Downtown Ozark Thrives Because of Main Street Program Involvement
Kerry Kraus, travel writer
Editor's Note: The following is one in a series of features on Main Street Arkansas, which this year celebrates its 20th year of service to Arkansas towns.
It was the late 1970s and business was booming in downtown Ozark. The community had just about everything people needed for a comfortable life: two shoe stores, several restaurants, a dry goods shop, a hardware/farm supply store, and a movie theatre. As with many other communities across the country, the economic growth began to shift towards the outer edges of town. By the early-to-mid 80s, Ozark's central business district was almost gone. Buildings which once housed thriving businesses now sat empty, their windows covered by plywood.
The late Tommy Dangers, who owned Grumpy's Restaurant in downtown Ozark at the time, heard about Main Street, a program that helps small communities revive the core of their town. He presented the idea of Ozark joining the program to a few people in town and when Ozark became a part of the Main Street program in 1989, Grumpy's became the first business to enlist.
James Gilmer followed Dangers as the champion of downtown Ozark. Main Street director for six years, Gimer laid the groundwork for most of the projects that have been completed, current Main Street Director Sandy Key says. "We pretty much took his dreams and built on them." Key also credits Gilmer with having the vision of a developed riverfront in Ozark on the Arkansas River.
Nine square blocks comprise the project in Ozark, and today there are few empty buildings to be seen. Colorful new awnings and paint are signs of progress, as is the ingenious "pocket park." The small park spruces up a lot left vacant when a building had to be removed. An all-volunteer undertaking, the narrow strip includes plantings of flowers and crepe myrtles along with benches for taking a break. Fifteen blocks of new sidewalks constructed of large blocks of concrete with red brick borders, 45 old-fashioned replica street lights, installation of 24 park benches and more than 50 crepe myrtles in sidewalk planters are other indicators of the successful program.
When asked what she thought the major accomplishments of the Ozark program were so far, Key listed four: the streetscaping of new street lights; plants and sidewalks; the purchase of the 1858 building that serves as the Main Street, the Ozark Area Chamber of Commerce and Ozark Film Commission offices; convincing the U.S. Postal Service to build the new post office in downtown Ozark instead of moving to the edge of town as originally planned; and the nighttime illumination of the Ozark Bridge.
Forty-three buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places comprise the Ozark downtown historic district. One of Key's favorite success stories is Rivertowne BBQ. Founded and owned by Kevin and Pam Doyle, the eatery is known for both its outstanding smoked barbecue and the lines of people waiting to be seated during busy times of the day. The Doyles were truck drivers who happened to come to Ozark while on a run, decided to stay and opened a restaurant. To house the business, they chose an historic building that originated as a blacksmith shop, became a pool hall, and then a garage, because "it looked like a barbecue restaurant."
Located on 3rd Street one-half block from the Arkansas River, Rivertowne has won numerous awards for the barbecue that people drive from as far away as Little Rock to enjoy. Kevin and Pam created their own special dry rub and sauce that is served with meats smoked daily on the premises. Homemade side items include potato salad, baked and "rivertowne" beans, cole slaw, and some salad dressings. The restaurant's menu and hours of operation can be found on www.rivertownebbq.com.
Approximately two blocks away is the town depot, another impressive undertaking by Main Street. The program acquired the 1910 depot from Union Pacific Railroad and it now houses the Ozark Depot Museum. The museum, at 103 East River Street, is run by volunteers and features area history displays.
Another Main Street triumph is Hoffman's of Ozark, a photography studio and gift shop. Owned by Mike and Ruth Hoffman, the shop opened 21 years ago and was one of the first Main Street participants. Hoffman, who is originally from St. Louis, came to Ozark for a job and decided to stay, "turning his hobby into habit." He thinks the Main Street program is a great asset for the community and continuously hears compliments from out-of-state visitors including Main Street directors from across the country. In addition to fine photography, the store has custom framing, a gallery, a bridal registry, and upscale gifts.
The Main Street Ozark office receives a major part of its operating funds from the City of Ozark. According to figures from the Main Street Arkansas office, 323 projects have been undertaken in Ozark so far, resulting in an investment of $5,792,130. This has produced a net gain of 60 businesses and 205 jobs. Key is also very excited the program has such a good working relationship with the chamber of commerce and city government. All the organizations work together exceptionally well for the betterment of the town, according to Key.
Ozark and its citizens are bubbling over with plans for future development. One of the major projects is the River and Rail Marketplace and Marina. Funds are actively being sought, a schematic has been prepared, and things are beginning to happen. Key believes the project will lure retail development to the area which she thinks is essential in attracting tourists to the River Valley community. When asked what she would like to see as additions to town, Key replies "more restaurants and crafts and antique shops."
The River and Rail Marketplace prospectus calls for:
- The Ozark Marina: providing permanent boat docking facilities for Ozark residents, temporary docking for visitors and river traffic, and boat fuel;
- The Railroad Crossing Tower: offering safe pedestrian passage from the end of 3rd at River Street over the railroad tracks to the riverfront area;
- An Extension of 3rd Street: revamping the area where the street now abruptly ends by clearing out brush and providing a walkway to the edge of the bluff;
- The Riverbend Pier: plaques and exhibits showcasing history of the area;
- The Old Jail: restoring the historic building on the National Register and turning it into a bed and breakfast with retail shops on the ground floor;
- The Riverbend Marketplace: renovating buildings between the Old Jail and the depot for retail and restaurant space. A large outdoor plaza will provide an area for dining, strolling along the river and watching river traffic;
- The Riverwalk Park: a recreational stop for both boat and vehicular traffic with a walking trail lined with park benches and tables, centered by a gazebo. It will also serve as a plant and bird sanctuary;
- The Multi-Purpose Outdoor Area: an open space to be used by the Ozark Little Theatre for presentations and as a setting for festivals and holiday celebrations, wedding receptions, birthday parties and local school activities; and
- The Old Ferry: reconstructing the ferry that transported people from one side of the Arkansas River to the other and paving the Old Ferry Road access.
One of the town's most heavily used destinations is the Aux Arc (French spelling of "Ozark") campground on Ozark Lake which was formed by the McClellan-Kerr Navigational System on the Arkansas River. According to Key, many RVers call the park their home away from home. She believes the ferry would be a boon for those staying at the campground, enabling them to easily visit the north side of the river for dining and shopping.
An ardent supporter of the area, Key is proud of the fact that surrounding communities are interested in Ozark's growth and development. She sees it as a "win-win" situation for everyone involved. Wiederkehr Village has been working closely with the office and several ideas are in discussion stages that would benefit all the surrounding area known as Arkansas's Wine Country. Besides adding more attractions, there is talk of creating some type of connection between the two towns using an old railroad bed. Both Key and Chamber of Commerce Director Dale Abbott believe the completion of Mount Magazine State Park near Paris will also boost the Ozark area. "I believe this region has the potential to be like Eureka Springs or Hot Springs if we all just work together," Key said.
Two festivals sponsored by Main Street also contribute to the local economy and quality of life. The Old-Fashioned Square Gathering in October has been around for over 30 years and is the major fundraiser for the Main Street office. Rods and Ribs in September is Main Street's way of thanking the people of Ozark by putting money back into the community.
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, 501-682-7606
E-mail: [email protected]
May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"