On March 1, 1997, a tornado ripped through Arkadelphia, killing six people, injuring more than 100 others and destroying the downtown.
As Arkadelphia’s residents restored their lives, they vowed to rebuild.
“Although the struggle to bring the downtown area back from the brink has been long and tedious, buildings have since been repaired or rebuilt and the sense of community pride is still strong,” said Brooke Gregory, community program coordinator for Southern Bancorp Partners, the nonprofit division of Southern Bancorp of Arkadelphia.
As a result of the accomplishments preserving the downtown area, Arkadelphia has been recognized as one of Arkansas Business’ Cities of Distinction in the Main Street Preservation category.
“Volunteers, city management, government officials and local business leaders have taken the initiative to bring positive change to downtown,” Gregory said.
One of the key initiatives includes city officials’ decision to lease the 1932 Royal Theatre building to the Clark County Arts & Humanities Council, which opened the Arkadelphia Arts Center in October 2011.
The center has been an essential part of the downtown revitalization, Gregory said. It is restoring the Royal Theatre, as well as providing an art gallery, performance center and arts teaching center for the community.
The center also received a grant for more than $25,000 to create a downtown art mural, in which residents are involved in the planning, design and painting. That project has drawn a number of people to downtown, Gregory said.
Southern Bancorp Community Partners also has created the Downtown Façade Improvement Grant Program, which is a matching grant where qualifying businesses can receive up to $3,000 to improve their storefront facades.
So far, 25 businesses have taken part in the program, resulting in more than $130,000 in improvements for awnings, paint, and signs, Gregory said.
Residents also are getting involved. Leadership Clark County, a nine-month course for people who are committed to the area, decided to focus on the downtown as one of its class projects.
Earlier this year, the class quizzed a number of leaders and business owners about the direction of the downtown.
“Overwhelmingly, those surveyed responded that Arkadelphia’s downtown area needed a renewed focus,” Gregory said.
The class then applied for downtown Arkadelphia to become part of the Arkansas Downtown Network, which is a division of Main Street Arkansas and is focused on revitalizing downtowns. It was recently accepted into the program.
Downtown Arkansas will promote events such as concerts and movies on Main Street, Gregory said. It’s the first time there has been a group to coordinate those types of events.
“That’s what’s making [downtown] successful, people are coming together and making a joint effort to see it succeed,” she said.
In August 2011, the Arkadelphia Commercial Historic District, which has buildings that date to around the 1870s, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Each building not only has its own history, but its four walls are a testament to the durability of early construction techniques and quality building materials,” the Arkadelphia Commercial Historic District said in a news release.
“This collection of buildings serves first as a reminder to Arkadelphians of the town’s rich history. … These buildings foster a sense of pride in one’s heritage and a reason to pursue the preservation of Arkadelphia’s structures.”
Gregory said that while there are a few vacant buildings, downtown Arkadelphia has a mix of banks, nonprofit organizations and stores.
“Retail has come back in the last couple of years and small businesses are taking a chance on downtown,” she said.
Gregory said that since residents voted in 2010 to allow alcohol sales, a number of restaurants have opened downtown and the businesses expanded their hours of operation.
A streetscape project is in the works that will add trees, planters, decorative brick crosswalks and historic streetlamps to the area. She said she hopes that project is completed next year.
“While our success story is still in the making, we will grow confidently and steadily to become a leader in southwest Arkansas,” Gregory said.