What began as a quest for a larger yet affordable shop space for a small-town repair business turned into a thirty-year adventure in the ups and downs of real estate ownership with detours into such unexpected crises as adverse possession, lawsuits, evictions, city ordinance violations, easements, and endless tenant drama.
The author of this blow-by-blow account offers helpful hints based on hard-earned lessons about ownership of commercial property in a rapidly growing part of the country, Northwest Arkansas. Perhaps even more helpful to anyone interested in dabbling in this particular type of investment opportunity is the entertaining narrative tracking one person’s struggle to learn, adapt, and survive in the onslaught of unexpected legal, construction, and tenant challenges while raising three children and surviving a failed marriage.
Will the story end in despair and bankruptcy? Or will the investment pay off with retirement income sufficient to keep body and soul together into the twilight years?
Author of “how-to” books and over a dozen studies of local history, Campbell’s incisive observations about her adventures in the local real estate market offers a treasure-trove of advice to anyone contemplating investing in commercial real estate. This richly-told story is a profile of how to get in cheap and make it work for anyone looking to provide a decent return on almost zero dollars and a lot of sweat equity.
Just moved to the country? Never lived in the country before? Here’s a word of advice: don’t piss off the country people.
In a trend beginning with the pandemic and continuing today, people are moving to rural areas and away from big cities. The options of working from home make such a move increasingly attractive. With this influx, those of us who already live out in the sticks have a few words of advice. Pay attention.
There are unwritten rules out here along these winding back roads. One of the first you need to always remember is about driving. Do not tailgate.
Nothing pisses off an old timer like somebody crawling up our tailpipes. Makes us want to slam on the brakes, then jump out and storm back to your car where we’d tell you that you won’t get where you’re going any faster by driving twenty feet from my bumper than you would at fifty feet. Even fifty feet is pushing the boundaries of politeness. If it’s after dark and your headlights are torching my eyeballs through the rearview mirror, a hundred feet isn’t far enough. Just ease off and give it some room. You moved out here to relax, remember?
I once had a short-lived neighbor who drove without any consideration whatsoever for these rules of the road. If they zoomed up behind you on the road, they’d hover within a few yards of the rear of your car and flash their lights. Like that’s going to make us go faster? Or pull over? Buddy, that just guaranteed that we’ll ease off the accelerator to creep along at ten miles per hour, knowing these roads offer zero room to pass. They were too stupid to know that when someone in front of you taps their brakes, it means back off.
Those folks lasted about two, maybe three years. I’m not exactly sure if they moved or if someone just killed them and dropped their bodies down a gully. They deserved to die, not only for their rude roadsmanship, but also for the fact that they took a perfectly fine old rock house, knocked out all the interior walls then couldn’t understand why the roof sagged. Crow food.
Another rule about driving in the country is the nod you give to an oncoming car. If it’s someone you know well, you exchange the full hand wave. If it’s an acquaintance or a neighbor, you lift one or two fingers from the steering wheel. You could nod, but nods are hard to read in a moving vehicle, so the hand motion up by the windshield is the best way to show that you’re not armed and you wish them well.
By the way, if you’re a gun nut and get off on shooting, try to aim so your bullets don’t go near my house. Also, don’t fire off rounds late in the evening unless you want someone to call the sheriff, thinking somebody is getting killed. Got a block of tannerite you can’t wait to set free? Keep that damn stuff away from my property unless you want to buy me a bunch of new windows.
Also, do not burn your trash. Even under the cover of darkness, we can smell it and we will call the law on your sorry ass.
Keep in mind that nobody lives in the country to be snuggly close to other people. There’s a good reason we’re parked out here on a piece of land without neighbors ten feet away from our bedroom window. We like our privacy. We like the quiet. We like nature. So if you’re moving out here thinking it’s okay to visit your new neighbor with a bunch of chatter about nonsensical bullshit just to be flapping your gums, stop right there. Do not come out here thinking we’ll welcome any of that.
In Washington County, Arkansas, where I live, there are unwritten rules about noise. If your dog stands outside and bays at the moon for five minutes, nobody’s going to come knocking. But if that sucker is out there barking barking barking for an hour or more, you’d better do something and fast. I’ve been known to call a neighbor and tell them if they don’t shut up that damn dog, I’m going to call the sheriff. Now the sheriff would laugh if I actually called him, and there’s no chance he’d actually do anything about my complaint, but this move serves the purpose of letting the neighbor know the situation has become dire.
By the way, it’s never okay to shoot somebody’s dog. If it gets that bad, just start calling your neighbor when the barking wakes you up—two a.m., three a.m. Like that. Pretty soon they get the idea.
On the other hand, if your dog runs up by my house and kills my cat, your dog will die.
The only time it’s okay to visit a neighbor you don’t know, especially if you’re new to those parts (defined as living here less than ten years), is if somebody died. Then you can fry up a pan of chicken or whip up a batch of fine beef chili, or bake a cake, then go in nice clothes to their door and offer your condolences. If they invite you inside, it’s up to you whether you want to walk into a house full of grieving relatives who don’t know you from Adam and don’t care to know you now. My advice is to hand over the vittles and go on your way.
Remember, nobody moves to the country to socialize.
Out here, we appreciate the beauty and bounty of Nature. So when a newbie buys up a piece of, say, twenty or forty acres and sets the bulldozer to it, our curses will summon dark forces that will haunt you forever. We’ll drive by wondering why you didn’t just stay in town if you didn’t want to see Nature. That land you ‘cleared’ is now stripped of topsoil and these hills erode quick. Next thing is you’ll have gullies carved down to the clay or nothing but a jumble of rocks, and you won’t get anything to grow on it including grass.
Some folks do that thinking they’ll get a horse or two, that old gentleman farmer fantasy. They spread fertilizer and wait. Nothing grows. Or they think they’ll have a lawn. We have a guy on our road who spent the first three years up here trying to grow a lawn. He lay in sod. It died. He lay in sod again. Finally, his third season he bought himself a fancy little tractor rig that he drove hour after hour, lifting the soil, raking the soil, smoothing it and probably praying over it until finally his last batch of sod survived. I see him out there, nursing it along with fertilizer, weed killer, and so forth, and I have to admit he’s got himself a nice smooth patch of Bermuda out there. I think he might crawl around with scissors to trim the edges.
I’m sure he froths at the mouth about the land on both sides of him where fescue, wild flowers, and all other sorts of unruly plant life thrives. But then, he built his house about forty feet from the road, so even before he started his lawn quest, we all knew he was an idiot.
What we respect and admire are new property owners who respect and admire what came before them. There’s a new house going up on a hill on the north side of the road. He left all the trees except where the house is located. Down by the road just before his driveway cuts up toward the new house, there’s an old rock structure built in the 1800s. It’s been there through thick and thin, its impressive stonework still proudly exhibiting the expertise of its builder with smooth long stone lintels over the windows and doors and a fireplace that would draw even now in that roofless stone cabin. It’s a landmark we enjoy seeing every time we fly up and down that road. When we saw that property up for sale, we lived in mortal terror that some citified person would snap it up and send the bulldozer out after that sweet little relic.
We take care of our road, at least, we’re supposed to. As I once wrote about Roy who lived up here in a little Airstream with his dog Cindy, he took it on himself to patrol our half mile of dirt road. He’d walk that road just about every day with that German Shepherd and pick up any refuse that had blown out of somebody’s truck or had been tossed out by some hoodlum from town—beer cans, plastic bags, fast food wrappers, bottles of all kinds, an endless stream of trash that, since Roy died, has slowly collected in the ditches to be churned into the ground whenever a road grader makes its way up here.
I do what I can along my road frontage, on occasion finding beer cans tossed onto the first twenty feet of my long driveway, enough to let me know some jackass from town parked there to drink and have sex. When I’m picking up that mess, I’m angry enough to think I’ll put up a gate or at least set a game cam down there, but then it’s easier to just pick up their trash and glare at the next stranger who drives down this way.
You can always tell when they’re not from around here. You give your wave or lift a couple of fingers in greeting. If they give you a dumb stare, you know.
They’re moving in fast these days. New houses going up here and there, for sale signs on big stretches of pasture that have been cut up into pieces. There’s cleared hillsides that look like an aluminum recycling facility for all the trailers parked up there, one after another, some of them neatly landscaped but most of them surrounded by trash and clutter that tells you exactly what kind of people live there. They’re so ignorant they don’t even realize that their trash wouldn’t be such an eyesore if they’d left a single damn tree standing. I mean, if you want to hang it all out, move to west Texas where the land is already flat and treeless.
Residents and visitors of Fayetteville might want to pay close attention to the issue currently facing the city council, that of a proposed ‘arts corridor’ and parking deck at Dickson and West. Several aspects of this project don’t quite pass the smell test and once it’s done, it’s done.
No one seems to know how the idea of an arts corridor got started. According to one council member I consulted, “The story I’m being told is that one of our planners, Leif Olsen, who has no expertise in arts and culture, drafted the grant proposal to the Walton Foundation. I can’t discern who directed him to do that, if anyone with appropriate expertise consulted with him, or if he worked with any stakeholder group.” So far the biggest champion of the art corridor is the Walton Arts Center CEO and president, Peter Lane. Hm.
In order to gain the coveted arts corridor, the city must convert the WAC parking lot into a park with a civic forum space, which in turn requires the construction of a parking garage to offset the loss of parking for the WAC. The mayor has determined that such a parking facility must be no more than 1000 ft. from the WAC, no doubt after consultation with the WAC.
The project has progressed to the point that only three possible locations will be considered. One is the place now known as the Nadine Baum Center, which would be torn down and replaced with a garage and some liner buildings that would supposedly offset the loss of current art studios in the Nadine Baum Center. Another is a city-owned space on School Avenue, immediately east of the current Spring Street garage. The third, and current favorite of Peter Lane, the mayor, and certain other development-happy folks, is a space smack in front of Arsaga’s Depot along West Avenue. About half of that land is privately owned by developer Greg House.
A fascinating bit about the preferred lot is that House plans to build a 5-story hotel immediately adjacent to the parking garage. The hotel would take pride of place at a landmark corner of Dickson and West, removing the train bank and looming over the 1882 depot building. We must ask whether any study has discovered the remaining number of parking spaces for the WAC once the hotel’s employees and guests have parked there. Hm.
Also fascinating is that in April 2019 when voters were asked to approve a $31.5 million bond issue for a cultural arts corridor, the bond issue included a parking deck for $10 million to replace the 290 spaces lost when the Walton Arts Center parking lot becomes a green space. (One must ask why one of the most trafficked spots in town must suddenly become green space, when most people patronize parks near their homes. Oh, yeah, the arts corridor…) What the bond issue also covered was a group of improvements for streets, police, the fire department, and other civic concerns which might be more appropriately labeled ‘bait’ to assure the approval of the arts corridor.
But hey, just asking questions here.
Apparently the clock is ticking on how long this issue can be batted around before the money time frame runs out. That is, the time frame for the $1.7 million Walton Foundation grant to help fund the arts corridor. Thus the hurry-up among council members as well as interested parties in the refusal to take a step back and think about the big picture before rushing into an irreversible decision.
So to get the $1.7 million, we’re going to spend somewhere near $30 million. Fast, before we have time to really think about it.
Big picture considerations include the historic tradition of Dickson Street. As I’ve ranted before, once Dickson Street’s charm is pockmarked with big shiny boxes, the charm leaks away. At that point, the only reason to go there would be the WAC. With structures built as early as 1882, the street has been a treasure to alumni, residents, and visitors not to mention entrepreneurs who find small individual buildings more affordable housing for their dream enterprises. Slick new buildings such as The Legacy and The Dickson cost a lot more per square foot and offer ZERO charm. But hey, they’re new and shiny.
Some people don’t care about historical. Remember when they wanted to tear down Old Main?
If the city has determined on its own aside from Walton influence that an arts corridor is truly going to be an asset, something the city needs, then why not take half the current WAC lot and make it a park/arts corridor and use the other (west) half to build a parking garage. Simple. Just because this wasn’t considered in the original conceptualization of the project doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Currently, the reason it ‘can’t’ be done is: “We spent about $350,000 on a schematic design,” [the city’s director of sustainability and parking] Nierengarten said. “A schematic design that does not show a parking deck on the civic plaza is what the citizens of Fayetteville voted on as part of the bond last April.” So let’s rush right out and spend $10 million building a deck that will primarily benefit a private developer and add one more nail in the coffin of one of only two historical areas left in Fayetteville.
Who first had the idea of a cultural arts corridor? Or a ‘civic plaza’? Why was the ‘study’ funded by a Walton Foundation grant? Why was a study of the area’s arts community, also initiated by unknown parties, contracted out to a Minnesota company named Artspace that developed a “Creative Economy Map” for the NWA region, also funded by a Walton Foundation grant? In this map, significant portions of the Fayetteville creative community fails to appear. (The map is heavy with Bentonville locations.)
I agree that NWA and Fayetteville in particular is home to a large contingent of richly creative people. In the 1960s, Dickson Street became the town’s entertainment district because there was affordable commercial space where creative people built popular music venues that hosted talented musicians plus art studios and art galleries (now mostly priced out), and pursued skills as varied as tie-dye, jewelry, poetry readings, one-act plays, sculpture, metal work, and even outdoor gear that later became famous (Borealis). The result was a vibrant part of Fayetteville that attracted the Walton Arts Center.
In the tradition of The Little Shop of Horrors, the benefit of Walton money for the arts center (and so much more) is countered by the need to please the Waltons. As we’ve seen on multiple occasions, the money comes only when Fayetteville does what they want. For example, the outdoor concerts that started at the Fayetteville mall parking lot grew in popularity but now operate at the Arkansas Music Pavilion, otherwise known as the Walmart AMP, in Rogers, moved under Walton threat of withdrawing funding if they didn’t get their way.
No question that an arts corridor across from the WAC would primarily benefit the WAC but arguably, also the city. But the corridor will also infect the city’s trail system from Lafayette Street down to Center and then south to Prairie with a ‘cleanup’ of unsightly undergrowth and removal of wild aspects of those surroundings including partly channelizing the stream. Okay, the stream has been channelized for at least 100 years, rising from a big spring currently hidden under the WAC parking lot. That spring originally served as a water source and cooled produce and meat in the earliest industrial area of the town. From the WAC lot, the stream flows through underground ditches to Center St. and then comes into view for the distance to Prairie.
The rushing stream and the wildness of that stretch of the Frisco Trail has been a primary attraction to hikers and bikers. Now, as part of the arts corridor, that section of trail will suffer the imposition of installations of ‘art,’ as decided by various persons. Why, in the midst of our downtown, can we not have some unadulterated natural areas?
By the way, the rationale behind this concept is the same as the rationale allowing the natural woodland of Markham Hill to come under bulldozers, concrete, and x-number of persons per square foot in order to satisfy the bottom line of out-of-town developers. But that’s another story of greed, insider capitalization, and lack of spine/vision by the city government. The excuse is that there are only a handful of reasons city government can refuse a developer, none of which are impassioned pleas by neighbors, preservation of natural areas, or historical importance.
There’s still time to save what’s left of Dickson Street from any additional high rise buildings. (Too bad there wasn’t any protection of Dickson before The Legacy and The Dickson were built. And yes, big bucks can buy anything and do what they want in private ownership, but there can be city codes requiring that anything built in a historical area must meet historical design standards.)
A greater understanding of what voters want remains to be seen because the city didn’t fully inform voters of what the arts corridor et al would entail. No one is going to die if this project comes to a full stop right now and renewed efforts are made to educate the public about the ripple effects of the project – including the destruction of Dickson Street’s unique historical flavor.
Notice that only the depot out of the surrounding historical structures is shown to scale. If they were, viewers could more fully appreciate how the development would overpower its surroundings.
Fayetteville’s city government periodically yields to citizen outcry as one or another development project violates neighborhood norms or common sense. But the lessons never seem to stick, and the town with all its wonderful vintage atmosphere continues to hurtle toward mediocrity.
Currently, the landmark corner of Dickson and West is under dual assault, first from the renovation of the two old structures at the northeast corner. From their original 1904 construction, the sandstone block building at 430 W. Dickson and the red brick structure at 426-428 W. Dickson became the Swingin’ Door in 1973. Then in 1994 the buildings became Ozark Brewing Company under the ownership of John Gilliam. The city failed to require Gilliam to maintain the original integrity of the old buildings and the result was a conglomeration that is now being dismantled by the latest owners.
Renovation in progress, 426 – 430 West Dickson
Tragically, instead of taking this moment in time to require the new owner to return the buildings to a semblance of their original appearance, perhaps aided by a city grant, the powers that be have allowed a redesign that will result in a slick modern look completely out of place in the midst of vintage buildings.
The second assault is a parking garage location recently chosen by the mayor which will finish off the vintage atmosphere along the 300 block of West Avenue north. This is where the Arsaga family has lovingly restored and repurposed an 1880’s railroad freight building into a thriving eatery. It is also where Richard and Gina Berquist restored a 1920’s building into a photography studio, performance venue, and other uses since renovation in 1990. Both these beautiful and beloved parts of the Dickson Street district as well as surrounding period structures would be either blocked from view or dwarfed by the mayor’s chosen location for a parking garage.
Spring Street garage
We’ve seen the city’s taste in parking garage design in the recent construction of the Spring Street garage adjacent to the Walton Arts Center, a big square box clad in—believe it or not—rusted metal panels. Rusted metal.
What a cutesy design, all avant garde and modern and stuff. Completely out of place in an entertainment district built on the Dickson Street ambiance of funky old turn-of-the-century buildings. The only forgiving aspect of this garage is its one-block distance and zero visibility from Dickson Street.
So what could be a better place for another parking garage than right across School Street from the Spring Street garage? This was one of three potential locations suggested by Garver Engineering in their study contracted by the city, the least intrusive into the visual heartbeat of Dickson. Why advocate for the West Avenue location?
Fayetteville’s history is most apparent in its old buildings. One glimpse around the Square or along Dickson Street and its cross streets is a look back in time to when individual buildings reflected the ambitions of proud owners and their bid for prosperity. Every time one of these period structures is ‘updated’ or demolished, more of the neighborhood’s charm and the community’s treasure is lost.
In their places, we find out-of-scale, out-of-sync monuments to greed and arrogance, multi-story behemoths like the full-block structure on the east side of the Square currently housing the U of A’s Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, or the Arvest Bank building on the northeast corner of the Square, or the E.J. Ball building at the northwest corner.
Originally the home of First National Bank, the building occupying the entire east frontage of the Square made a token effort toward traditional design. In a later effort to generate profit, condos were built on top.
EJ Ball building with a recent face lift, none of which can overcome its absurd size next to its neighbors.
Meanwhile, we have to ask why the city is currently allowing the owner of the Mountain Inn’s Arcade/Annex building to fold his hands while this Art Deco treasure disintegrates before our eyes.
On Dickson Street, there’s the first of the onslaught, the red brick Walton Arts Center which never considered fitting in and might have been acceptable except for the real estate feeding frenzy that followed: the Three Sisters building, the Legacy Building, and The Dickson.
Previously, this location included Restaurant on the Corner and The Grill. Now the Three Sisters building seems a bit unsure about what world it lives in.
Left foreground: Walton Arts Center. Left background: The Dickson with its eight stories.
No one person can afford to own any of these new Goliaths. No single business owner can stake a claim to any of these to open a bar, or a barber shop, or a used record store. These monsters have priced out all but the wealthy with expensive condos and precious boutiques instead of affordable apartments – despite the close proximity of the university campus and the screaming need for low-cost housing. We have bank- or corporate-owned real estate blocking traditional views and crowding access to venerable structures built on a human scale.
View of Arsaga’s that would vanish behind parking garage
Where do the profits of those massive buildings go? Out of town. What happens when a bustling eatery like Arsaga’s Depot goes out of business because it’s hidden behind a parking garage? A parking garage won’t hire those employees. How is this good for Fayetteville?
It would be easy to blame city planning for approving such flagrant violations of the old town feel, but that’s not where the buck stops. The city council is responsible for zoning and building codes—and those people are elected by a majority who either don’t know or don’t care about the town’s historical legacy.
Developers understandably expect to earn a profit on their investments, and in a time of high construction costs, the more than can be crammed onto an expensive footprint of land, the more profitable. The solution is height; where three or four stories might be semi-acceptable in these historic surroundings, only seven or eight stories break into the desired profit range. Keeping costs down means compromising on materials. Cut stone or even brick with its structural weight load doesn’t compare to sheets of inexpensive siding or glass.
I get it.
Folks, Fayetteville’s most treasured locations are being sold to the highest bidder. Currently, the city council’s lack of respect for our inherited wealth of time-honored buildings at the Square and along Dickson Street translates into increasing infiltration of inappropriate architecture. Is this due to a lack of understanding of the town’s history on the part of city council members? A lack of interest in preserving the town’s unique, irreplaceable qualities? A belief that new always means better?
Or is it the pressure from real estate developers whose entire motivation is profit? Taking advantage of the lack of vision of town fathers, they capitalize on places like Markham Hill, Dickson Street, and the Square to build their mega-structures. To hell with the town’s history, or its charm, or anything else.
Newsflash: The more these locations are infested with ‘modern’ buildings, the lower the real estate values become. It’s exactly the old buildings and the mood they invoke that creates the value in the first place.
If Fayettevillians wish to see rows of multi-story buildings veneered with steel and glass, they should focus on the mall and its surrounds. Or anywhere along College Avenue north of Township. No one expects to see quarried stone walls there, nor Art Deco portals carved in limestone or even trusty red brick. Quick and cheap, structures in the “Uptown” area include big boxes with clone-designed facades or strip malls of the same ilk.
Citizens who love this town should demand appropriate design regulations for irreplaceable parts of old Fayetteville. Yesterday isn’t soon enough. First step is to mount a vociferous campaign against the proposed parking garage location on West Avenue. One clever idea for an alternative, not suggested by the Garver Engineering study, would be to divide the existing Walton Arts Center parking lot lengthwise, dedicating the eastern strip to the desired park and walking trail, and the western strip along the railroad tracks to a garage. A bonus of this idea is that no buildings would have to be torn down, a problem faced in the two Garver proposals aside from the West Avenue location.
Anyway, why does the city suddenly believe that an arts corridor and park in place of the existing WAC parking lot is the most important thing ever? It’s an absurd idea for such a large space in what is one of the town’s most desirable locations. Yes, parking is vital to the success of surrounding enterprises. But building a garage along the WAC lot’s west side leaves at least 300 feet width for the park and trail. And lots of art.
Dickson Street isn’t just Dickson Street. It’s the traditional entry to the University, hallowed ground to millions of alumni whose footsteps are worn into the sidewalks of Dickson, West, and School. It’s where George’s Majestic Lounge has reigned over nightlife since the 1920s. It’s where countless musicians have created their magic to the joy of thousands of fans, dancing the night away in venues like the Swingin’ Door, Red Lion/West Street, The Library/Chester’s, the Landing Strip/Dickson Street Theater, Dave’s on Dickson, Lily’s, and many other iterations crafted by entrepreneurs in those masterful old buildings.
Citizens have the power to demand protection for these historical locations. Dickson Street and its surrounds deserve new rules for preservation that prohibit any structures more than four stories, as does the town square. Renovations should follow strict building codes meant to preserve the ‘old town’ look. Any developer eager to construct warrens of rooms in towering buildings should look elsewhere.
The Legacy building looms over the popular 400 block of Dickson Street.
Friends, I’m pleased to announce the release of Adventures in Real Estate: A Ridiculous and Mostly Rewarding Journey from Tenant to Landlord. The book has been a long time coming, with work progressing slowly over the last several years. It’s sometimes intensely personal, sometimes densely wonky, but mostly–I hope–entertaining and useful.
Officially, the book is about what began as a quest for a larger yet affordable shop space for a small-town repair business and how that turned into a thirty-year adventure in the ups and downs of real estate ownership with detours into such unexpected crises as adverse possession, lawsuits, evictions, city ordinance violations, easements, and endless tenant drama.
As the author of this blow-by-blow account, I offer helpful hints based on hard-earned lessons about ownership of commercial property in a rapidly growing part of the country, Northwest Arkansas. I wish I’d had this book in 1980! Perhaps even more helpful to anyone interested in dabbling in this particular type of investment opportunity is the entertaining narrative tracking my struggle to learn, adapt, and survive in the onslaught on unexpected legal, construction, and tenant challenges while raising three children and surviving a failed marriage.
Will the story end in despair and bankruptcy? Or will the investment pay off with retirement income sufficient to keep body and soul together into the twilight years? Read to the end to find out!
My observations about my adventures in the local real estate market offer a treasure-trove of advice to anyone contemplating investing in commercial real estate. This richly-told story is a profile of how to get in cheap and make it work for anyone looking to provide a decent return on almost zero dollars and a lot of sweat equity.