Other stories filed under FEATURE
Talk of the town
Our past dictates our future
January 30, 2019
Charming thrift shops backended by rundown alleys. Historic storefronts coated with peeling paint. Colorful artwork colliding with graffiti. Downtown Texarkana is a hotbed of contradictions and community perceptions of the historic area vary widely. Many observe downtown as an area beyond repair while others see a beautiful and historic city center rife with potential.
Despite the mix of viewpoints concerning downtown, organizations such Main Street Texarkana are working with the city government to revitalize downtown Texarkana’s culture and economy.
“Main Street Texarkana’s goal is to promote economic development through historic preservation [in downtown],” said Ina McDowell, executive director of Main Street Texarkana. “We provide loans, grants and design renderings for buildings, businesses and events.”
The effort to preserve the history of Texarkana is pursued by philanthropists who desire to revitalize the area and history buffs like Dr. Beverly Rowe. Rowe has been a professor at Texarkana College for 25 years, is president of the Texarkana Downtown Neighborhood Association and has written and published eight books about Texarkana’s history.
“Value the heritage with which you have been gifted,” Rowe said. “When I travel to speak in other cities or to present programs all over the United States, I always tour their historic districts and talk with downtown revitalization organizations to find what has worked and what has failed. What I have learned is that Texarkana has good bones and we need to learn how to market our heritage and culture to tourists throughout the United States and the world.”
The charm of a town may be subjective, but there is no doubt that downtown Texarkana has a lot of it. With more than 100 businesses, seven museums, restaurants and historic homes, downtown provides a contrast to the modern monotony of the region.
“Local flair is what makes downtown so special,” said Phyllis Deese, Texarkana College Vice President of Administrative Services. “There are no ‘chain’ stores or restaurants. Downtown shows our local flair and culture, and that is what makes this area unique compared to other parts of town.”
Middle-aged generations are increasingly respectful and appreciative of this local culture as they search for uniqueness in the products and services they purchase.
“Society’s model is changing as people want to come back downtown,” said Lisa Thompson, Public Information Officer for Texarkana, Texas. “They want to live here and they want to walk to their work and where they shop because they want more of the local flavor than what a big box retailer can offer.”
However, this charm is not shared by many as the historical significance of downtown is often overlooked. Many newcomers with fresh perspectives seem to have a greater appreciation for downtown than locals.
“When we arrived in 1977 from Shreveport, I couldn’t understand why the citizens of Texarkana didn’t value their downtown more than they did,” Rowe said. “Most had written off the downtown area and felt that it needed a bulldozer. Most didn’t even know the history of this amazing twin city.”
The growth of Texarkana is obvious although it is centralized around chain stores along I-30. Because of this chain growth, some Texarkana residents claim that overlooking our downtown is no longer an option lest we be robbed of what defines Texarkana from the hundreds of similar Texan towns. Additionally, some city officials assert a popular municipal planning theory that the life of a community rests in the hands of the life of that community’s downtown.
“We must always invest in our cities culture. It requires constant attention and maintenance. [New chain stores don’t threaten the city’s identity] as long as we continue to develop, support and strengthen our original city,” McDowell said. “[The growth of Texarkana has a] positive impact. Everyone brings a unique asset to the community— just as downtown is unique with many assets.”
The vision for what “revitalization” truly means differs greatly from hopes of economic gain to social hotspots. The realism of these events may be overshadowed by vain hopes as expectations for what downtown should be clash with reality.
“Some people want to return downtown Texarkana to the 1940s when it was at its peak of activity. That will never happen. Our commercial district has moved out to the I-30 corridor and it won’t come back downtown in the near future,” Rowe said. “Some people want downtown to be a complete bar scene. That won’t happen either. Alcohol, drinking and the bar scene won’t sustain future growth. Some people want downtown to be gentrified — a place for the up and coming wealthy. That, also, won’t happen.”
A focus on past times could hinder the movement, but some believe there is a clear and possible path to revitalization, based on unification and past success.
“What will work is a combination of these things, along with a super strong arts and entertainment component,” Rowe said. “This formula is what has worked for other cities with similar histories to that of Texarkana. This formula is also long-lived and sustainable — that is the key to true success in downtown revitalization.”
The effect of revitalization is not merely subjective. Tangible economic results are visible, and Rowe urges citizens to jump on the bandwagon while they can.
“Within the next three years [to 2022], tremendous change will become visible in downtown Texarkana. However, if you wait until this change is evident, you have missed the boat. There won’t be any more properties to claim as your own, and the price of renting, leasing or even ownership will have skyrocketed,” Rowe said. “Already, the price of a two-story downtown building of about 7,000 square feet has climbed from $45,000 [in 2005] to $210,000 in 2018. That’s a huge return on investment dollars that has already happened. Imagine what the story will be in three years, when the change becomes visible.”
Investing time downtown can be as effective as investing money. Volunteering in any of downtown’s seven museums is a way for any individual to join the revitalizing effort, which has garnered community and monetary support.
“By volunteering, you will learn of ongoing revitalization projects and new ones, as they start,” Rowe said. “Right now, there are more than 20 revitalization projects in the works with a total budget of more than 50 million dollars soon to be pumped into downtown Texarkana.”
One of the projects currently in the works is the renovation of the Grimm Hotel which is regarded to be a major landmark of downtown.
“We are continuing work on the Grimm Hotel which has been in the works now for about  years. There has been a lot of ups and downs since 2009 but everything is on track during this time. Construction will probably begin sometime during the first quarter of [this year],” Texarkana, Texas, Mayor Bob Bruggeman said. “I think that once this project is complete, it will serve as an anchor for other economic activity.”
However, officials assert that tax dollars alone will not revitalize downtown.
“We have several ongoing projects, but the revitalization of downtown has to be some type of public-private partnership,” said Jerry Sparks, Economic Developer of Texarkana, Texas. “You can’t just pour public money into [downtown] and think it’s going to work. If you can’t open a business that’s profitable downtown, [it won’t happen].”
The future rests in the hands of, not only those well-established in Texarkana, but in the youth. There are many ways students and young adults can become involved and help further downtown.
“In order for downtown Texarkana to thrive, our young people need to start getting involved,” Phyllis Deese said. “No matter your interest, there are ways that all citizens can become a part of the revitalization efforts. This can include volunteering, shopping, dining downtown, visiting the museums, art galleries and joining organizations.”