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

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.

Buildings that were likely on their way to collapse were purchased by the trust (thanks to a large donation from a local resident), and remodeled and made structurally sound and suitable for lease by the trust to tenants.

Downtown businesses now occupying former empty buildings include Poplar Street Grill, a flower shop, a shoe and accessory store, a nail/hair salon and a gift shop.

The Williamson Building across from City Hall was completed in 2010, and Audirsch said officials are holding out to lease it to a commercial enterprise that could boost activity and economic development.

In addition, volunteers turned the downtown square into a true green space that attracts families and includes a playground and a twice-a-week farmer’s market, and the trust worked with the Community Foundation of Lee County to renovate a 100-year-old house just a block from downtown. The Community House now houses the local chamber of commerce, meeting rooms and an events center. Audirsch called it important to the history and culture of Marianna.

So many improvements have been made in recent years, Audirsch said, that a former resident returned home after about 10 years and said the changes were “night and day.”

Apple, who sometimes led renovation efforts herself, sledgehammer in hand, said the community embraced the idea of bringing downtown back to life. Folks reasoned, she said, that Marianna might as well look good for those who decide to stay (or come back), if for no one else.

One day soon, the roads leading into town may get busy again.