Midtown: Broken promise or diamond in-the-rough?

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Rachel Arrington thought she was getting in on the ground floor of something big when she bought a home in the area of Bryant referred to as Midtown.
Public hearings were held that sold Midtown as a “lifestyle.” The mixed-use zone development would be the type of place where people walked and rode their bikes to the corner store — the kind of place where shop owners lived in apartments above their businesses. The developers promised beautiful homes and landscaping.
But, five years later, little progress has been made, and Bryant residents say what has been finished is not what was described in the plan.
Arrington said she is “disappointed that the developers haven’t lived up to what was promised for Midtown.”
Some say the start of the economic recession in 2008 affected the project, but most agree that Midtown went downhill when one of the main developers, Aaron Jones, ended up in federal prison two years ago.
Jones was the hype man for Midtown and the visionary. He’s the one who sold his dream for Midtown to the people of Bryant.
He was convicted of mail fraud, insurance fraud and arson, after burning his $2 million home for the insurance money.
Since then, his former partner, Benton attorney Don Spears, has been left to finish the project. Spears was contacted prior to this account, but could not be reached.
Residents of the communities surrounding Midtown take issue with the work Spears has done, including building the federally subsidized housing unit, the Courtyard Cottage apartments.
Residents are not happy with the appearance of the complex and the fact that it did not follow the proposed standards.
Mayor Jill Dabbs said the development was begun under the previous city administration and did not follow the agreed-upon standards of the Traditional Neighborhood Development Plan for Midtown.
The residents say their property values – everything they’ve worked for – are being affected.
“It’s just wrong,” said Jerry Henson, a five-year resident of the Westpointe subdivision. He and his wife moved out of the home they had lived in 20 years to be close to what Midtown was proposed to be.
He is one of many residents of the surrounding areas who have expressed outrage by the lack of completion and what they say is poor work on the project.
At a recent City Council meeting, Henson, representing a committee of eight members of the surrounding neighborhoods, conducted a 20-minute presentation on the issue, showing the Midtown that was promised and the Midtown that has been built. Henson joked about the obvious dichotomy between the two.
The goal set forth by his presentation was simple: Finish Midtown.
Although this is a “tall order, there’s still hope,” Henson said. “Neighborhoods like this have had success throughout the country.”
Many city officials and residents have spoken about the potential of Midtown.
“There is lots of opportunity in Bryant despite the missed opportunity,” said Rae Ann Fields, executive director of the Bryant Area Chamber of Commerce.
It seems everyone in Bryant has this same goal, but no one seems to agree on how this would best be accomplished.
Bryant resident Blake Morgan has suggested fixing up and marketing Midtown.
Henson believes the answer is to fix up the area to sell and find a new developer.
But there is no indication that Spears is looking to sell, according to city officials. And in the event that his partners — who are bankers and other faceless entities — take control of the property, it could be sold off in pieces and the vision of Midtown would be dead.
The best engine for the completion of Midtown is the passion of the residents, city officials say.
“I will work day and night to see this gets finished,” Henson said.
Henson also expressed concern that apartments built in Midtown might not be held to new, strict standards for apartments, which are set to be voted on by the City Council this month.
The new standards would mean a lift on a two-year moratorium on apartment construction, and Henson believes this will be detrimental to the residents of Midtown, who, he says, have already been “thrown to the wolves.”
The situation is complicated by an ongoing lawsuit between TND Developers and the city, in which the developer is suing Bryant for stalling construction on apartment complexes in Midtown because of the moratorium.
City officials say they are uncertain what will happen to the litigation if the moratorium is lifted.