Economic development finds home in historic downtown Benton
July 23-29, 2018
By Becca Bona
If you build it, they will come
Part of the magic of downtown Benton, Ark., lies in its incredible staying power. No one knows that better than Bentonnite, Brad Jordan.
For Jordan, now the City of Benton Economic Development Director, the easiest place to start when examining the success of the area starts with something new – the City of Benton’s Farmers Market.
“I’ve always loved downtown, my parents always brought us down here,” he says. Jordan is standing at 125 W. Ashley Street downtown, the new home to the Farmer’s Market. Picture a beautiful outdoor, wooden awning, which covers a myriad of vendors selling everything from coveted, fresh Arkansas tomatoes to perfectly prepared jellies and jams. The sign happily notes: “City of Benton, AR Farmer’s Market.”
Near the Market is a visible mural, depicting a timeline of Benton’s history, from Native Americans to the coveted Niloak Pottery. Alongside the wall leading to the awning is a nice, manicured green space, not unlike a small park nestled between nearby buildings.
Even on a Tuesday morning, the space is home to a bustle of activity, a few “Hellos,” and “How’s your family, doing?”
That wasn’t always the case, however.
“This used to be a broken lot,” says Jordan, as he describes the past of the now-bustling market. “I have always thought this [area] could be something and forever it just wasn’t.”
After the mural project was completed in 2014, Jordan was inspired. Drawn and led by local artist Dianne Roberts, the mural was a project of the Gann Museum and cost $38,000 to produce. “That’s what prompted me to think, hey, let’s do this, let’s give back to downtown,” he says. The development for the awning wouldn’t be easy to build, estimated at a half million dollar project.
Thus, Jordan began to fundraise.
“We would either have individuals in the Mayor’s office or we would have luncheons for them – and we just sold them on this idea,” says Jordan. “Everyone – and that’s the awesome part about Benton right now –there’s a lot of energy, there’s buy-in, people understand the business community. The social leaders here in town, the faith community in town, they see what we’re doing and it wasn’t a hard sell at all.”
On Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., the market takes on a life of its own, acting as a bookend from the area’s historic court house – one of the most iconic in Arkansas.
The market, however, isn’t the only thing the area has going for it.
Falling into place: New energy downtown
Jordan has always had an interest in history. After growing up in the Benton School and then heading to UA Little Rock for his undergraduate degree in history, he continued his education at the University, receiving a Master’s of Public History. From there he found work in Little Rock with the Capitol Zoning District Commission and eventually with Main Street Arkansas.
“I was able to travel around the state and preach historic preservation,” he says. “That got me interested in economic development [and] how you can use preservation in an economical way to bolster downtowns.”
Around that time, he got to know Mayor David Mattingly and discovered that there wasn’t an economic development arm or focus area on the City of Benton’s payroll. The Mayor agreed that there was a need for such things, and created a City of Benton Economic Development Director position, for which Jordan applied.
“It fell into place, I thought I was just going to be a history teacher, but it worked out in a way that I love my job,” he says, laughing.
Jordan’s new position is like a cherry on top of a perfectly poised sundae. Already, in 2003, the City of Benton received a grant to complete a streetscape project.
This involved new storm drains and landscaping which added a shine to the area.
The Benton Historic District Commission, filled with members who exhibited passion for the area, was another strong element in keeping the magic in downtown Benton alive.
Perhaps more than that, however, were the personalities filling the storefronts in downtown Benton.
Taking the tour: Exploring the meaning of community
“Our entire downtown is on the National Historic Register,” pipes Jordan as he makes his way down Main Street, heading to Wanda Posey’s event space at 111 N. Main. Posey and her husband both own businesses downtown, and the couple also recently moved from their acreage outside of the city limits to live near the square.
“They have been a staple in our city for years and years,” says Jordan.
Wanda Posey is readying her space for an event when Jordan knocks on the door. The two quickly engage in a conversation about the status of the Crepe myrtles which line the streets, before Jordan asks her thoughts on the downtown scene.
“There’s a lot of energy here,” she says. “Once the Farmer’s Market happened it really took off. Once we saw how many people came down to the market – all of us that have labored to keep this town alive through the big box stores [were excited],” she says.
Almost directly opposite of the square, located on North Market Street resides Paradise Pets, a locally owned store that has been in operation for over 30 years. Owner Kevin Malone has seen the tides change more than once in his beloved downtown. He likens the latest surge of energy to the willingness to work together.
“I think it’s because we’re all together. When Brad came aboard with the city, he brought attention and focus to downtown because of his background. Then you also have a lot of people down here now that want it to work.”
Malone also thinks there’s another shining star in Benton’s success. “The beauty of downtowns like this is you can start a small business without spending a fortune because the rents are reasonable instead of astronomical.”
Across from Malone is Sparks Fine Jewelry & Gifts, an institution in the downtown scene. Sherman Sparks recently sold the business to Shelly Reed, who plans to keep the store going, as she works bit by bit to restore the space it occupies on 109 N. Market St., which used to be a bank.
“I’m a history geek and I really hope that I would never have to move this store anywhere else, because I love it down here,” she says. “I’m not sure I could make it if I had to move it somewhere else.”
A member of the historic district commission, Shellie also feels that there is a comradery in the area, as she adds, “Everyone looks out for each other.”
Continuing the journey, Jordan has a story for each landmarked storefront. Of the department store – Gingles, he says, “It was sort of like Benton’s Dillards, but it had this smell – you know how smell can spark up nostalgia – I can even still can smell it.”
A few skips down, the Burger Shack, owned by a local family is met with a declaratory: “This is THE place for lunch.”
Not far off, the Royal Theatre plays host to the Royal Players who put on shows. The theatre also used to be the place in town for movie-goers, as Jordan remembers, “I probably watched my first movie [there], maybe “Fantasia” back in the day.”
Benton’s Historic District has a shine to it like no other. History is brimming from each storefront, while new strides are being made all the time. Part of it the success lies in the symbiotic energy between business owners, good leadership, and a good climate for business.
Jordan thinks that the area will continue to thrive, even with corporate business strides on the rise. “The newer developments on the outskirts may be more corporate driven, but that’s not affecting this area. It’s more symbiotic.”
PHOTO CAPTIONS (Photos by Becca Bona):
1. Brad Jordan was one of the major forces behind getting the City of Benton’s Farmers Market up and running. The work including revitalizing an old, broken lot, and raising the funds to do so.
2. Brad Jordan, the City of Benton’s Economic Development Director has big plans for the area.
3. Kevin Malone, the owner of long-time local Paradise Pets, is happy to see the area thriving. He believes part of the energy in the area is due to teamwork, between the merchants, the city, and even patrons, as well.
4. A couple of years ago a mural was put in depicting the history of Benton, adding to the feel of the downtown historic district. This initially sparked Jordan to pursue the farmers market.
5. Shelly Reed, the new owner of Sparks Fine Jewelry & Gifts is pictured with the former owner, Sherman Sparks. She says, “I love hearing the stories of customers who come in and remember their grandmas bringing them in.”
6. Wanda Posey, the owner of 111 North Main’s event space, says, “The young couples moving to town – that’s what they say – [that] it’s just the sweetest old town feel that they’re looking to raise their children.”