Fayetteville council approves contract for downtown association

Kelly Rich (third from right), director of downtown initiatives with Experience Fayetteville, poses for a photo during a bike tour of seven of the city’s historically significant properties as part of a celebration of National Bike Month and Preservation Month on May 17, 2023. (Experience Fayetteville)

FAYETTEVILLE — A new downtown association was given the green light for city funding this week.

City Council members on Tuesday voted 7-0 to approve a $60,000 contract with the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission’s Experience Fayetteville tourism bureau to help fund the recently established Downtown Fayetteville Coalition.

The coalition is a rebranded and reimagined group previously known as Dickson Street Merchants, which includes its own governing body made up of several downtown business owners. Kelly Rich, the new director of downtown initiatives with Experience Fayetteville, will lead the association, which has expanded to members beyond Dickson Street since Rich’s hiring in November.

The money will come from the city’s Economic Vitality division, and will also include two payments of $125,000 – one in 2024 and another in 2025 – contingent on budget approval and the city’s satisfaction that the contract terms have been fulfilled each year.

Per the contract, the coalition will provide downtown small business advocacy and support, administer the city’s Outdoor Refreshment Area, sign off on third-party downtown events, and produce six events of its own – one later this year, spring and fall events in 2024 and 2025, and a multi-day festival in 2025.

The group is currently marketing a downtown event called Falltoberfest, which is set for Oct. 1 and will include live music, local beer, a mocktail competition, a pumpkin rolling and pretzel eating contest, local vendors and more.

Several downtown business owners spoke in favor of the proposal on Tuesday, including Hannah Withers of Maxine’s Tap Room.

Withers said she spent nearly two years researching and gathering input from stakeholders in an effort to establish a downtown association, but eventually abandoned the idea after determining that the city funding needed to kickstart the idea and make it sustainable was unavailable at the time.

“Since then we’ve seen many events stop operating in our downtown because they were run by people who volunteered to build them, but had no support from any official organization so they eventually ceased to exist,” Withers said. “I believe that we’re a decade behind the other five downtowns in the Northwest Arkansas region, and I wish I pushed harder to make this happen 10 years ago. The Fayetteville Downtown Coalition needs a shot at becoming a sustainable organization with help from you.”

Bo Counts, a coalition board member who owns Pinpoint on Block Avenue said he’s excited at the idea of a city-funded downtown organization, specifically one that can help invest back into the small businesses that make Fayetteville stand out from some of the surrounding cities.

“Our downtown is thriving, but if you really peel back the onion, it’s not all local business,” said Counts. “There’s a lot of outside money coming in that, in some people’s opinions, is stripping away what makes Fayetteville Fayetteville. But organizations like this are going to protect what makes Fayetteville Fayetteville all while keeping us relevant to our neighboring cities down the corridor.”

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said the city’s investment in a downtown association should be considered another example of what he calls “seeds of faith” that yield sales tax dollars needed to provide city services and necessary infrastructure improvements.

“We have done this with TheatreSquared, we’ve done this with Kessler Mountain and we have done this with Centennial Park,” Jordan said. “I believe we’re going to see a bumper crop of success in this city because of the seeds of faith that we sow today and this is one of those times.”