Whenever Jim Huson passed the Old Post Office on the Fayetteville Square, he was reminded of his childhood. Huson grew up in Heber Springs, where his grandfather served as postmaster and his father worked for the Postal Service, so the 102-year-old structure held plenty of sentimental value.
Huson, who owns a pair of Doe’s Eat Place franchises in northwest Arkansas, also viewed the building, vacant and on the market since 2009, as too good of an opportunity to pass up.
In June he purchased 1 W. Center St. from Ron Bumpass for $1.5 million. Within a month, Huson had reached a three-year lease agreement with Acumen Brands of Fayetteville.
Thanks to Huson, the more than 13,000-SF building has new life. And Huson is glad to be the one to provide it.
“I’d always looked at it and thought about what a beautiful piece of property it was, wondering why nobody was there,” Huson said. “Town squares aren’t around much anymore, so there was intrigue there. And I grew up in the post office in Heber Springs. … There were a lot of things that made it attractive and a number of reasons that it came together to make a real comfortable package.”
Acumen Brands of Fayetteville will use the buildings as a brick and mortar location for online apparel store Country Outfitter and also offer handbags from Maple & West, which previously existed only as online businesses. Aug. 30 is scheduled as the grand opening.
COO Terry Turpin said the building was attractive for a number of reasons, including a layout that will allow the space to be shared with food and beverage vendors. The Old Post Office’s status as a Fayetteville landmark was the primary selling point.
“We’re a Fayetteville company, and we might have investors from outside the state but we’re not going anywhere,” Turpin said. “We started here. We’re going to finish here. Really, as we looked at potential retail space, that’s the center of Fayetteville and Fayetteville is part of our DNA.
“It was a very natural choice to move into that space and take a great building that was sitting there empty and do something fun with it.”
Despite the iconic status and popularity of the Old Post Office, it has been a disappointment as a business location. Huson is just the second owner since the U.S. Postal Service put it on the market in the 1960s, and the building has housed primarily food-service operations since.
What made the location prime and popular among locals also created a bit of a downside: The square is home to the Fayetteville Farmers Market, which takes up parking spaces from 7 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturdays and 7 a.m.-1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Jimmy Rapert owned and operated the Old Post Office Restaurant in the space from 1995-98. Just down the street from the restaurant, Rapert also ran JR’s Light Bulb Club. Neighbors on the square and on Block Street were primarily a collection of local merchants who felt a kinship, he recalled. Rapert, who now manages local properties and runs Advanced Building & Home Services, called owning the businesses near the square “one of my favorite stages of life.”
Still, there were challenges.
Profit margins are generally small in the restaurant industry. So competing with the Farmers Market three days a week, or 21 percent of potential business, as Rapert put it, made the margins even smaller — as subsequent tenant restaurants like Sodie’s and Urban Table would discover.
“Every restaurant in that location faced the same issue,” Rapert said. “Don’t get me wrong — my wife is one of the biggest fans in town of the Farmers Market — but we were trying hard to find a balance between wanting the market to have a great location but wanting the restaurant to have a fighting chance in order to keep a solid business on the square.
“We tried to work with the Farmers Market, asking them to scale back their hours so that we could still attract a lunch crowd, or to open up some parking spots, but we couldn’t get anything worked out.”
Huson said he never seriously considered a restaurant in the location. Succeeding there would take an established name restaurant, he said. Huson had one of those in Doe’s, which has operated on Dickson Street the last 15 years.
After deciding against moving Doe’s, Huson decided it didn’t make sense to bring in another restaurant that would essentially be competing for business with an already successful business less than a half-mile away.
“The only restaurant we really considered was our own,” Huson said. “We thought long and hard about moving Doe’s up there, but realized we’re a real good fit down on Dickson Street. We’re real comfortable with that setting. So we started looking outside other restaurants.”
That isn’t to say Huson didn’t receive interest in the building from restaurants. A national chain looking to re-establish a location in Fayetteville reached out to Tim Stein, an executive broker at Bassett Mix & Associates. Stein represented Huson in early attempts to find a tenant. Acumen management eventually approached Huson on its own about occupying the space, but Stein said interest was high among restaurants and law firms.
“Right from the beginning there was quite a bit of interest,” Stein said. “I think people are glad something new and different is going into the building.”
Even a former tenant like Rapert is glad to see the building back in use. Rapert said his oldest son, Jase, is among the faces featured on the mural that covers the inside walls of the Old Post Office. Jane Davidian’s painting of locals is a feature, along with marble throughout the building, that Huson stipulated in the lease remain untouched.
“I am excited to see the building come to life again,” Rapert said. “All these years later, it would be great to see people enjoying the building again.”
Huson, who can often be found near the counter of the Fayetteville Doe’s, said he has had great feedback from friends and others in town about the purchase. They seem, he said, as excited as he and his family are to give the Old Post Office another chance.
“There are only so many chances when something like this comes available,” Huson said. “I couldn’t understand why somebody else hadn’t already taken advantage of it. I think it’s an absolutely fabulous piece of property.”