BY LEANN DILBECK –
Zach Mannheimer, a Principal Community Planner from an Iowa based civil engineering firm, visited Mena recently to assess the downtown area and specifically, the restored 70,000 s.f. building that prior to the 2009 tornado was Mena Middle School. The property is now owned by Walter Deetz.
Mannheimer’s specialty for McClure Engineering Co. is ‘creative placemaking’ for rural communities with the goal of helping them achieve economic and population growth through cultural and entrepreneurial amenities, concepts, and catalytic projects.
Two downtown business owners and community leaders, Rick Chrisman and John Vacca, first heard Mannheimer this summer while attending a U of A Extension Service Breakthrough Solutions Conference subtitled: Reimagining Your Community/Region in the 21st Century Economy. Chrisman is owner of American Artisans and active with The Mena Art Gallery as well as an A&P Commissioner. Vacca is owner of Janssen Park Place Bed & Breakfast as well as co-chair of ARCO (Arkansas Regional Coalition of the Ouachitas). They were both quickly impressed with Mannheimer’s concepts and success as the founder of the Des Moines Social Club, which was once a vacated firehouse in a decaying downtown. With Mannheimer’s vision and leadership, Des Moines Social Club now spans two buildings, multiple floors, an outdoor courtyard and features an art gallery, gift shop, black-box theater, music venue, restaurant, and coffee shop, as well as numerous performance spaces, classrooms, and non-profit office space. The project served as a catalyst to spark a revitalization of a specific area of downtown as well as generating community engagement.
Mannheimer has a track record of creating economic development and population growth by generating cultural amenities, housing projects, and incentive packages to attract and retain young people to rural areas.
Chrisman said that after hearing Mannheimer’s presentation, he and Vacca immediately thought of the Deetz property and its endless possibilities. “It seemed to be an appealing project because it is in an unusually sound condition with the hardest work completed. Never having met Walter Deetz, we made contact with him to get an understanding of his plans and wishes for the building. It turned out that his interest was in recouping his investment but had little luck to date with the conventional approach of selling it outright,” said Chrisman. “We explained what we had heard from Zach to see if he was receptive to this unconventional approach that would recoup his investment as well as develop the building into a multi-use facility that would benefit the community. To address Walt’s skepticism and understanding, we set up a conference call to allow he [Deetz] and Zach to discuss the approach. Zach was very impressed with the level of restoration already completed and Walter was prepared to learn more. In a subsequent conference call, Zach agreed to travel to Mena for a tour of the building, community, and make a presentation to community leaders.”
Mannheimer made a such visit Thursday, September 28, and followed with a presentation to approximately 15 community leaders and the media, in which he was extremely complimentary of Mena’s downtown as well as the large investment Deetz had made with the restoration of the former school property. “You have a great downtown. You have great bones, you have great activity… but there could be more.” Mannheimer gave multiple examples of other communities that have implemented his ‘creative placemaking’ concepts and referenced the tremendous potential with the former school property, restored by Deetz. “I hope you realize how much he’s done for your community by taking on that project. It was incredibly risky… by putting in his own money. I work with communities of different sizes all the time… I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s amazing.”
Mannheimer also demonstrated the logic of why ‘creative placemaking’ is so successful. He is of the opinion that it is due in large part that the old economic model isn’t as effective anymore. “Essentially, the old economic development model is ‘how do you throw as many incentives, tax incentives,’ as possible to a company to get them to move to your community versus another one. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it [the old economic development model] except that today, it is a ‘zero sum’ gain. The amount of money your community has is really no different than the amount of money the next town over has or the amount of money the next state has.”
In contrast, he presented concepts that addressed the two concerns for most communities: 1.) workforce development and 2.) housing stock. In his examples, he presented incentives to improve housing stock and also incentives to recruit younger professionals that, if successful, would ultimately embed them in the local community. “I would argue that you would have greater return on an investment of $20,000 [in incentives] than a $10 million tax incentive that you would give to a company that may or may not create the jobs they said they would.”
He also shared two other components that have been instrumental in many downtown revitalization efforts. First, he discussed the increased popularity of microbreweries. “I bring this up because I cannot overstate enough the economic development impact that breweries can have. I know you guys are a dry county and I know you are potentially working on changing that next year and I highly recommend that. There are ways to do that and still have limitations for those who may be on the fence about whether that should happen but the economic development impact of having a brewery is enormous and it is going to sprout up so many other things… it can just be enormous.” Second, Mannheimer discussed the same concept that has been presented before by Ed Levy who works through Breakthrough Solutions and has facilitated other community meetings for ARCO regarding downtown revitalization, a ‘street diet.’ The concept is to reduce on North Mena Street back to two lanes but keep the parallel parking. He also talked about the addition of bicycle lanes and additional streetscape that will invite people to get out and walk, allowing them the opportunity to notice and visit the various shops. The traffic will be slowed and also increases opportunity for pedestrian traffic in a safer environment, a concept that has sparked controversy within the local community because of concerns for school and emergency vehicles.
Chrisman said following the meeting, “It has become obvious to me and others that Zach has real knowledge, experience and success in developing these projects from start to finish. His excitement for the potential of Mena to capitalize on its location and amenities for future economic growth are contagious. He has seen the benefits on an international stage as well as domestically; the results are proven. He has refined what he has seen in urban areas, adapting it to benefit rural communities that address many of the concerns in those communities. Such concerns are declining population, exposing communities to cultural experiences, lack of opportunity causing young adults to leave for employment and to start and raise families, declining tax revenue and deteriorating infrastructure. He commented that the “good job” is not what is attracting individuals as much as in the past but amenities are a requirement. Companies are looking for inclusive, progressive places with appropriate amenities to locate, providing quality of life for employees.”
Deetz, now age 73, is looking for someone “take it and run with it.” He added that most of the major expense with the building has been restored including the roof and the elevator. “The next decision to be made is the air/heat systems,” which Deetz explained would be based on what the building would be used for. “It’s a strong, tough building,” said Deetz who remains cautiously optimistic about Mannheimer’s concepts.
Chrisman explained the next step, “Zach is to put together a proposal for the building and present it to Walt for discussion. It’s our plan to facilitate the discussion with Walt and provide any information or support we can to help him decide if the proposal will accomplish his goals. It is up to him to make that determination. I feel that if the proposal can satisfy his goals and moves forward, the community will come out with something that is beyond anything imagined for the building up to now. I feel like successes with projects of this nature will only lead to further excitement for community development. Seeing is believing!”