Mixed-use development planned for Conway airport site

By Tammy Keith Published August 22, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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The current Conway airport, Dennis F. Cantrell Field, will vacate its 151 acres in a residential area when the airport under construction near the Arkansas River opens in 2014. The Conway Development Corp. and Wilson & Associates of Montgomery, Ala., offered $6.1 million for the site to create a mixed-use development.

— The existing Conway airport property will be developed into a “lifestyle center” with shopping, restaurants, offices, hotels and homes if negotiations go well with developers.

A city committee recommended the proposal of the Conway Development Corp. and Wilson & Associates of Montgomery, Ala., which offered $6.1 million for the property.

A new $30 million Conway airport, which is under construction in the Lollie Bottoms area near the Arkansas River, is scheduled to open Aug. 14, 2014.

The current airport, Dennis F. Cantrell Field, is on 151 acres of prime property with interstate visibility.

The Conway City Council has approved building a $6 million, four-lane overpass from Elsinger Boulevard in the Conway Commons shopping center over Interstate 40 to the old airport property, tying in to Bruce Street.

That project can’t start until the airport is relocated, but construction on the overpass is estimated to start in 2015. It will be paid for with a one-fourth-cent city sales tax for capital improvements.

A committee of three recommended the CDC/Wilson proposal: Ronnie Hall, city engineer; Jack Bell, chief of staff for Conway; and Bryan Patrick, director of planning for the city.

Only two proposals were submitted for the property.

Coming in second was prolific Conway developer Hal Crafton, with an offer of $5.8 million. If the first proposal can’t be negotiated to the city’s satisfaction, Crafton’s offer will considered.

“I’ve never been more excited about anything,” said Brad Lacy, president and CEO of the Conway Development Corp. and the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce. ” I really, truly think this will be transformational for the city.

“It’s an opportunity to connect downtown to the east side of the interstate the right way, where you could walk or ride your bike. It’s an opportunity to do something nobody’s done in Arkansas. This property, if it’s developed the way we believe it will be, will change Conway forever.”

The proposal was recommended, Bell said, even though it was noted in a letter to Mayor Tab Townsell that it “has an undue escape clause.”

“They list several conditions, and one thing is … if they’re not able to line up the retailers they want to get, they would get their [$305,000] earnest money back,” Bell said.

That’s something that will have to be discussed, he said.

However, he said the developers and CDC “feel real comfortable, and we do, too,” that they have the relationships to land the retailers they want.

Lacy said it only makes sense.

“We can’t go out and bring 300,000 square feet of retail with a promise that that’s going to happen, and then it not happen,” Lacy said. “That’s some of the things we have to work through that have to be done, or nothing’s going to be there.”

Bell said it came down to money, primarily.

“The money was a big thing,” Bell said. “All that money goes into the new airport. We have needs out there that are actually slightly more than the $6.1 million, but not a lot more. I think we can make it work with that amount.”

Bell said he isn’t surprised that only two proposals were submitted.

“That’s a lot of money to put up,” Bell said.

“Rush-Hal would be great to work with,” Bell said of Crafton.

“The property is worth what it’s worth,” Lacy said. “If somebody had bid $10 million, well, good luck to them.”

Bell said the players had to know the city.

“There had to be trust in the city to do what it said, because without the overpass, it would not be nearly as feasible,” Bell said.

“You don’t want to put this project in just any city of 60,000,” he said.

The CDC/Wilson proposal includes the following:

• Up to 760,000 square feet of “lifestyle center” retail space anchored by large retail stores and enhanced with specialty stores and restaurants;

• Hotels;

• Multifamily sites;

• More than 200,000 square feet of office construction;

• Sites for potential single-family and institutional uses;

• A primary tenant who will be new to the city’s market area and will “significantly contribute to the overall strength and vitality of the city’s economy”;

• Project completed in phases over five to seven years; and

• Public arts components in keeping with Conway’s Public Art Initiative.

“We want it to be a place where someone could live and work and shop and eat and do all those things in a way that is pedestrian-oriented, and those don’t exist very often,” Lacy said.

With 151 acres, “it gives us the opportunity to do some of that.”

“We have seen an increasing number of office users, big-office users, who really like being in a development like that,” Lacy said.

He said the CDC started looking at this property two years ago, “believing you really have one opportunity to do something good on a piece of property like this.”

He said the CDC spent “tens of thousands of dollars” and hired two men who met on a benchmarking trip to Franklin, Tenn.

Those men were paid to study the soon-to-be vacated airport property “and tell us the highest and best use of that site,” he said.

“That was the question: What could you do with it? What is it really worth? The big question mark was how much could be retail?” Lacy said.

“There are some challenges to getting there, some challenges to visibility. It’s not perfect,” he said. “Now, from a community standpoint, there are some things about it that are incredible.”

Lacy said he and banker Johnny Adams, who is on the CDC board, were debating the project and the need to find a developer that had big-retail experience.

An employee of Adams’, whose father is a pilot for Wilson and Associates, mentioned that the group specializes in those types of projects.

Will Wilson, with whom Lacy said he primarily worked, and partners took a look at Conway about a year ago and were impressed, Lacy said. He introduced them to Mayor Tab Townsell and other city officials.

“It just progressed. … We really felt good about them; they felt good about us. The more they dug in, the more they liked what they saw. That is the experience we see over and over again,” Lacy said. “If you get [business associates] here and they really start digging in, they see something pretty incredible.

“I think the average citizen thinks this is such a great market, blank should come here, and very few people have the skill set to pull that off. The Wilsons are one of those groups. They’ve done it time and time again.”

He said Wilson and Associates pitched doing a joint venture with the CDC.

“I had hoped we would have a role in it. I felt like CDC had a longer-term vision,” Lacy said.

“We’re going to have a different perspective maybe than a lot of people … because we are a nonprofit, and our primary goal is job creation. If it came down to what we would be willing to do to get a large employer there, it might be different than someone else.

“It just helps us be more competitive nationally when we have these types of developments.”

Bell said the CDC has experience in development.

“The CDC had the big project with the Meadows Technology Park,” Bell said.

Negotiations are the next step, he said.

“We’ll probably meet within the next two to three weeks,” Bell said. “There are a few things we need to discuss. It’s going to be a great project.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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