Suggestions aplenty offered in 'Main Street' experts' presentation

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Revitalization experts of the Arkansas Downtown Network of Main Street Arkansas generally had high praise for Eureka Springs as they presented their "first impressions' following a three-day survey Wednesday evening.

Team leader Cary Tyson stated that the town is doing "so much so right," terming it an "incredible job."

A more detailed report will follow in about 45 days, he promised.

The team tweaked its survey to focus on downtown, but also did study the U.S. Hwy. 62 business area's relationship to downtown.

The team consisted of experts in design, organization, promotion and window displays.

While stating that Eureka Springs probably has the most successful downtown in the state, Tyson recommended that a downtown manager be hired. "Downtown is your mall," he said, noting that Little Rock's McCain Mall has 10 persons in management.

The downtown manager would be a "boundaries person," he said, working with a commission not consisting of city employees and taking a downtown advocacy position. Effects, he allowed, would take some time.

Tyson also suggested that the schools in the community become involved.

Secondly, Tyson advised that ongoing training and continuing education be started regarding starting a business, the town's history, the role of the Historic District Commission, and the independent nature of residents.

New resident involvement is a challenge he said, suggesting that they and young people should be brought on board.

He also suggested starting a Eureka Springs alumni group consisting of persons who have lived previously in Eureka Springs, and utilizing the Web to develop a talent resource database.

Down the road, he suggested that a work plan be developed, with a goal of enhancing relationships in the downtown network.

Random suggestions made by Tyson included.

* Development of a cell phone tour, which he admitted is currently somewhat expensive;

* "Eureka! Made" branding of items made locally; and

* Surveying visitors in finding out when they were last in town.

Following Tyson's introduction, promotion consultant Greg Phillips, assistant director of Main Street Arkansas, spoke, again praising the community for its unique characteristics and enhancement of downtown energy.

He noted that the community only has one chance to make a first impression, cautioning that the community should ask itself if it is what it says it is. Noting the recent adoption of a city slogan referencing the town as an extraordinary escape, he said that it is "probably pretty true."

Utilization of thematic banners for Downtown, Parking and North Main was also praised by Phillips.

Events getting people in stores, he said, "are really missing here," probably due to lack of a merchant group. He suggested utilization of holiday promotions and seasonal themes.

Phillips also noted the increasing popularity of gift card programs, which also serve to enhance partnerships among area banks and retail shops.

He said an active merchants group is also needed to do any type of cooperative advertising. He suggested "Alive After 5" as an example of partnering artists and sidewalk events with merchants. He showed a photograph from El Dorado, utilizing a Margaritaville theme, of a shoe store which was one of a few businesses to experience a "phenomenal success."

As for special events, Phillips said that he saw "good work taking place." He suggested a bridal exposition, considering the huge wedding market in Eureka Springs.

He hinted that communication may be lacking, as he saw stickers regarding an art walk, but heard no talk about it. He noted on the first Friday on each month in Russellville, stores have art displays.

Seasonal festivals could center on heritage events and the springs, and include childrens' events, Phillips said.

Taste of Eureka could be improved, he suggested, saying that Basin Park could be the site of "lunch in the park." Basin Park, he added, is underutilized, and "there should be something there all the time."

He emphasized that the town's attractions should include "something for the locals, not just tourists -- events that embrace the community."

Basin Park should be utilized from spring to early fall, April through November, particularly from 4 to 6 p.m. with something to keep people in downtown and create a festive atmosphere.

"Don't be afraid to think outside the box," Phillips said, as he showed a photo of a banner promoting a "First and Last Annual Sewer Festival" and spoke of a community in the West which hosts an annual "Testicle Festival." "Capitalize on the area's uniqueness,' he said, "and don't forget to have fun."

Design consultant Nancy Lowe stated that that basics of growth from design strengths are already being done well, but strongly suggested that the community synthesize arts and science.

She indicated that potential for such synthesis already exists in the growing arts education in public and private schools and area studios, as well as Main Stage, community arts groups, recording studios, parade puppeteers and theater.

Lowe noted that some residents say more attention needs to be paid to the town's springs and other natural elements, and suggested a trails system with informational packets. "Ask yourself how to bring the springs to the forefront of the community," she said, utilizing such programs as Tree City USA and wildlife refuges.

She noted that U.S. Hwy. 62 West, with Lake Leatherwood and Blue Springs, is "full of opportunity."

Lowe also expressed approval of the Chamber of Commerce Outdoor Tourism Committee and the Eureka Springs Outdoor Alliance, suggesting that they could partner in programs with the Ozark Science Center near Huntsville.

She described Thorncrown Chapel and Opera in the Ozarks as good examples of connecting nature and art, and suggested that a systematic approach to botanical illustration and photography should be considered.

Lowe also suggested creation of a nature and science center in the downtown area.

Utilization of natural resources is also seen in the farmers' market program, which could be enhanced with urban education regarding sustainable agriculture.

In conclusion, Lowe called for continued focus on design quality; expansion of arts education and natural science; and connection of design, arts education and natural science to develop new markets.

Small business development consultant Mark Miller indicated the Eureka Springs's tourism experience could be restored, in part, by expanding its wedding market niche.

Further, Miller said, tourists do not want to just shop, but are seeking experiences. Generally, he said, tourists want to shop in the evening, and have experiences during the day.

Visual merchandising, in which Eureka Springs merchants demonstrate remarkable creativity, should be utilized, he said, but the downtown merchants need to take a chance and "get merchants to work as a team" forming a merchants association and offering customer service.

Caroline Millan, window display expert and associate director with Main Street Arkansas, was unique among the consultants, as last week's visit was her first to Eureka Springs.

Aside from the area's natural beauty, she said she was struck by the people, saying that she would go into a store to shop for 10 or 15 minutes and find herself in deep conversations.

She said that while many say the town needs another attraction, she believes the town already has it in its "eclectic, creative energy."

Speaking on behalf of consultant Susan Shaddox, who was not present, Millan said that Shaddox "thinks Eureka Springs can compete with Macy's.".

Millan described window displays as utilizing lighting, space and color, showing an example of a window with just a penguin and a tuxedo on a mannequin.

Window treatments are "like a good cover to a magazine," she said, adding that "Eureka Springs has a great artists' palate to promote its image."

She said that window treatments should change monthly, and advised that Shaddox offers window display workshops. "We'll be back," she promised.

In recapping, Tyson said that "Eureka Springs could be the window display capitol of Arkansas."

He re-emphasized looking at special events; finding out when visitors were last in town and how they got there; and "taking care of yourselves as locals."

He said that the community is already doing most of what is recommended, but is just not marketing itself as it could.

In response to a question of Chamber of Commerce Director Jeff Feldman as to how to engage downtown merchants, Miller suggested that one or two businessmen who are well respected be brought on board, then others will follow.

An organizational meeting for downtown merchants is tentatively planned for the end of November or early December.

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