How Entertainment Districts Drive Development
Springdale offers a case study.
Magnolia Gardens Main Gazebo, Springdale Big Sexy Food, 107 E. Emma Ave., Springdale
Shared outdoor public space/entertainment districts are catalysts for urban development. 2020 proved this, and the changes are here to stay.
Before the pandemic, Springdale was planning, investing and building out beautiful shared outdoor spaces that intersected with the arts, cuisine and cycling. It takes years to do this and do it well. This past year advanced those efforts by an estimated three to five years. This was accomplished by removing barriers to economic development and entertainment and blurring the lines between the public realm and the private sector.
Last year, many cities worked to increase access to public spaces by making them feel more comfortable, inviting and welcoming. Springdale accomplished this with a few different tactical urban strategies. One was with a grant from the Tyson Family Foundation that supported a team of local makers to build Wikiblock furniture for beautiful Walter Turnbow Park. Wikiblock is an open-source design library anyone can access to download free plans to build furniture and accessories like chess boards and library boxes for public spaces. There was not a cumbersome
Walter Turnbow Park at Shiloh Square, Springdale
ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICTS USED TO BE SEEN OCCASIONALLY IN METROPOLITAN AREAS. LAST YEAR WE SAW CITIES OF ALL SIZES AMEND AND PASS CITY ORDINANCES TO ALLOW BARS AND RESTAURANTS TO SERVE DRINKS THAT COULD BE CONSUMED IN A DEFINED OUTDOOR URBAN AREA. THIS WAS DONE TO HELP SUPPORT THESE SMALL BUSINESSES BUT ALSO TO CREATE SPACES PEOPLE WOULD FEEL COMFORTABLE GATHERING IN DURING A PANDEMIC.
134 W. Emma Ave., Springdale. Mural by Erin Ashcraft.
326 Holcomb St., Springdale. Mural by Octavio Logo. approval process; there was simply permission from the parks department to “Do IT!” There was also not an arduous design process. From the first conversation to completion was 45 days. This park, which sits in the middle of the Razorback Greenway, was completed in the heart of downtown Springdale in 2017. But initially the park was like a big, beautiful formal living room that most people simply passed through and admired. The park is breathtakingly beautiful, but there was no place to sit or gather with friends, have a drink or share a meal. Within 30 minutes of placing the furniture, people started to gather. Now you can find people sitting in Walter Turnbow Park right off the greenway on any given day and at all hours of the day. Wikiblock furniture is temporary in nature. There are already plans to populate this space with permanent furniture.
Downtown restaurants were allowed to put up temporary awnings and turn parking spaces into parklets to expand their restaurant seating. Last year, numerous entertainment districts were created, including in Springdale where rapid local policy changes allowed to-go alcoholic beverages under the assertion of “it’s safer this way” and a desire to support local bars and restaurants. Signage, barriers, dome tents and propane heaters were also used to create safe outdoor gathering places.
Entertainment districts used to be seen occasionally in metropolitan areas like Sixth Street in Austin, Logan Square in Chicago, Ybor City in Tampa and the Kansas City Power & Light District, all of which are also big tourist destinations. Last year we saw cities of all sizes amend and pass city ordinances to allow bars and restaurants to serve drinks that could be consumed in a defined outdoor urban area. This was done to help support these small businesses but also to create spaces people would feel comfortable gathering in during a pandemic. Will these spaces be taken away? In Springdale, the takeaways from the outdoor dining district were all positive: It helped the restaurants replace some lost revenue and the city didn’t see an increase in litter or alcohol-related incidents. As long as the metrics are reflective of a safe, comfortable, thriving economic environment, it will be a moot point to consider taking these amenities away from the businesses and the people of these communities. “The outdoor dining district increases our theoretic capacity exponentially,” said Jeffro Brown, owner of The Odd Soul, a pizzeria and bar in downtown Springdale. “It means that people can be our customers without being anchored to a seat. There is seating space outside, audio and visual art draws that seem all the more enticing with a carry-around drink and the simple joy of open-air consumption. It allows us to offer dinner and a show without the hassle of conceiving the show. It also means that on busy nights when we run out of seats, we can start someone a tab with an opencontainer drink and let them wander around and discover what else is on offer until we can get them a table.”
Beautiful, urban downtowns small or large that are loved, well taken care of, invested in by the local government and business community, supportive of the arts, that don’t have public policy that strangles out the desire to invest, will always attract new businesses, residents, artists and community events. Springdale restaurants are expanding, and so are cultural offerings and investments in the arts. This growth has been guided with a strong downtown master plan for the past six years. The same master plan is undergoing an update and will continue to carry downtown Springdale forward.
We have known for years that art enriches downtown urban spaces. Last year, many local artists were given opportunities to support themselves through a difficult financial and social time. There was a statewide mural project funded by OZ Art ARkanvas; Springdale received one of these beautiful murals. This inspired Downtown Springdale Alliance to partner with the Walton Family Foundation, Arts Center of the Ozarks and numerous downtown property owners, including Holcomb Arts District, to support seven muralists for seven beautiful additional downtown murals.
Shared public spaces are leading to greater collaboration between business owners in downtown Springdale. Similar strategies were taken in North Little Rock’s Argenta District, Little Rock’s River Market and SoMA districts, El Dorado’s Murphy Arts District and in Mountain Home, all with tremendous levels of success. These efforts create a great deal of excitement, energy and momentum. A few examples of this in Springdale are service industry businesses and corporations using downtown pavilions and parks for company meetings and relying on local coffee shops, restaurants and bars to service these events. These gatherings open doors of opportunity for audiences for art installations or performances. Last year was the start of Live at Turnbow; it continues this year on the last Thursday of every month through the fall and features a diverse lineup of local and regional bands. This event is in the heart of downtown Springdale’s Outdoor Dining District.
Natural State Rock & Republic is sharing its beautiful cycling retreat with the community through backyard concerts and movie nights that are open to the public. It’s part of an attempt to grow what pro cyclist Scotti Lechuga calls “a place where people can feel community, chase dreams with like-minded people, and step into some of the best riding the Ozark landscape has to offer.” So shared spaces can also be shared private spaces with the community.
There is an incredible opportunity for urban centers to leverage this point in history to advance the mission to revitalize, connect and build community. The timeline for accomplishing downtown initiatives in 2019 vs. the time it took to accomplish those same objectives in 2020 during a pandemic were greatly shortened. These accomplishments were made possible by nimble city councils willing to work quickly to support downtown businesses by changing ordinances and regulations that were restrictive to the communities’ overall vision for the future. Many of these changes allowed the private sector to leverage public spaces through seating or changing open-container laws. In these spaces, we saw community happen as people safely and easily gathered.
We live with invisible barriers of all kinds. These barriers are restrictive and usually unproductive to our overall shared goals of building prosperous, diverse, inclusive communities. 2020, we don’t miss you, but we are thankful for all that you taught us. May we never forget, and may we always strive toward the community we envision for the future. Always growing, always improving, always becoming our best selves.
Jill Dabbs is the Executive Director of the Downtown Springdale Alliance.
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