Here’s a little thought experiment for you: Imagine that you are a stranger visiting your town for the first time. What do you see? Does it look inviting, cared for, and vibrant? Is it easy to find your way around? Does anything catch your eye and make you want to stay a little longer or come back again?
Fourteen Conway County residents put the city of Morrilton to the “visitor” test on a tour that spanned city limits by bus in all directions, focusing on the view from the city’s points of entry and main thoroughfares, and ended on foot for a closer look at several downtown blocks.
The tour was a product of Conway County’s participation in the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Uncommon Communities program, a community and economic development initiative that will take participants from Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell counties through an intensive, nine-month curriculum of workshops and trainings designed to jump-start development at the grass-roots level.
Cody Hill, director of events and membership for the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce and chair of the steering committee for Conway County’s Uncommon Communities program, said that the idea for the bus tour came from the steering committee itself.
“We were having our first big follow-up meeting to the first session at WRI, and a couple of people just said, ‘Let’s take our blinders off’” and see what other people see when they visit, Hill said.
We departed from the Chamber and headed west on U.S. 64, and it wasn’t long before the first noteworthy sight was announced by Mayor Allen Lipsmeyer, who took to the bus PA system to call the group’s attention to a faded wooden “Welcome to Morrilton” sign—that appears, bewilderingly, on the way out of town. Plans are underway to refurbish the sign and move it to a more welcoming location.
Vacant buildings and overgrown lots passed by the windows. Suddenly, one brave soul volunteered himself as a guinea pig, pointing out a lot of his own with a vacant building that he’d been unable to sell. “So, what do I do with that?” he said. “Well,” said Hill, “you’re keeping it mowed. That helps.”
This example of a property owner taking the trouble to keep tidy a property he isn’t even using seemed to set off a light bulb inside the bus, and now nearly every building we passed elicited a chorus of “Who owns that one?” People were complimenting one another on how nice everything looked, but a pervasive awareness of the special kind of accountability a person can feel in a small town where everybody knows your name—and your address—hung in the air.
The tour continued through town to have a look at the city’s entrance from the south, coming over the river bridge on Route 9. “Think about how many people come this way from Petit Jean,” Lipsmeyer said. “There’s no ‘Welcome to Morrilton’ sign.” On Route 9 at the north entrance to the city, “There’s no welcome sign, but there’s a huge Petit Jean Liquor sign,” Hill said with a laugh.
Back at the Chamber, the group prepared for a short walking tour. “For so many years, I only ever saw Morrilton from the front seat of a car,” Hill said. “Now that I’ve taken up jogging, I’ve noticed so much more on foot.” One thing everyone noticed right away is that the north side of Broadway has a sidewalk and no trees, and the south side has the reverse—which you might not pay mind to in the car, but seems patently unfair as you make your way down the street on foot on a blinding, 95-degree day. It was agreed that Morrilton needs more trees.
Around the corner was an example of a building that’s been painted to highlight historical architectural details and to complement the surrounding buildings. Across the street, a vacant building stood with peeling paint, rotting wood, and windows clouded with dust. “Even vacant buildings need to be kept up,” said Darryl Rhoda, who is on Conway County’s steering committee for the Uncommon Communities program. “Potential buyers drive on by a building that’s sad and dirty.”
As we passed by empty storefronts and recently closed businesses, a combination of hometown pride and HGTV fever seemed to overtake the group, and attractive features on abandoned buildings were pointed out, and improvements were enthusiastically suggested. The tour concluded at the Chamber, where a quick wrap-up produced one of many “assignments” for the group: Based on what was seen on the tour, come up with a list of three simple improvements that could be made in one afternoon, possibly during a clean-up day that is tentatively scheduled for one weekend in October. “We’ve got a lot of momentum,” Hill said. “The iron is hot, and it’s time to strike.”