County leaders weigh options for historic Boone County, Ark. Courthouse

Published: May. 11, 2022 at 5:53 PM CDT
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HARRISON, Ark. (KY3) - With the future of the historic Boone County Courthouse under discussion, one idea includes making it a restaurant and the focal point of a previously proposed entertainment district.

In February, Boone County purchased the First Presbyterian Church on North Arbor Drive for courthouse offices. The new location will take the county offices and courthouse off the square (approximately two miles) for the first time since 1909.

While the move will still take several months to complete, county officials and business owners are not hesitating to discuss the courthouse’s future.

“I mean, the heart of our city is downtown, and then you look at the courthouse sitting right in the middle of that heart. It is a very important piece of real estate, not just from a historical value, but also from a commerce value,” said Matt Bell, director of Explore Harrison.

Bell originally proposed the idea of an entertainment district along the square in 2020. It had a specific set of rules and completely excluded any inclusion of the courthouse or law.

“I had 90% of merchants at the time onboard, fully supporting it,” said Bell. “We went to the council, and it failed by one vote, one council vote.”

Now with the courthouse looking to serve a new purpose, the folks at Explore Harrison think this is a good time. The Boone County judge Robert Hathaway met with over 30 business owners in downtown Harrison in April. The county has promoted input on the courthouse’s future.

”I do think that the approval of using the courthouse building would be an issue. However, maybe if there were businesses inside of the building, perhaps the courtyard itself may be utilized for that entertainment district,” Bell explained.

Undoubtedly many see a comparison to the relatively new entertainment district just east in Mountain Home.

”Where we’ve seen it is in economic development and economic growth,” said Dani Pugsley, President and CEO of the Mountain Home Area Chamber of Commerce. “Where before you would’ve driven down (Highway) 62 and there wasn’t anybody out there past 5 o’clock. Now there is life again in Mountain Home.”

Pugsley says the idea of the entertainment district came after studies showed a decline in population in the area, particularly among younger generations. Much like Harrison’s proposal, the entertainment district in Mountain Home comes with some regulations.

”Not being able to drink or have open container on the courthouse lawn, it does not extend across the street to Hickory Park where children might be playing, so you won’t see any open containers down there,” said Pugsley.

Not to mention several others such as alcoholic drinks, only in a paper or plastic cup with the restaurant’s logo or name printed on it, outside to enjoy within the district, between the hours of 4:30 pm and midnight.

No bottles, glass, or cans are allowed. You can have no more than 16 fluid ounces, and you can only carry one drink. Some employees in the downtown area want the courthouse to help draw traffic but believe open containers may not be the right path.

”I don’t really agree with the open container part of it,” said Trista Lumb, who works just off the square. “Inside restaurants and buildings could be fine, but having people in downtown Harrison walk around with open containers is not desirable.”

While Mountain Home has found success, officials say it’s not easy.

“What necessarily may work in one county or one city may not work in another or be the right fit,” said Pugsley. “I think Mountain Home knows how good this is for the community, they received it with open arms, and we haven’t had any major problems because of that. That plays a key part in why we’ve seen this be so beneficial.”

Boone County officials weigh options and test different ways to utilize the space. On Friday, two events will happen on the courthouse lawn: a “Remember Ukraine Rally” at 6 p.m. and “Music on the Square” at 7 p.m.

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