Last week, I was fortunate enough to visit with two of the three men who are renovating the old First National Bank building on Polk Square.
For those who don’t know me, I can be a little cynical at times (perhaps I should change the name of this column to “Pessimistic Preston”), but they remained optimistic in my declarations that bringing new life to the city square is going to be an uphill battle. It’s still undetermined what will fill the vacant building, but the group has a vision of a square as vibrant as the squares in those cities to the west of us.
I’ve written before that our downtown square needs something to remain viable (a lot of somethings, actually). It needs a draw – the geologists pointed out the other day that you can watch traffic flow through the square all day, but scarcely do you see anyone stop anymore. It needs some renovations – not only are some of the vacant buildings rundown and full of rubble (or in the case of the Basham building, an actual environmental hazard), but some of the buildings that remain open are in dire need of repair. And lastly, it needs character – some sort of uniform standards, perhaps, to tie everything on the square together.
The businesses down there are doing what they can to keep their doors open – I’ve heard from some that the last year was especially hard on their budgets – but there are a lot of gaps between those shops, and we need to fill them with something different than what’s already there. Those business owners there have great shops, but if we’re going to draw more people to the square, we need to target different people, and that means a new variety of places to stop.
There are a lot of things that could bring new life to the square: a bookstore, a frozen yogurt/ice cream parlor, a game room/arcade, a small pub, or some sort of unique, niche store – Fayetteville’s square has a store that specializes in items with mustaches on them, so surely we can find something, right?
For a downtown area to stand the test of time, it has to be willing to change with it. And while more and more downtown areas are looking less like vibrant community hubs and more like ghost towns, it’s not impossible to keep the square a destination. Areas such as Fayetteville, Bentonville and Russellville have done it. It takes a lot of work, a lot of patience, and, yes, a bit of optimism.
But I’m convinced that the group from Tulsa has a great vision for the square, and while it might be tough to execute it, I think they have the resources and the attitude to do so. Here’s hoping they can convince the rest of Huntsville to keep that same attitude.