MALVERN, Ark. — Preservationists in Malvern felt like they got a victory over the city Monday night.
The city council voted against a plan to buy a handful of historic buildings to turn them into a police station.
Council members began considering the idea of moving the Malvern Police Department to the heart of the city’s downtown during the winter. Police chief Donnie Taylor suggested the location after the council and mayor said they would rather buy a new building than pay for repairs to the building the department currently uses, which is owned by Hot Spring County.
The buildings on Main Street between West 2nd Street and West 3rd Street are several decades old. Some have been vacant since the 1990s, leading Councilman David Cross to suggest during Monday’s meeting that moving the police department there might be the only way to sustain downtown.
“Businesses do come and go, people do come and go. But, if we put the police station down there, it’ll be there for the next 100 years or longer,” he said.
The plan would have cost approximately $3 million, according to Mayor Brenda Weldon. The city would have attempted to purchase several of the buildings on that block, tear them down, and build anew for the police department. Cross said design work had already begun, and the new police station would have resembled the historic buildings it replaced.
“There are the funds, there’s everything we need,” he stated. “And while we sit here and talk about it, those buildings down there, the mortar and the brick’s just turning to dust.”
Three of the storefronts are vacant, while the others have shops leasing the space. Opponents of the plan said they want to encourage more businesses to enter downtown to create growth.
Councilman Larry Stiles, while acknowledging the need for a new police station, said street improvement need to be the city council’s focus, so the timing was wrong to talk about buying the historic buildings.
“They may sit there,” he explained. “Is it going to be three years, five years, seven years, or 10 years before we can do anything with it?”
Supporters of moving the police department to Main Street argue that the vacant buildings are in such disrepair that no tenant would move in and no investor would spend the money to fix them.
Councilman Wayne Reynolds shared one of the most common objections among opponents of the idea, that the police department should no occupy the first block that greets drivers as they enter the city.
“I understand the interest in improving things on Main Street, and I’m all for that,” he said, “but I think there are better locations.”
Reynolds also mentioned that at least one of the people who own the historic buildings did not appear willing to sell, which would have thwarted the plan.
Before the council voted 4-3 against the plan, Cross tried to warn his fellow members that this proposal would not come up for a vote again.
“Are we gonna say that the prosperity of Malvern is in the past,” he asked, “or are we gonna say the prosperity of Malvern’s in the future?”
With no solution to the problem of the vacant storefronts, the debate about the value of history is likely to continue. Mayor Weldon suggested after the meeting that a viable alternative had not been found yet, so the possibility remains that the council will bring up this proposal again in the future.