BY MELANIE BUCK –
“Downtown is a reflection of how the community feels about itself,” said Main Street Arkansas Director Greg Phillips while speaking to an audience at the Ouachita Center during an event held by Mena’s Downtown Partners. The purpose of the event was for Phillips to inform the community about the importance of a vibrant downtown and how it can not only benefit a community financially, but can foster a sense of pride as well.
Phillips explained that when people pull into a town, whether just traveling through or searching for a new home or industry location, the downtown area gives the first impression, and it needs to be a good one. “Just the simple addition of lights, benches, and flowers gives a more welcoming feel,” said Phillips.
“Historically, downtowns are a place where communities come together,” he said. This is true of Mena, specifically. In downtown Mena, festivals are launched, races begin, and a budding arts district is showcased. It is also where many small businesses are located, and also typically where city and county governments are centered. “Visiting business and industry prospects like to look at downtowns to see what they’re potential employees would have in a town before they decide to relocate their business,” Phillips explained.
One key way to keep your downtown area healthy, vital, and inviting is to incorporate a director that focuses solely on downtown. Another is to become part of an official Main Street program. “When you become part of Main Street Arkansas, you join programs across the nation,” said Phillips. “Over 2,000 communities have Main Street Programs across the U.S.”
The Main Street approach to downtown revitalization is based on four key points: design, organization, promotion, and economic vitality. These areas are where Main Street can help a downtown area go from a slow, worn-down town, with no activity, to a place where residents and visitors love to be.
The design “conveys a visual message about what the downtown has to offer,” while organization means “building consensus and cooperation between the groups that play key roles in the downtown.” Promotion involves marketing an area’s uniqueness, and economic vitality strengthens existing economic bases while diversifying it. “Making the most of the unique sense of place and existing historical assets,” was another way Phillips described it. Main Street Arkansas assists members in all of these facets.
Retention of businesses can sometimes be challenging for small towns. However, the cost of an empty store can be insurmountable including loss of sales, tax revenues, salaries, and can cause a drop in nearby property values. Keeping locals in those stores is vital. Only six cents of every dollar spent in a ‘big box retailer’ is retained in a community, but 20 cents of every dollar spent with a chain store is retained, and 60 cents of every dollar spent with a sole proprietorship, or small business, is kept local.
Phillips gave examples of cities in Arkansas that have taken advantage of all Main Street Arkansas has to offer and how they now have jumping downtown areas that bring in locals and travelers through interesting shops, businesses that stay open late, and nice nooks to sit and relax while enjoying the outdoors.
Mena’s Downtown Partners and others in attendance appreciate all that Main Street Arkansas has to offer, however, a fee is associated to join, and having a ‘paid person’ to make sure all advantages are taken, is currently at a roadblock. Some of the partners have expressed ideas that the City of Mena could help. However, there is much more discussion to be had before any final decisions can be made. For now, a volunteer, Judy Thompson, is serving as liaison for Downtown Partners. Thompson has many years of experience working as a Main Street director in Louisiana before retiring to Mena a few years ago. She, along with other partners, will continue to research if, when, and how, Mena may join the program to bring success to Mena’s Downtown.
If you are interested in helping, contact Thompson or any other Downtown Partner.