BY LEANN DILBECK AND MELANIE BUCK –
Mena Street is experiencing a resurrection, as one by one, buildings are being restored and bringing new life to the center of town that doubles as the gateway to the Talimena National Scenic Byway. Once the retail hub, the downtown area, like many rural communities, saw a decline and, one by one, these grand historic buildings rich in character and architecture, became vacated and empty.
Flanked by Washburn’s Home Furnishings on the south end for over 75 years, and the Polk County Courthouse on the north for 170 years, the buildings between are, one by one, being restored, returning a variety of retail and the arts. When combined with great food, it’s a recipe for success.
The decline didn’t happen overnight and neither has the resurrection. One of the sparks in the overall feel began in 1999, when the City invested an average of $500,000/block for the streetscape project, repairing sidewalks and adding lampposts for a majority of Mena Street and the DeQueen Street block surrounding the historic armory. The Janssen to Maple block of Mena Street that didn’t receive the improvements are, according to Mena Mayor George McKee, slated for next year as he explained the FEMA funds designated for the area have now arrived.
ARCO, the Arkansas Regional Coalition of the Ouachitas, led by Gar Eisele has also been a driving force in bringing attention to the hidden opportunities in the downtown district. Hosting a session in October 2012 with Ed Levy of Cromwell Architects, the group presented renderings of what additional improvements could be made to “update” downtown while maintaining its quaintness and historical integrity. Symbolic of the partnerships necessary to achieve a complete revitalization, the City of Mena responded to ARCO’s recommendation of new banners adorning the lampposts. “We appreciate the city recognizing this need and stepping up to continue to add to the downtown improvements. As we’ve studied other communities successful in downtown projects, we know it is not one single act or one single organization but it is multiple projects and collaborative efforts that generate results so ARCO genuinely appreciates all of the efforts being made that bring great promise to Mena’s downtown,” said Eisele.
Many new businesses have filled the once vacant buildings over the last couple of years, a trend that many hope will continue, as there are still business opportunities just waiting behind the walls of many. New trendy shoe and ladies’ boutiques have added to the versatile retail mix that includes a flower shop, lawn & garden, resale, scrapbooking/card making, flea market and antique stores, combined with cornerstone businesses such as Coast to Coast. Even as Herod’s Department Store bids its farewell, a new ladies boutique is already planned to re-open in 2015.
An arts district has blossomed on North Mena Street. Already supported by both the Mena Art Gallery and the Ouachita Little Theatre, the street now boasts another gallery/eatery that is just two doors down from yet a new arts studio that allows kids and adults alike to discover their inner artist. The strong local arts community launched its first Ouachita Arts Festival earlier this year that filled the street and shows great promise as becoming one of Mena’s premiere annual events.
Eisele stated, “Many communities across the south are seeing a revitalization of their downtown and it happens when you have strong, progressive and forward-thinking leaders that facilitate partnerships between local government, entrepreneurs and property owners that all embrace the same goal… a strong, growing local economy and that translates to an overall strong community.”