Photo by Bruce Hayden
With its boating and fishing on pristine Lake Norfork, its resorts and quaint shops, Mountain Home is considered a destination for vacations.
Officials in the Baxter County town wanted to enhance the attraction, though. City council members created a downtown entertainment district that permits public drinking in a nine-block area centered by the county courthouse.
It’s similar to the cordoned-off areas of Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Beale Street in Memphis.
“We wanted to give our visitors something to do at the end of the day,” said Mayor Hillrey Adams, who cast the deciding vote when the council grappled with the issue in June 2019.
Mountain Home is the first Arkansas city to take advantage of Arkansas Senate Bill 492. Created by Sen. Trent Garner, a Republican from El Dorado, the bill allows the creation of an area where public drinking is legally allowed within a defined boundary.
Little Rock, North Little Rock and El Dorado have also created entertainment districts.
Mountain Home aldermen favored the district by a 4-3 vote on June 20, 2019, but needed a fifth vote for its passage. One person on the eight-member council was absent, so Adams cast the decisive vote.
“I felt it was the right way to go,” the mayor said of his vote. “It will help us a lot for getting people to move here. When someone asks, ‘Is there something to do here?’ We can answer, “Yes, there is.’”
The district runs from Hickory Street to Church Street and from Fifth Street to Eighth Street downtown. The Baxter County Courthouse sits in the center; drinking is not allowed on the courthouse property, nor is it at the Mountain Home City Hall, which sits on the southwest corner of the district, or at the Veterans Plaza, which is adjacent to the courthouse.
Nearby Hickory Park is also excluded from the district, but it serves as an area to hold concerts on a recently built stage.
“We’ve always had music on the square,” said Mountain Home Area Chamber of Commerce president Dani Pugsley, who took over as the chamber’s leader in December 2020. “Now we turned it into something bigger.”
Pugsley had worked on Baxter County Forward, a group chartered to help the area to grow after officials noted a decline in population during previous years.
The group sent surveys to residents asking them for any improvement ideas.
“We started simply by putting up hanging baskets of flowers downtown,” she said. “We added flags and lights. It sounded simple, but it showed a sense of unity, and things happening together.”
Pugsley said the entertainment district is now used to recruit people and businesses to the town of 12,700. She said a physician moved to Mountain Home to begin his practice based on the “look and feel” of downtown.
“When you drive through Mountain Home, you see how it’s different,” she said. “There are lights on the square, and people are moving around later than before. It used to be by 5 p.m., everyone left downtown. Now, they’re still here.
“People thought Mountain Home was a retirement town,” she said. “But there’s a lot going on.”
Despite leaders’ accolades for the district, some were opposed to it. Former Mountain Home alderman Don Webb was one of the three who voted against the measure in 2019.
“I was against it then, and I’m against it now,” said Webb, a retired coach in the Mountain Home school system. “Alcohol was something we didn’t encourage.
“I felt like the courthouse square was one of the last places that needed alcohol,” he said. “We need to keep at least one place family-oriented.”
Webb, who served eight years on the council before stepping down last year, said he was concerned that because of a lack of taxis and Uber services, downtown revelers may end up driving home drunk.
Adams said Police Chief Carry Manuel told him that there have not been any problems created by the district.
“I’m not anticipating a need for any extra police,” the mayor said. “We’re not seeing any issues. What we are seeing is people enjoying themselves and then going home.”
The district began slowly. A fire ravaged The Olde Tyme, a popular downtown restaurant that was set to be the hub of the district. Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company also relocated its microbrewing business from East Ninth Street to 601 South Baker Street, and renovations took time. And the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic kept concert goers at bay early on.
But now, two years after its passage, the area is thriving, Adams said. The Baker Street Market anchors the area, featuring an open-air space for dining with rooftop seating. Rio Burrito, a Chipotle-style restaurant opened in the Market in May.
Voters also approved two sales-tax increases — a half-cent tax to build a community center and to upgrade its park system and a quarter-cent tax to maintain and operate them — on March 9. The proposed $38.6 million project will overhaul the town’s six parks.
Baxter Health Care also donated money to fund the city’s concert series held at Hickory Park. There are five Friday Night Live concerts scheduled for this summer.
“Everybody has come together and is helping,” Adams said. “You see the value of investing in a community to make it better. It’s working.”
During a recent outdoor concert at Hickory Park, the mayor walked around noting license plates on vehicles parked in the district. He saw cars from 11 states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.
“If we can pull people to our town, they’ll stay here,” he said.
Pugsley has seen the growth as well, and she’s promoting that to spurn yet more growth.
After the entertainment district opened and the concert series began, Mountain Home realized an 11-percent increase in sales tax revenues, the largest jump for an Arkansas municipality last year.
“A lot of places downtown once sat empty,” she said. “Now they are coming alive.”
There’s more ahead, she said. Crush Studio, a wine bar at 512 South Baker, is gaining popularity. It received a 4.9 rating out of five on a Google review website. “Great drinks and you can’t beat the atmosphere,” one reviewer wrote.
Plans also call for the opening of a bourbon bar downtown.
“It’s hard to get here,” Adams said of his town snuggled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. “But once you get here, you’ll enjoy it.”