The Jones Center: Feeding Ideas and Celebrating Diversity to Build Community

Case Studies

jones center bike path rendering

When the Harvey and Bernice Jones Center for Families opened in 1995 on the site of the former Jones Truck Lines headquarters and terminal facility, Bernice made it clear that “all are welcome” to this destination for learning, fun, health and fellowship.

Over twenty-five years later the original mission is still strong, and the Center’s impact is large—and yet it’s ready to grow in order to attract and serve Northwest Arkansas’ diverse populations even better. In Fall 2020, through the Walton Family Foundation’s Design Excellence program, Civitas was selected to create a vision for the whole 52-acre Jones Center campus with this goal in mind.

All Are Welcome

On the campus today you’ll find a wide variety of amenities and services including a gymnasium, indoor track, fitness center, pool, ice rink, bike park and pump track, conference center and chapel. In the former Jones Truck Lines shop on the western portion of the site, the Center for Nonprofits is home to more than 40 nonprofit organizations. A branch of the Haas Hall Academy charter school and a community clinic are also important parts of the campus. The Jones Center is a certified park-and-ride facility and trailhead for the Razorback Regional Greenway too. And the campus is just four blocks from downtown Springdale and an integral part in the city’s overall revitalization. You can see that the Jones Center is much, much more than a rec center. It’s a central part of Springdale and the region. A new vision plan can celebrate that role and unify all of these important components of the campus. It can extrovert the Jones Center’s wonderful spirit outdoors and create a vibrant space where the entire community can come together.

critical part of our planning and design process on every project is community engagement, a process we call community-based design and it’s especially important to us here, given the Jones Center’s role and reputation. Springdale is the most diverse city in Northwest Arkansas—in addition to a large Latin American population, the region is home to the largest Marshallese population in the continental US—and we have wanted to celebrate that diversity from day one. We’ve wanted everyone to feel empowered to participate and engage as an important part of the community. But there’s a catch: the project launched in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Traditional community engagement programs include numerous in-person public meetings and presentations, so we had to rethink how to engage people in a safe and socially-distant way during a pandemic.

Inspiring participation during a pandemic

From the start, we brought in trusted members of the local community to be part of the design team and to act as liaisons and bridge-builders to the community. We developed online surveys in Spanish, Marshallese and English to collect community feedback, and we hosted virtual presentations. We also reached out personally and conducted over 80 one-on-one interviews with community members during the project’s first month. And we’re currently hosting an RFQ with CACHE, the Creative Arkansas Community Hub and Exchange, to find up to three Northwest Arkansas-based professional artists (working in any artistic medium) to collaborate.  But we needed a way to get people to participate—we needed a hook and a unifier—and of course nothing brings people together better than food. Partnering with Velocity Group, we organized three dinner drive-thrus and with a group of volunteers gave away 300 meals at each of them. As community members picked up food, we talked about this powerful project and promoted the surveys and virtual meetings. But these events were so much more than quick touch-points and free meals.

Each dinner energized community members by showcasing local restaurants, chefs, caterers, and cooking schools. Yeyo’s Mexican GrillChef Judy Tatios (a Marshallese-chef who specializes in a fusion of southern and Marshallese cuisine) and the Brightwater Center at NW Arkansas Community CollegeSecondhand Smoke, and three recent Latin American graduates from Brightwater all came together to celebrate the power of gathering, and the Jones Campus’s potential to inspire it. Helping people feel comfortable and safe was a huge priority, especially during the pandemic, and we also wanted people to feel welcome. The local Marshallese population had been hit hard by COVID-19, so seeing friends and neighbors come together at these events felt like a release valve had been opened. It was incredibly fulfilling to witness the energy and excitement and to be part of it.

It felt a little ironic that what we thought might be a hindrance to community engagement—a devastating pandemic—ended up inspiring new ideas and new connections. It motivated us to bring people together in ways that might seem normal in our day-to-day lives but are still considered non-traditional as part of a design process. Facebook, for example, is a comfortable forum for Northwest Arkansas’ Marshallese community so it made perfect sense to host a Facebook Live event, during which we presented design ideas and strategies in both English and Marshallese and solicited feedback. So far, we’ve received input from over 2,200 community members, with over 180,000 social media touchpoints so our new strategies of working with the community will surely have a lasting impact on future projects.

Diverse perspectives lead to powerful design

The input we’ve received makes it clear that this community wants a place where they can get together. After all, humans are social beings, and COVID-19 has magnified the value of the public realm even more. This feedback has reinforced our own belief that The Jones Campus has an incredible opportunity to expand upon Bernice Jones original mission and become an even more powerful community champion—THE place where people gather, linger, and feel a strong sense of belonging. We’re still in the early stages, but our preliminary vision plan outlines a series of bold changes intended to:

  • Expand The Jones Center’s existing recreational amenities;
  • Introduce new open spaces and plazas for the community to come together;
  • Create an interconnected system of hard and soft-surface trails, walkways, and bicycle trails tying The Jones Campus into downtown and out into the region;
  • Unify the campus by providing physical and visual connections between all areas of Campus;
  • Incorporate art as placemaking experiences to pique the interest of users;
  • Imprint the Campus with culturally-inspired design gestures that bring prominence to the diverse communities that make up Springdale; and,
  • Give people the gathering places they crave.

Design has the power to enrich The Jones Campus experience throughout its 52-acres, but powerful design is only possible when it is generated by a wide variety of people with different knowledge sets and points of view. This extends beyond the team of national industry-leading experts and local partners who are already involved in reimagining the Jones Campus and speaks to the passionate beliefs of its founders that “all are welcome” to participate and belong. I’m personally very proud of the mission-driven approach that’s fueled this project—that’s fueled us on the design team—and the strong ties formed through meaningful community engagement. As we move the design process forward and solicit more feedback, I look forward to the next round of events, which will no doubt include the region’s wonderful food and all of its fantastic people.

If you’d like to participate in The Jones Campus Vision, or if your own community is looking for ways to strengthen connections and spark participation, reach out. We’d love to work with you.