Business Owners Applaud Growth of Dickson's Diva

Fayetteville native Bill Waite remembers when Dickson Street was a rundown, rather seedy place to avoid — hardly the vibrant, upscale entertainment destination it is today for area residents and visitors alike.

The turnaround started in 1992 with the debut of the Walton Arts Center, a 55,000-SF performing arts venue at the southeast corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue.

Private investors have since spent millions establishing restaurants, nightclubs, retail businesses and even condominiums along the stretch from the University of Arkansas campus to College Avenue. These cater largely to the more than 150,000 people from Arkansas and beyond who visit the WAC each year to enjoy big-name performers, take part in a creative arts class or attend a reception or other special event.

And now, as the WAC’s leaders prepare to expand the building’s footprint to add more office, performance and event space, business owners like Waite are looking forward to even more customer traffic — and revenues.

Terri Trotter, the WAC’s COO, said the expansion project is expected to add about 30,000 SF to the building, at a cost of about $20 million. She said the goal is to have the work completed in 2015.

“There was a lot of buzz on the street when they started conceptual plans for the facility,” said Waite, who’s owned Dickson Street Liquor for about 10 years. “I think people finally started to believe it was going to happen, and that the Walton Arts Center was committed to keeping a world-class facility on Dickson Street.”

A member of the WAC’s 20-person board of directors, Waite recently added about 2,600 SF to his own business, partly in anticipation of increased customer traffic generated by the arts center expansion.

Between the WAC project and construction of an adjacent city-owned parking deck, Waite said, “we’re talking about an investment of $25 million or more right in the heart of Dickson Street, and that’s a big deal for downtown Fayetteville.”

“I expect we’ll see this be a catalyst for development throughout the downtown area, much like the original construction of the facility was,” he said.


Room to Move

When big shows like the recent “Shrek: The Musical” or the holiday favorite “The Nutcracker” come to the 1,201-seat Baum Walker Hall, the smaller Starr Theater gets turned into dressing room and storage space, Trotter said, so it’s not available for performances or events at those times.

The expansion not only will allow the WAC to bring in bigger shows like touring Broadway musicals, she said, but also will free up the Starr Theater for other events.

The additional meeting and event space would be a boon for event planners like Amy Bates, owner of Bates Events Inc. She said there’s currently no event space in Fayetteville that can accommodate more than 150 people.

Bates said she was called on to talk with consultants on the WAC project, and told them she could have booked about $100,000 worth of large events in Fayetteville between August 2011 and the end of this year had there been space available.

Instead, she had to book these events elsewhere. These included several high-end wedding receptions, vendor parties and meetings, two conferences and several private events, she said.

Trotter said the vision for the arts center expansion includes a new main lobby large enough to accommodate crowds for major events, with amenities like more concessions space and more restrooms. A covered outdoor plaza will connect the building with Dickson Street, and new special-events spaces will be created there.

The Starr Theater renovations will increase seating capacity from 165 to 250, with a flexible design that can meet varying performance and event space needs. Backstage improvements will include a catering kitchen, as well as new dressing rooms, more storage space for instruments and stage sets, more production offices and a maintenance shop.

Outdoors, the Rosen Memorial Rose Garden and Bradberry Amphitheater will be reconfigured to add event space, with access from the new lobby to the garden and the option of covering the garden for events.

Lastly, the WAC’s administrative offices will be enlarged to house a growing staff and add conference room and office support space.

But these aren’t the only expansion plans the WAC organization has in the works.

Construction is expected to start next fall on renovations to the Old Field House on the UA campus, transforming it into a 650-seat performance hall.

And looking farther out, a performing arts center will be built in Bentonville, at a location that has yet to be determined. Trotter said that’s not expected to come online until at least 2018.


Paint by Numbers

Northwest Arkansas’ arts groups have hard evidence their value goes beyond sheer entertainment.

A study of the economic impact of 26 of the nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in Benton and Washington counties revealed they generate nearly $46 million annually in economic activity.

The Arts & Economic Prosperity Study IV was conducted in 182 regions nationwide by Americans for the Arts, a national organization that supports the arts and art education through private and public resource development.

Using figures for fiscal 2010, economists from the Georgia Institute of Technology analyzed arts organizations’ economic impact in each region. The findings were released last month.

For Northwest Arkansas, the study found the 26 participating groups support 1,488 local full-time-equivalent jobs, paying nearly $30 million in household income to residents and $4 million to state and local governments.

Moreover, the number of jobs, revenue and total impact nearly tripled since the study was last conducted in 2005. And that impact is well above average when compared to regions of similar population.

The study also found that arts audiences spend an average of $20 above the cost of a ticket when they attend an arts or cultural event, while tourists spend an additional $36.

In addition, 76 percent of tourists surveyed at an arts event said they made their trip specifically to attend that event.

An accompanying report on the study’s methodology states it’s important to note no estimates were made to account for the approximately 60 organizations in Northwest Arkansas that didn’t participate. That suggests “an understatement” of the economic findings in the region, according to the report.

A project like the WAC expansion stands to benefit not just Dickson Street or Fayetteville, but the entire region, said Mike Malone, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit organization that works to promote economic development in the region.

“The arts and cultural offerings are so important to our existing residents, but we find they’re also vital to attracting talent and recruiting business to the region,” he said. “So expanded offerings, expanded facilities, more programs are all a big part of not only serving existing residents but also recruiting talent and recruiting businesses.”

Malone said he knows firsthand folks come a long way for events and performances here.

“I’ve talked to people seated next to me at performances and events, and they’re coming from Branson, from Tulsa, from other parts of Arkansas,” he said. “It becomes a tourism draw, but then it also helps people see that there’s a lot to do here if they move here.

“The benefits are great for the whole area.”