Planning to revitalize downtown Van Buren has moved into its next phase.
“Our recent downtown revitalization efforts have been met with overwhelming support from the community,” said City Planner Joe Hurst. “The next step in this plan is to make the temporary changes permanent.”
Using a tactical urbanism approach, the city has utilized low-cost, temporary changes to beautify downtown and make it more pedestrian friendly.
The city has partnered with Van Buren Original, Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission and The Old Town Merchants Association to improve the historic downtown area.
Currently, Hurst is working to secure a grant from the Transportation Alternatives Program.
“This grant provides up to $500,000 for streetscape projects, like the one we are pursuing in downtown Van Buren,” Hurst said.
The grant’s application is due June 1.
Hurst said the streetscape project is only one component of the city’s overall plan to improve the city’s quality of place.
“We understand that these investments in downtown contribute to the overall economic development of the community,” he said. “We want to retain current businesses, bring our college graduates back home and attract talented workers from other cities.”
Hurst said downtown revitalization is one way the city can do that.
“The overall scope of the downtown streetscape project is still being developed, but it includes trees, pop-outs at intersections, decorative signage, sidewalk improvements and more,” he said.
Rusty Myers, chairman of the nonprofit organization Van Buren Original, said VBO is delighted the city is getting professional architect and engineering firms to prepare preliminary design schemes and cost estimates that can lead to the construction of permanent, downtown streetscape improvements.
“Van Buren Original’s plans for improving downtown identified among its top goals making downtown more pedestrian friendly and visually appealing,” Myers said. “That meant slowing down traffic and making people feel safe when they’re on foot.”
He said it also meant adding landscaping and amenities that would give the downtown a more inviting and human-scale feel.
MAHG Architect’s Galen Hunter and Tim Varner, who are helping VBO with the downtown planning efforts, suggested the city try an approach called “tactical urbanism,” which amounts to the installation of temporary and inexpensive measures that would test VBO ideas.
“With hay bales, small trees, plants in pots and traffic bollards we did just that along four blocks of Main Street, where we created temporary bump-outs at the corners of the intersections,” he said. “Also, three merchants built decorative sitting areas called ‘parklets’ in the parking spaces in front of their stores.”
The trial measures really worked, Myers said.
“Vehicular speed slowed and visitors and merchants reported that Main Street had a more inviting feel and look to it,” he said.
Myers expressed appreciation to Mayor Bob Freeman, Hurst and city personnel who helped put the trial measure in place, along with material contributions by Sharum’s Nursery, Farmers Cooperative, Webber Creek Farms and Time Striping.
“With everyone’s help we were able to test our design ideas in a real, on-the-ground way, but at very little cost,” Myers said. “Along with a number of other things proposed and underway, it’s exciting to think about all that’s going on.”
Jim Petty, chairman of the board for the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is excited about all that is happening in Van Buren, especially the new activities in and around downtown.
“It is awesome to see how the city and and business leaders can come together and create momentum with new ideas and projects like we are seeing around town,” he said.
Hurst pointed out Freedom Park in downtown Van Buren is one step closer to being completed.
With the building and construction phase being finalized, the final phase has begun.
“This will focus on site improvements,” Hurst said. “It includes parking, landscaping, curb and gutter, sidewalks, drainage and more. Our team met with the local businesses that will be affected by this phase, and all were cooperative and excited about the new park.”
Debbie Foliart, owner of Chapters on Main, said downtown business owners are anxious for the new park to be completed.
“As a business merchant and building owner on Main Street, it is especially exciting to see the growth we are experiencing downtown,” Foliart said.
Although the frigid temperatures slowed Freedom Park construction for about a week, Hurst said the city is still aiming for the early April completion date.
Groundbreaking was in July for the expansion of Veterans Park, which is meant to honor veterans and their families and bring more visitors downtown.
Plans call for the existing park to be redesigned as Veterans Memorial Plaza to be used as a space of reflection. The new portion of the park, Freedom Place, will serve as the entertainment and recreational venue.
A Battle Cross monument donated to the city by Chase Haynes, an Eagle Scout with Troop 45 in Van Buren, will be included in the memorial. Haynes’s statue, cast of pure American bronze, of a helmet, identification tags, inverted rifle and combat boots is meant to represent a fallen soldier.
Freedom Place will include decorative crosswalks, security fencing, expanded parking areas, vendor parking, farmers market, drinking fountain, restroom facility, outdoor pavilion, children’s play area and a Gold Star water feature.
A memorial with flags and monuments to honor the five branches of the military, as well as police, fire and first responders, will be at the entrance to the park.
The GFWC Women’s League of Van Buren also is in the midst of a fund-raising effort for a four-sided street clock to be erected at Freedom Park. The four-dial LED lighted street clock is 15.6-feet tall and includes cast aluminum post, saddle and head as well as aluminum bezels.
An account has been opened at Citizens Bank & Trust Co. in the name GFWC Women’s League of Van Buren. The account number is 700250336.
Foliart had praise for the city and many organizations that are helping to make Main Street a focus of attraction and economic development.
“Not only will the planned changes make our streets look better, it will help in attracting new customers to the street and eventually new retailers and restaurants,” she said. “In turn, that will help all of our businesses grow. The excitement surrounding the changes on the street are positive and contagious.”