story and photo by Terry J. Wood, special to The City Wire
FAYETTEVILLE — The Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission’s plans to acquire the Old Post office seem to be changing with the weather — hot, then cold.
Now there’s talk that the commission may buy the landmark building outright, rather than lease it for a year, as was originally planned.
An agreement last month between the commission and Old Post Office owner Ron Bumpass maintained that the commission would lease the vacant building for $60,000 for one year, then purchase the building at the end of the year for $1 million. The building, situated in the middle of the Fayetteville square, would house the Fayetteville Underground artists’ collective and serve other purposes, as well. The money to lease or buy the building would come from hotel, motel and restaurant (HMR) taxes collected to promote local tourism.
“The plans are still there. We still want to do it,” Marilyn Heifner, the commission’s executive director, said Thursday (Feb.2).
Heifner said she has had difficulty reaching Bumpass to finalize paperwork. He is said to be extremely ill. So, she said, the project has remained idle. Buying the 100-year-old landmark rather than leasing it may be the best way “to speed the process along,” Heifner said. “It may be our best bet.”
Efforts by The City Wire to reach Bumpass have been unsuccessful.
Fayetteville Underground is hoping to be in the building for events beginning in April, said local artist and Underground board member Hank Kaminsky. The building would also be used for group meetings displaced by the remodeling of the nearby Cosmopolitan Hotel, which will be renamed The Chancellor.
What happens next is as unpredictable as Fayetteville’s unusually warm winter.
‘STROKE OF INSPIRATION’
The concept of a muse may be a bit fanciful for those working in the realms of business and governance. But how else would one describe the role of the old post office in the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission’s plan to provide additional meeting and event space for the city as well as a new home for the Fayetteville Underground?
“A stroke of inspiration is the only way I can describe it,” Heifner said last month from her office at the Fayetteville Visitor’s Bureau on the corner of Block and Mountain streets.
Late last year, two seemingly disparate problems stared Heifner in the face — two issues in need of quick remedy for the fortune of Fayetteville’s downtown and square.
First, the renovation of the Cosmopolitan, on East Avenue, north of the downtown square, left the city with a dearth of convention and meeting space in the downtown area. Several events already planned for the Cosmopolitan would have to be relocated to other venues or even lost to a neighboring city.
“If we couldn’t find space for groups that wanted to come to Fayetteville, we would lose that business,” Heifner said.
Second, the artists of the Fayetteville Underground needed a new home after their lease was not renewed for their studios in the basement of East Square Plaza, across from the old post office. The Underground’s First Thursday exhibit by local and guest artists drew hundreds of people on that day each month.
“The Underground and First Thursday had made a positive impact, but we need a new home,” said Kaminsky, a sculptor. “It’s as simple as that.”
The apparent solution to both issues didn’t come to Heifner easily, but it did strike her instantly.
“I don’t know how many times I walked in and out of my office with the answer staring me in the face,” said Heifner.
The old post office, which was constructed in 1911 and served the city as its United States Post Office until 1963, faces Heifner’s office. The venerable landmark nearly fell to the city’s Urban Renewal plan for the downtown area in 1974, but a community effort saved the neoclassical revival structure, and it was placed on the National Historic Register.
“I walked out one day and looked at the building and it just clicked,” Heifner said. “Out of the blue.”
The lease was to begin Wednesday (Feb. 1),with an estimated $30,000 in renovations needed to make the necessary conversion to the building. The main floor would be converted into event space and galleries.
As plans stand, the basement of the old post office would be subleased as studio space to artists of the Fayetteville Underground; the commission would collect commissions on the sales of art. The deal also calls for the Underground to transfer its nonprofit status to the commission.
“It’s a good idea that should be great for our artistic community,” said Kaminsky, whose World Peace Prayer Fountain stands outside the Fayetteville Town Center, adjacent from the old post office. “It’s a beautiful, historic site and the art will only enhance it.”
Watercolorist William Mayes Flanagan, whose ancestors arrived on the Fayetteville square in 1832, is excited about the possibilities for artists and the community.
“The square area was nearly dead other than the Farmer’s Market until the Underground revitalized the area with First Thursdays in 2009,” Flanagan said. “Art just enriches the atmosphere. ... The old post office is a part of Fayetteville’s history, and it’s great that it will play a part in making new history.”
Heifner believes the old post office can benefit from synergy from Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which has seen more than 100,000 visitors since its opening on Nov. 11.
Joe Canfield, business manager for the Farmer’s Market, welcomes a new resident to the old post office, which has been vacant since the Urban Table Restaurant vacated the building in 2009.
“Having a steady tenant there can only be good for the square. It can only help draw more people here and that’s good for everyone’s business,”Canfield said.
Since the 1980s, the old post office has housed a series of restaurants and businesses that never found a way to make a go of it on the heart of the square. Perhaps making the old post office the heart of Fayetteville’s lively artistic community is just the thing to keep the old post office vital in its second century.