An organization working to revitalize downtown Van Buren updated members of the city council Monday night on its efforts to make the historic Main Street a destination for local residents as well as tourists.
“We want to make downtown the center of the community where residents come together to share their lives,” said Galen Hunter of the of MAHG Architecture of Fort Smith.
Van Buren Original has hired MAHG to assist in the revitalization effort, which includes the Living Local campaign which begins Thursday as downtown merchants will be open from 5 to 8 p.m. to offer dining, shopping and entertainment.
VBO board chairman Rusty Myers told the city council the non-profit organization was formed quietly a year ago to help decide what could be done to save downtown for the citizens of Van Buren.
“Downtown is the heart of our community,” Myers said. “It represents who we are. It is a big deal in economic development … it is driving economic development more than industry, the river and its port.”
Hunter pointed out Van Buren has a lot going for its downtown area stretching from the Arkansas River to First Baptist Church and from Broadway to Main Street.
Tim Varner, also an architect from MAHG, pointed out only 17 of the 92 businesses in downtown are vacant.
Hunter said Van Buren has a lot going on, including the chamber of commerce’s recent economic development plan, the new veteran’s park under construction, the future Center for Art and Education building, the city’s purchase of land south of the Crawford County Courthouse and a pocket park with public restrooms.
“There are lots of opportunities for an active downtown,” Hunter said. “The people who are here every day and have a stake in the community are the ones we want to attract to downtown.”
He said the revitalization will not be a 20-year project and pointed out Van Buren is ahead of other communities who have brought their downtowns back to life.
Varner said VBO currently is focused on four areas, open spaces, circulation/parking and business development.
“We want to test out ideas to make an impact on downtown,” Hunter said. “We are trying out things on a small scale to see if they will serve a larger purpose.”
He said VBO wanted to present ideas to the council to bring the community in on what VBO is trying to do.
“We are looking at small steps to seek how they work without a large investment and give the community a chance to buy in.”
Alderman Alan Swaim said he appreciates what VBO is doing.
“Revitalization of downtown is needed,” Swaim said, “and I am behind any project to help downtown.”
Myers said VBO would return to the council in the near future for an update.