By Wendy Burton
Phoenix Staff Writer
Muskogee’s downtown area was once the heart of the city, but has seen a decline in the last few decades.
Retail outlets, chain restaurants and entertainment venues have been built farther from the city’s center.
Jonita Mullins, executive director of Downtown Muskogee Inc., says downtown can be re-energized and revitalized.
And since DMI was formed in 2008, there has been progress, she said. Nonetheless, there are empty buildings, decaying buildings, buckling sidewalks and much to be done.
DMI is part of the Main Street Oklahoma program — a program that provides training, resources and assistance for preservation-based commercial district revitalization.
“We’ve seen $20 million invested in downtown since then,” she said. “But there’s still a long way to go. A Main Street program doesn’t produce instant results. But look at how successful Enid’s has been — and they’ve been with the program for 18 years.”
Enid has seen a boom in downtown interest in the last year or so, said Kelly Tompkins, director of Main Street Enid, a business like DMI which works to preserve and revitalize downtown.
“There was a lot of work to save downtown in the 90s, and more recently the city is doing a lot of construction downtown,” Tompkins said. “Private investments since 1994 total about $34 million, not counting the money invested by the city.”
There’s only a handful of empty storefronts in downtown Enid, Tompkins said.
“It’s actually hard to find a place to open a business downtown right now,” she said. “There’s only a handful of empty storefronts. In 2012 alone, 16 businesses moved downtown.”
Enid’s success is based on years of work by the city, community and Main Street Enid, Tompkins said.
Linda Barnett with Oklahoma Main Street at the Department of Commerce said Ardmore is also a good example of a downtown revitalization that has been successful as well.
But that has also taken place over many years.
“Since 1988, they have done a remarkable number of renovations,” Barnett said. “They had this one little area that was neglected, and now it has become their restaurant and entertainment district.”
But for Downtown Muskogee Inc., and the city to be successful in revitalizing downtown, there has to be a tremendous amount of support from the community, the city and private investors, Barnett said.
Shanon Carson of Morris works in downtown Muskogee.
She said she sees a lot of potential for downtown as a tourist area. But Carson says what the many office workers, city, county, state and federal employees working downtown need is a store and more eating establishments.
“We need a store in walking distance,” she said. “We usually drive for lunches. And we’d like to be able to walk to a little corner store and get a pop or a sandwich sometimes.”
Mullins agrees. She said a store is needed for the tremendous number of people working downtown and living downtown with two new high-rise apartment complexes for the elderly and disabled.
“Our economic revitalization committee has identified a grocery store is needed downtown,” Mullins said. “We’ve brainstormed ideas such as getting a Braum’s or a dollar store. I’ve even looked more at Arrowhead Mall.”
Mullins said grocery stores aren’t typically found in malls, but in today’s economy it’s important to “think outside the box.”
“Perhaps a grocery store would be a good fit for our mall,” she said.
Enid’s live music events downtown on Friday nights once a month have brought a lot of energy, said Kelly Tompkins, director of Main Street Enid.
But Muskogee has two apartment complexes for residents over 62 — and opening bars or nightclubs downtown could be a problem for them, Mullins said.
“Loud nightlife and residential don’t mix. You have to be careful what you bring in,” she said. “If it’s too raucous and unruly, you have some residents who are going to be unhappy.”
What the city can do
Mullins has several ideas she’d like to explore for downtown revitalization that require assistance from the city.
“One of the things I’ve talked about doing is asking the city or the City of Muskogee Foundation or both to create a grant for exterior maintenance,” she said. “It would be similar to what the city has done with the residential program where they match funds with the property owner to do certain maintenance and repairs.”
Having something in place to help building owners with maintenance and upkeep when needed is imperative, she said.
“Because not immediately addressing the problem just invites more deterioration,” Mullins said. “One broken window just invites a vandal to throw more rocks. Weather damage is a problem when things aren’t fixed as well.”
It would also be a big boon to downtown if Muskogee purchased more of the empty buildings and turned them into public venues, Mullins said.
“This is something they’ve done before when they purchased both depots for the museums and the Roxy Theater,” she said.
Mullins said she and Doug Walton, with the Farmers Market, have discussed having a year-round, indoor market in downtown Muskogee. The market could include produce, but also other food stuffs, crafts, candles, art and more, she said.
Reach Wendy Burton at (918) 684-2926 or firstname.lastname@example.org.