OSCEOLA, Ark. (KAIT) - Driving through small towns across Arkansas and America, you will notice several buildings in the downtown areas that once were bustling with people now sitting vacant.
“How do we address these beautiful downtowns that are empty,” investor Phil Baratelli said.
Baratelli, a Florida native, is the president and chief investment officer for Baratelli Properties, and it’s the question he is trying to answer.
He has partnered with Kathy Ireland Worldwide to form Kathy Ireland American Home, an effort to bring affordable housing to people across the country.
While he was looking to provide that affordable housing, he started to notice downtown areas.
“Every town looks the same, because I was really going to the same demographic in every town,” Baratelli said. “You had a Walmart, you had a McDonald’s, you had a Dollar General, and all the towns downtown’s were empty.”
During his wedding anniversary in December, he visited Asheville, North Carolina, and saw people walking around, visiting shops and restaurants.
“So I said, what if I take Asheville and drop it all around the communities that I go to,” Baratelli said. “Just copy the best parts of Asheville.”
So, he went online started looking for properties in small towns that were for sale.
“And I found a couple really inexpensive properties in Osceola,” Baratelli said. “So I started with, there’s some white buildings on the square.”
When he first saw the two buildings, he turned around and saw the historic Mississippi County Courthouse.
“A lot of communities have empty buildings, they don’t have that beautiful piece of architecture,” Baratelli said.
He would go ahead and buy several buildings in the downtown area, including the Professional Building, the Planters Bank building, the so-called Disney Building, the old shopping center on Walnut Street, and others.
“Had no idea what I was going to put in any of these at the time, none whatsoever,” Baratelli said.
But, now he has an idea. Being from Florida, he has visited Disney on several occasions.
“And what I saw when I saw that courthouse, I know I could set up an entertainment district. The same architecture as at the park. So think of the courthouse as Cinderella’s castle and then build all around that,” Baratelli said.
The entertainment space would include restaurants and bars all over downtown, but the courthouse would be the centerpiece.
“Everyone of our restaurants and bar venues will have live music,” Baratelli said.
Osceola is known for its music heritage, especially the blues. He wants to bring young artists to town to perform.
“I also would like our venues to be what I call the minor league or the farm club for Memphis with the blues and Nashville as young country,” Baratelli said.
When it comes to the shopping center, the former Gunn’s Supermarket, on the south end, he envisions a skating rink going in the, on the supermarket side, a food pantry, and places like a karate studio and yoga in the middle.
He sees the building on Walnut Street with Disney characters in the window becoming a seafood restaurant and the Planters Bank building becoming the premier restaurant, bar, and wedding venue in Northeast Arkansas.
Work is already underway on renovating the buildings.
On Friday, workers were in the Planters Bank Building, the Professional Building, and another building he bought on Walnut Street.
“We’ve already started clearing it out, we’ve started on the roof,” Baratelli said.
He says to do something like this, you have to have 100% support from the local government.
“So the fact that Mayor (Sally) Wilson and Ed Richardson have been the same page and the council has been very supportive, has made this go very easy,” Baratelli said.
Osceola Mayor Sally Wilson said they have been working on redevelopment downtown for a few years in conjunction with the music heritage tourism initiative.
“The part that’s been missing is the part for investors to come in and into buy into this idea and to investments into some properties in downtown Osceola, and we’ve we’re excited now that this is happening,” Wilson said.
She says there is a charm in a small town that resonates with the people who are from small towns like Osceola.
“It warms our hearts that we’ve got folks who can come in and take a tour and take a look and listen and they buy into it and feel it for themselves,” Wilson said.
She also said there are around 16 buildings downtown that could possibly be renovated, something she says is exciting.
Baratelli said his goal is not to buy up all the properties in Osceola but to help jumpstart the process and figure out what works and what doesn’t and help move the city forward.