SPRINGDALE -- The neighborhood bordered by Emma Avenue, Holcomb Street, Robinson Avenue and the Springdale Municipal Airport for many years has been populated by families living with low incomes, with a stigma of crime attached.
Yet Mayor Doug Sprouse said he often walks the Razorback Greenway through the neighborhoods near Luther George Park and finds the walks safe and peaceful.
Sprouse said he remembers, when he was growing up here in the 1960s, the neighborhood had a stigma as "the other side of the tracks." And that stigma persists.
"But I think Springdale's done a lot to address that," Sprouse said. "I hope that stigma is diminished or goes away. So much redevelopment -- public and private -- is planned for that area."
The city's vision of downtown is a livable, workable community, with homes, restaurants, shops and recreation available within its footprint -- and a footstep into the neighborhoods just south of the park.
Luther George Park is the current focus of redevelopment in the downtown area. The park is closed for construction, but city leaders expect it to serve as the heartbeat of the community when the park is renewed and reopened next year.
Redevelopment already is happening in the surrounding area. Mixed-income, mixed-use housing is planned near the park, with some projects under construction, some in planning and some not yet announced.
A shooting near the park on Dec. 1 left a 14-year-old boy with blood on his face but no life-threatening injuries, police said. The incident could have exacerbated the area's image as an unsafe place.
The Police Department couldn't provide crime statistics for the area.
But residents say they feel safe there, and developers aren't concerned.
"We are not going to hesitate because of what's in the news," said Tom Lundstrum, one of the developers. "We certainly don't want the crime to happen, but it's not going to impact what we are trying to do downtown."
And Sprouse retracted his statement about the "other side of the tracks."
"People who lived there were proud of where they lived," he said. "And the same is true today.
"We all need to work together with the city to see that succeed."
The city targeted the downtown area for development in 2015 with its first Downtown Plan, said Colby Fulfer, the mayor's chief of staff.
Emma Avenue, which lies at the heart of the district, blossomed with the Razorback Greenway, new stores and restaurants, reconstruction of the Tyson Foods original headquarters building, art installations, Turnbow Park and live entertainment events provided by the Downtown Springdale Alliance.
The city expanded the district with an updated plan the City Council adopted in December. The district stretches from Thompson Street on the west to Old Missouri Road on the east and Huntsville Avenue on the north to Maple Avenue on the south.
The district's borders have been extended just a bit to include Springdale High School, the Springdale Public Library, Northwest Medical Center, the Springdale Municipal Airport and Parsons Stadium, home of the the Rodeo of the Ozarks.
The city has long-range plans to extend the downtown district south for about a mile to Robinson Avenue, Fulfer said.
The city put in place the form-based code, which gives developers more leeway in the type and design of projects. The area got another boost when the U.S. secretary of the treasury in 2018 designated Springdale's downtown as an "opportunity zone," which provides tax incentives for developing in low-income areas, Fulfer said.
Omar Kasim, owner of Kasim Ventures, is one of those developers investing downtown.
Kasim opened Con Queso restaurant beside the Razorback Greenway and Turnbow Park. He owns the Social Project Brewing building on Johnson Avenue and the Old Washington School Building on Emma Avenue. He lives on Mill Street.
Kasim said he knew the neighborhood's history when he invested.
"The area is transient," Kasim said. "But Springdale's going to come out ahead as this awesome crossroads of progress and culture. At its peak we will see the beauty of a scene developed with the diversity of the cultures that live in the neighborhood."
A neighborhood school's demographics reflect the community it serves. Jones Elementary School on South Powell Street serves 525 students, with 55% Hispanic, 29% Marshallese and 13% white, said Trent Jones, a School District spokesman. He reported 94% of the students qualify for free or reduced-rate lunches.
Kasim bought the Caudle Apartments at the intersection of Park Street and Caudle Avenue. He said he has renovated five of eight units, installing fiber optics cable and creating a shared laundry room.
He rents several units as Airbnbs, and they stay full, he said.
In many transient areas across the country, gentrification of an area displaces the long-term residents of a community because they no longer can afford to live there, Kasim said.
But in Springdale, big players such as the Walton Family Foundation, Tyson Family Foundation and George Family Foundation stepped up first to invest and drive the vision, making it possible for smaller developers to invest, he said.
An example is Luther George Park. The foundations and other donors raised $12 million to renew the park, Fulfer said.
Now owners of the residential properties can sell them for more than they paid and move on to other opportunities. Or they can invest in their own property and move in, Kasim said.
Lundstrum said he and his partners plan to continue with everything they are doing downtown.
Little Emma, a 24-unit housing complex at 726 E. Emma Ave., is one of Lundstrum's projects -- and it stays full with renters, he said. The complex includes space for commercial ventures on the first floor.
Lundstrum also hopes to start construction this year of Big Emma across the street. He said supply chain shortages and high construction costs put the project on a hiatus, he said.
The Blue Crane development group last year opened 202 Railside, touted as an urban-living, mixed-income, mixed-use complex. Blue Crane is associated with the Walton family and has plans for other development downtown.
In addition, the city has completed several road and infrastructure projects on Emma. The City Council on Wednesday will consider new street lights for Park Street.
The Jones Center plans its own renovation. The Rodeo of the Ozarks plans upgrades.
And the Walton Family Foundation has started building the Market Center of the Ozarks, which will shorten the time in the farm-to-table food model. The market will sit directly west of the airport on East Meadow Avenue.
Safe at home
Britney Brewer on Wednesday was vacuuming out her car in her driveway on Cleveland Street, a few blocks from Luther George Park.
Brewer said she occasionally hears gunshots, but the sounds come from other blocks, not hers.
She has lived there for two years and said she feels safe living there with her 3-month-old son.
Suzanne Cartwright for 17 years has served as the counselor at Jones Elementary School on South Powell Street, the neighborhood school for the southern part of the downtown district.
Cartwright said she always feels safe at school and during home visits she makes on behalf of her students. She said her students don't talk about being scared of violence in the area.
Mary James, executive director of the Springdale Housing Authority, echoed Cartwright's remarks.
James hasn't received reports of violence or even fear from residents of Phillips Plaza, commonly known as Applegate Apartments, the city's largest public housing complex, Applegate Drive; or closer to the park on Maple Avenue.
A drive on Cleveland Street last week showed a neighborhood in transition. A rundown duplex with five or six cars parked in the yard and a dumpster surrounded by trash sat across the street from an apartment complex, looking clean and crisp and with a new paint job.
The street included just a few houses with indoor furniture and even an empty wheelchair on the porch and junk scattered throughout the yard, overgrown bushes and dilapidated fences.
Many of the homes are old -- some of the oldest in the city -- but well kept. A handful had been renovated, with brass address signs, wreaths on the front door and painted welcome signs on the porch.
Brewer's is one of the older ones. She said her landlord lives next door. He owns several houses on the street and keeps them nice, she said.
Matilda Avila was removing clothes from a washing machine Feb. 8 at the Park Street Laundry, south of Luther George Park. She said she has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years and has never experienced any crime.
Ricky Anjain sat at the front of the laundromat. He said he's been in the neighborhood for five years, and it's quiet.
"This place is good," Anjain said. "If I come at night or I come at day, it is the same."
He said he hasn't heard of crime in the neighborhood -- "except for stealing beer from the store," he said with a raucous, infectious laugh.