I’ve driven by that building on East Main Street in Russellville probably a thousand times. I’ve always wondered what it was back in the day. It looks industrial to me, and I’ve often wondered what was made there and what family owned it. The paint has been peeling for years and if you look closely you can just make out what looks like mechanical gears painted on the front walls. Weeds have overtaken the grounds and it just looks sad. Well, it did until recently.
You may have noticed the fresh coat of paint on the Bailey building that sits just west of the Brangus parking lot. Within this last year I’ve been pleased to notice a little life going on around that old building, and as I was passing by one Saturday in November there was a team of folks giving it a facelift as part of Paint the River Valley.
Paint the River Valley was organized by local members of the Uncommon Communities program through the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. The Uncommon Communities program works with community leaders and, through education and examples of proven successful programs, assists in brainstorming ideas to revive and beautify neglected areas.
Last year, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute teamed up with local community leaders to form a steering committee for the purpose of finding ways to improve and beautify the River Valley in order to help draw people to our area. WRI offered the committee a series of five retreats where people from across the United States who were responsible for similar programs in their respected areas educated the members and provided presentations on programs that have proven successful.
Tonya Gosnell, a member of the steering committee, recently spoke to me about the initiative. “These retreats have been so helpful in coming up with ideas to help our community,” said Gosnell. “The first retreat we attended provided loads of information on the successful programs ongoing in Greenville, Kentucky.” Gosnell said Paint the River Valley is based on Greenville’s Let’s Paint the Town program. “Over the years, the citizens in Greenville saw their downtown area being used less and less. People were moving out of the area and the buildings were in desperate need of minor repairs and paint so they decided to do something about it,” said Gosnell. “Using donated supplies and volunteers, they revitalized their downtown area and are now listed as one of the Top 10 Coolest Little Towns in America. That’s what we want for our area. When we left that retreat we were sent home with a homework assignment to come up with some ways to beautify our area.”
The committee also includes Russellville Mayor Randy Horton, President of Arkansas Tech University Dr. Robin Bowen, Tabitha Duvall from the Chamber of Commerce, and Steve Mallett from City Corporation. After the first committee meeting and planning for Paint the River Valley, the members met with business owners and chose buildings in Dardanelle, Pottsville, Russellville and Atkins for refreshing. Gosnell called this phase one. They set the date for November 14, 2015, began contacting area businesses for supply donations and spoke with volunteer groups to get the manpower needed to complete such an endeavor. Some of the businesses who donated supplies were Lowes, Ridout Lumber and Sherwin Williams. Tyson Foods even provided lunch for all the volunteers. Betsy McGuire lent a hand choosing paint colors and organizing painters while Minister Tom Harkness beat the pavement talking with business owners. Arkansas Tech University played a large role as well.
“We are so blessed to have Arkansas Tech University in our Community,” said Gosnell. “Once the word got out we were looking for volunteers, several groups of students called us and signed up. We also had numerous calls from individuals, churches and local businesses wanting to help in any way they could.”
On a sunny Saturday morning in November everyone met at the train depot to get started. Gosnell said one of her main concerns was getting enough volunteers. “We had all these people contact us to volunteer, but were unsure of how many would actually be able to show up,” said Gosnell. But Gosnell’s worries were for naught. “We had over 300 volunteers. It was amazing. Tech students were everywhere and the church groups came in vans,” said Gosnell. “At one point I looked up the street and there was an older gentleman walking my way with his arms loaded down with painting supplies and brushes. He came to me and asked ‘where do you need me?’ He hadn’t signed up but heard about what we were doing and came ready to help. The turnout was more than we could have ever dreamed. The generosity of our community is beyond measure. I knew we lived in an area where people helped each other, but this was beyond what we expected. We are truly blessed.”
By the end of the day, the buildings that border Depot Park had a fresh coat of paint. The Bailey building was looking as good as new, and the building next to Street Law Firm had been spruced up also. Several buildings on Front Street in Dardanelle were painted along with the Atkins International Café and Rackley Furniture. The Paint the Valley crew also cleaned up several lots, the old Millard Henry Clinic and painted several other buildings on Church Street in Atkins. Several loads of trash were picked up, and over 18 bags of leaves and yard debris were taken to Russellville’s compost facility behind the Russellville Animal Shelter. Needless to say the day was a wonderful success, and Tonya attributes that success to everyone who helped in the planning, donated supplies, picked up trash or wielded a paintbrush.
Looking forward, the committee hopes this is the first of many public work projects to enhance the beautiful River Valley. In the near future they will be exploring the possibility of acquiring grants to assist with the cost of even larger community projects with the ultimate goal of drawing more people and businesses to the area and creating jobs. Tonya’s excitement and energy about the endless possibilities is infectious. “We want people to come and enjoy what we have to offer. This area provides something for everyone like fishing, boating, kayaking, and hiking. We should be doing everything we can to invite others to enjoy our towns.”