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Bringing Helena back.

Architect-Led Team Formulates Affordable Housing Plan Supported By $48,265 Grant

A redevelopment project, spearheaded by the American Institute of Architects, is expected to help revitalize Helena and serve as a model for similar towns struggling economically.

With support from a $48,265 grant from the Design Arts Program of the National Endowment of the Arts, the AIA has mapped out a plan to preserve Helena's historical and cultural strengths, draw upon available financial resources and build on a rich architectural tradition to transform blight and decay into housing opportunities.

The AIA's Rebuild Helena Housing Assistance Team plans to foster about 200 units of affordable housing over a 10-year period in historic Helena's downtown.

Charles Buki of the AIA, a member of the Housing Assistance Team, said the Phillips County port city was selected for the rebuilding efforts over similar Mississippi Delta towns such as Yazoo City, Miss., and Alexandria, La.

A Little Rock native, Buki says a confluence of factors led to Helena's selection. Although the town was selected before Democratic presidential nominee Gov. Bill Clinton announced his candidacy, Buki says he had a strong hunch the governor would run and that his campaign would generate interest and, hopefully, investment in the state.

Also, Helena had a "significant vernacular architecture" the group felt it could capitalize on along with willing political and business leaders who supported revitalization and were willing to help locate the necessary capital.

The backing of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority also figured into Helena's selection, as well as the fact that Arkansas is the home of AIA gold medal winner Fay Jones of Fayetteville, who is a project adviser.

"This is our first experience where everybody from the state government on down wants to say yes" to the AIA's efforts, Buki says. "There's a real can-do attitude."

Drawing on local history and extensive interviews with residents, the business community and town leaders, the Housing Assistance Team is paving the way for a direct infusion of capital to cover pre-development costs. The AIA's team will then form partnerships with citizens, local developers and banks to transform architectural visions into reality.

Buki says the project is not costing Helena "one penny."

"They basically got about $200,000 of free consulting work," he says.

Buki says the Housing Assistance Team has identified about 62 blocks with a potential for about 700 total housing units in downtown Helena that need to be developed.

Affordable housing intended for people in a variety of income ranges, but particularly middle-income residents, is "the only way Helena can be redeveloped in a sustainable way," Buki says. "They are the ones who have the incomes that make community activity thrive."

Although Helena and West Helena, with a combined population under 18,000, have experienced a sharp population decline in recent years, the Mississippi River Delta town has renewed efforts in the past few years to attract tourism.
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Title Annotation:Across Arkansas; Helena, Arkansas housing
Author:Martin, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 19, 1992
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