Marianna: Down But Not Out Thanks to Main Street Redevelopment (Main Street Preservation | Winner Under 5,000)

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Dec. 10, 2012 12:00 am  

Like many Arkansas Delta towns, Marianna has seen its share of folks leaving and businesses closing.

The Lee County seat lost a third of its residents over the past two decades and now, about 4,000 people call it home.

Pat Audirsch, chairman of the Marianna Economic Development Commission, said empty, deteriorating storefronts began to fill up what was once a thriving courthouse square.

“As population declined, downtown businesses had gradually closed or moved out of the downtown area,” she said. “But even in decline, optimistic volunteers made efforts to make the downtown look alive by planting colorful flowers around the monuments and corner beds.”

Those volunteers, led by Catherine West, JoElla Turner and Nancy Apple, created the Marianna Historic Trust in 2000 and worked to have the whole of downtown Marianna — 63 buildings, the oldest surviving one built in 1888 — designated as a National Historic Commercial District.

So far, through grants and more than $700,000 in local, private donations, the trust has renovated seven buildings and infused life into a downtown that was on life support. Because of the efforts led by the trust, Marianna is being recognized as a 2012 Arkansas Business City of Distinction for Main Street preservation.

“Without a doubt, Marianna’s downtown area is a better place because of the hard work and dedication of the Marianna Historic Trust and its volunteer corps,” Mayor Jimmy Williams said.

Getting the historic designation and creating the non-profit trust was big, Apple said, because it qualified downtown for federal grants.

“Our downtown had fallen into pretty bad disrepair,” she said. “We didn’t have the money to join a Main Street organization, which required one full-time employee and $50,000. There’s no way we could afford to do that.”

Perhaps the spur that really led the community to invest in downtown revitalization was the involvement of University of Arkansas architecture students in 2002. Through the Fay Jones School of Architecture Community Design Center, the UA sent students to spend a summer in Marianna and design a plan for the preservation of downtown.

“The ‘bones’ of the town were described as a beautiful, tree-lined square centered with monuments and a charming gazebo with the county courthouse sitting on a hill overlooking the green space,” Audirsch said. “City Hall, the police and fire departments and once thriving businesses surrounded this idyllic square. The energy and interest of the architectural students and their support staff spurred concerned citizens to begin more concentrated work.”

At the end of the summer, the Design Center students presented Marianna with a comprehensive plan that still serves as a preservation guide today.



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