Coming back strong
In his inevitable moments of weakness, Popeye always consumed a single can of spinach to regain his strength and begin anew. Now, Alma, Ark., home of Allen Canning Co., which packages the official Popeye spinach, has turned to the “Sailor Man” to help with its own revival. The town has adopted the lovable cartoon character as a mascot and is enlisting his help in revitalizing its downtown area. In April, city officials dedicated a new park, featuring a bronze Popeye statue to beautify the downtown area for residents and create a tourist destination.
Situated between historic buildings, the new park is on the former spot of a turn-of-the-century building that once housed a music store and, more recently, apartments. A fire destroyed the site four years ago, and faced with the daunting task of cleaning the fire-ravaged area, the owner sold the land to the city. Initially, city officials considered using the building to expand the water department or as a site for the mayor’s office. But, Alma Public Works Director Mark Yardley envisioned something more. “For so long, I had observed people stopping in town from all over the United States,” Yardley says. “Just an individual or a family in a car was no big deal, but it [was] the tour buses [that were] really bothering me. There was nothing for them to get out and do.”
In tourist guides, Alma is touted as a prime destination for Popeye fans and curiosity-seekers who want to visit a statue of the classic cartoon character. But, the reality was quite different from tourists’ expectations. Instead, visitors saw a fiberglass Popeye figure, which, with its long legs and long arms, was not an accurate depiction of the character.
On April 28, during the town’s 21st Annual Spinach Festival, city officials finally fulfilled the tour guides’ promises by dedicating the unofficially named Popeye Park. Located just 500 feet from the old Popeye statue, the 150-square-foot park features a 6-foot-tall bronze Popeye that stands in the middle of a fountain with water spraying at its feet and a can of spinach in its right hand. “Everything’s exaggerated on the [statue] we have now,” Yardley says of the statue’s short legs, long torso and large forearms. “It’s very clearly what people think of when they think of Popeye.”
Benches, lights, trees, flowers, plants and other elements that hearken back to the historic days in Alma surround the fountain. “Because there are some older historic buildings in this area of town, we thought it would be appropriate to keep that turn-of-the-century-look,” Yardley says.
In choosing those elements to include in the park, officials wanted to use materials that required little maintenance. The park’s gazebos are constructed of vinyl and have roof shingles made of rubber. The park is surrounded by aluminum fencing made to resemble Victorian-style wrought iron.
By summer’s end, the city plans to paint a mural on a 2,000-square-foot wall in the park that survived the devastating fire. The mural will depict Alma’s old Main Street and other historical images with hidden Popeye silhouettes throughout. In two of the park’s gazebos, the city plans to place flat screen monitors that, with the push of a button, will play video documentaries of Alma’s history and its designation as the Spinach Capital.
Although the park has not been open long, Yardley says that the purpose of the street corner space is already being fulfilled. “I’m so happy that it’s being used by the local people, but my goal is that we will actually have the tour buses stopping in and learning something about the history of Alma,” he says.
But, Yardley also has goals for Alma residents who, for years, sought to have a better downtown district. “This is step one towards a revitalization of downtown [and bringing] some pride into the area.”