traffic. Levy said it was also very successful in slowing traffic, thereby, giving drivers greater opportunity to take in signage, store fronts, and display windows. By accomplishing those two objectives, business-owners have greater opportunity to increase traffic within the store and sales. Levy also suggested using one or both of the corner vacant lots and converting to parking areas. Levy reminded everyone that this section of road leads to the Talimena Scenic Drive, now designated as a national scenic byway.
Another of Levy’s recommendations included a major conversion of DeQueen Street beginning at the front of the KCS Depot that would include a median that could include trees, flower-planters with banners, etc., that would also serve to define a downtown district with continuity in the landscape.
Part of Levy’s presentation included transforming some of the downtown’s assets that he feels are currently being under-utilized, such as the KCS Depot. Some of his suggestions for that area included a universal “trend” with a gelato stand. He suggested displaying much of the local history currently housed there in a digital format for better efficiency of space. Other ideas explored included reinvigorating the Farmer’s Market, “Music at the Market,” bike rentals, installation of a wrought iron safety fence against the train traffic, installation of a fountain, and beautification of the outdoor areas.
Levy also recognized the former Mena Middle School as a great untapped opportunity and said the building was very conducive to an art school or individual art studios, creating additional value and significance to the already well-rooted art community already in place. Other suggestions of use included a “Creation Science” museum and research center, business innovation center, entrepreneur incubator, or school for performing and visual arts.
Converting the Historic Armory into a “Ouachita Discovery Center” already conveniently located on DeQueen Street was also discussed. A skate park that could simulate the topography of the Ouachita Mountains, complete with a climbing wall, and a virtual reality experience would all be draws for the younger generations to the downtown district.
Increasing pedestrian traffic was at the core of many of the discussions and why it would be necessary to install pedestrian crossings at the railroad intersections that current dissect the Mena Street that serves as the town’s “main” street.
A revitalized downtown is much like the chicken and the egg discussion but as Dr. Mark Peterson expounded, certain components must be in place such as street beautification, retail, dining, music, arts, crafts, snacks (i.e. gelato, ice cream, frozen yogurt), and entertainment, all of which Mena has tidbits of already in place. “Mena is certainly a diamond in the rough,” said Peterson.
Everything presented are simply conceptual recommendations and subject to funding and approval by city government.