Conway chamber unveils capital-campaign projects

By Tammy Keith Published March 20, 2017 at 10:33 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

The building at Oak and Chestnut streets in downtown Conway, occupied by Vesta’s and two other businesses, is the former Grand Theatre. The Conway Area Chamber of Commerce has a contract pending to buy the building and create a 400-seat performance venue. The project is one of seven unveiled this month by the chamber.

CONWAY — Conway Area Chamber of Commerce executives announced the Conway 125 capital campaign for seven city projects, from a downtown performing-arts venue to an expanded trail system, all designed to improve residents’ quality of life.

“We look at these, and we think, just imagine living here if all of these things are successfully open. Just imagine what living in a Conway with all of these amenities feels like,” said Brad Lacy, president of the chamber and Conway Development Corp.

He said the campaign honors the chamber turning 125 years old in 2016.

Lacy said a capital campaign will be launched by fall when a total cost of all the projects is ascertained. He said the goal is to see the projects implemented within five years.

The projects, available at conway125.com, are as follows:

• The Grand Theatre — Conway’s former downtown theater at Oak and Chestnut streets, the Grand Theatre, closed in 1956, Lacy said. He said the last movies shown were Abbot and Costello Go to Mars and The Great Sioux Uprising.

The chamber has a contract to buy the 5,925-square-foot building, owned by Dr. Mary Corbitt, a neurologist who practices in the North Little Rock area. The original building is divided into three storefronts — Vesta’s, which opened this month — ICU Protection Inc. and The Men’s Mall Store. Vesta’s is in the space on the corner, which was previously occupied by Grand on Oak, a women’s boutique. Owner Sena Crafton said she named the store as a nod to the old theater.

“We’re still in a feasibility period of the theater,” Lacy said. “We have it under contract, and we’ve commissioned this firm from Cleveland, Ohio, and they are really experts in historic-theater renovations. I’d say that’s going to take a couple more months.”

Lacy said the plan is to create a 400-seat venue. The historic theater had 600 seats, “but we’re all bigger today,” he said.

“It’s a missing venue, honestly, for us in the community, because when you look at Reynolds [Performance Hall at the University of Central Arkansas] with 1,200 seats, it swallows up a lot of these productions, even Shakespeare.”

“They’ve done a lot of interviews with potential end users,” such as the Conway Symphony Orchestra and the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, to see what their needs are, Lacy said.

The company will give the chamber an estimate for what it would cost to renovate the building.

Vesta’s and the other businesses are safe for now — Lacy said the project is at least two years away.

• The Arnold Innovation Center — The downtown space for startup businesses is named in honor of retiring Conway Corp. CEO Richie Arnold. No location has been designated for the project, Lacy said, which is a partnership between Conway Corp., Conway Development Corp. and the chamber. Although it was announced that Conway Corp. would make a $1 million pledge to the facility, Lacy said the amount will depend on the building that is used.

A fledgling business that doesn’t have enough money to rent an office space could use the Arnold Innovation Center and utilize shared resources.

“The startup space really gives us a continuum space … one or two people sharing a desk, and goes all the way to an office space that holds seven or eight, if they get that big,” he said. Once a business grows larger, it likely would spin off to its own space.

“We would continually get new ideas, new companies, taking a spot in this center and growing them until they’re ready to go out on their own. It’s a legitimate form of economic development. They will pay something, but since Conway Corp. is helping underwrite this, the rates will be much, much lower than you see some startup companies doing.

“This gives us a real leg up on a lot of places in that we’re going to have a great facility that features one, Conway Corp. technology that they’re providing citywide, so it sort of becomes a living laboratory.”

Arnold plans to retire June 1.

• Roundabout art — Conway is known for its roundabouts, and it has about 20, Lacy said.

Roundabouts have the ability to not only function as traffic-control devices but as perfect spots for public art installations, Lacy said.

Research shows that “not being able to see across them is better for you as a driver,” Lacy said. “Here’s what they say — when you’re looking across and looking at who is coming across, you’re not paying attention to who’s immediately to your left.”

• Signage — The Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau started this project in 2014, Lacy said, and a study was done by Merje, environmental graphic designers in Pennsylvania, which also created the logo for the signage.

“Conway is not necessarily visitor-friendly,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re looking at the city through the eyes of a visitor. These signs are designed to help visitors find their way around a city. It’s not instinctive, necessarily, for people to make their way through a place.”

He said more than 180 signs will be placed throughout the city to direct visitors — as well as new residents — to hotels, event centers and landmarks.

“We know where every one of those signs go — sort of a GPS location. There are over 180 signs, and obviously, they work together. As you get off the interstate, it’s going to direct you.” For example, signs will point visitors to downtown. “As you get closer to an area like downtown, the signs are going to start changing in size and detail.

“In the heart of downtown, the signs are really small … and even intimate in pedestrian areas,” Lacy said.

• Trails — The opening of the Central Landing Bridge this summer, which will span Interstate 40, “is the first time we ever crossed the interstate with a pedestrian and cyclist in mind,” Lacy said. “We said, ‘What better opportunity to try to push this trail system into parts of the city where people actually go every day?’ If you connect up the trails on the west side of town … through some of the institutions like UCA and [Central Baptist College] on parts like Bruce, that gets you to the old airport and Central Landing Bridge, which gets you to the Conway Commons [shopping center].”

Central Landing is a planned mixed-use development, including retail and restaurants, planned for the former Conway airport.

A pedestrian/bicycle overpass on Dave Ward Drive was in the works already, which will connect a trail to UCA.

“We have this great opportunity to expand the trail system in a way in which we have not envisioned it to this point,” Lacy said.

• Splash Pads — Although there are no plans underway to build a splash pad in the city, the projects to put a few splash pads in city parks could be a public-private partnership, Lacy said, or it might just be public dollars.

“If we had three or four through the city, it’s a cost-effective way to bring some of that summertime entertainment,” Lacy said.

New Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry said that when he was running for office last year, “numerous people” mentioned an interest in splash pads.

• Interstate landscaping — This is an idea that has been underway for four or five years, Lacy said.

For some people, exits 127 and 129 are the only parts of Conway they see. Two master plans for beautifying those exits were created by engineering firm Crafton Tull. The plan is to add 125 trees and 1,500 shrubs, paid for with private funds. The project is estimated to be completed in 2019.

“We worked with Crafton Tull to work on a new bridge design at the southern end of town,” Lacy said, and these improvements will go along with the bridge work to improve the looks of the third-longest interstate in the country.

Lacy said Conway 125 takes some of the goals of Conway 2025 — long-range goals adopted in 2010 — to make sure they don’t just sit on a shelf.

Castleberry said he supports the vision for the campaign.

“I think it’s had a lot of insight and thought put into it. It had the consensus of people who want to see Conway prosper and do well,” he said.

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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