Drake shares downtown success stories with Main Street directors

By JENNIFER COHRON, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 3/19/17

A man who wrote the book on bringing life back to dilapidated downtowns shared his knowledge with Main Street directors from around the state at a training session held in Jasper on Tuesday.

Ron Drake, author of “Flip This Town: Preservation …

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Drake shares downtown success stories with Main Street directors

Posted

A man who wrote the book on bringing life back to dilapidated downtowns shared his knowledge with Main Street directors from around the state at a training session held in Jasper on Tuesday.

Ron Drake, author of “Flip This Town: Preservation Made Practical on Main Street USA,” encouraged community leaders to rethink how they view “white elephants,” or troublesome buildings that are expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.

“It’s your responsibility to either say, ‘We’re just going to accept that there are too many challenges and it is what it is,’ or to say, ‘No, it’s not what it seems, and we’re going to change it,’” said Drake, a consultant who helped revitalize 15 buildings between 2006 and 2014 in his hometown of Siloam Springs, Ark.

Downtown Siloam Springs had a 30 percent occupancy rate 10 years ago when Drake and his business partners turned one of the worst buildings in town into luxury lofts.

Drake, whose background was in remodeling neglected historic houses and selling them for a profit, quickly learned that loft dwellers were more interested in “the cool factor” than luxury.

“I used my custom cabinet guy. I put in granite countertops, engineered wood floors, a residential trim, crown molding. They were beautiful, but they never made any money. Ten years later, I think they’re just now breaking even,” Drake said.

In subsequent loft projects, Drake experimented with retaining as much of the building’s character as possible. Introducing unique angles to a room, leaving brick exposed and allowing original wood flooring and rusted ceilings to remain became a hallmark of lofts as well as retail spaces throughout Siloam Springs.

On some projects, Drake also learned the importance of practical preservation. For example, a steel plate and beam were used to stop the bulging of one building. “It wasn’t historically accurate, but it saved the building,” Drake said.

Drake’s presentation to Main Street directors included a slideshow of numerous businesses now housed in downtown Siloam Springs — a flower shop, a taproom, a book store, and restaurants. The current occupancy rate is 95 percent.

In 2012, Siloam Springs was named the 14th best small town in America by Smithsonian Magazine. In 2014, it was named the fourth best Main Street in America by Parade Magazine.

Drake has also done some consulting work in Okmulgee, Okla., an oil town that has been on the decline for half a century. The week that Drake made his first visit, the town was named the seventh worst place to live in Oklahoma.

Two years later, over $15 million has been invested in the downtown area. The bulk of the investment has come from Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, which spent over $8 million purchasing several historic buildings and turning them into loft apartments for students.

Community leaders are in the process of restoring 20 formerly vacant buildings, and over 200 people are moving downtown thanks to new residential opportunities.

Drake, a former Main Street president, said the local Main Street program in Okmulgee is leading the effort to revitalize downtown.

He encouraged local leaders to find creative solutions based on the needs, desires and wants of their communities.

Because of his experiences in both Siloam Springs and Okmulgee, he advocated for including lofts in any revitalization plan.

“As Main Streeters, your way of bringing lives downtown is through events, and that is a great way to get people downtown. But they’re going to spend money, have an experience and leave. To actually have life downtown, where people are living downtown, it changes the whole dynamic,” Drake said.