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Space to fill

UCA to repurpose bottom floor of Donaghey Hall

By Tammy Keith

This article was published February 25, 2018 at 12:00 a.m.

University of Central Arkansas students Samantha Pierce of Batesville, left, and Nena Igbokidi of Hot Springs sit at a table in front of UCA’s Donaghey Hall. They are eating ice cream from Marble Slab Creamery. Four retail businesses at the location have closed since December, but UCA officials said the bottom spaces will be repurposed soon. Marble Slab will remain open.

The businesses fell like dominoes.

The $16.7 million Donaghey Hall at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway has lost four of five retail tenants since December.

First was Mosaique Bistro, the sole restaurant, which closed in December, then Blue Sail Coffee and Uncle T’s Deli.

Trek Bicycle Store planned to close Saturday. That’s four of the six commercial spaces on the bottom floor in the highly touted building, which opened in 2016.

Only Marble Slab Creamery and UCA Makerspace Powered by the Conductor, a collaborative workspace, remain. The four-story, 67,500-square-foot building at Donaghey Avenue and Bruce Street has 15,000 square feet of commercial space on the bottom floor; students live on the upper three floors.

UCA Chief of Staff Kelley Erstine said there isn’t one reason the businesses didn’t succeed.

“Each kind of had their own situation. To a large extent, some of them really didn’t fit into the mission of the university, in my opinion,” Erstine said.

UCA President Houston Davis sent an email Jan. 30 to faculty, staff and students saying the building’s ground floor will be repurposed for university use.

“The decision to close by some of the first-generation retail establishments in Donaghey Hall presents a great opportunity to reposition the uses for university-related functions that better serve students and reflect our mission,” Davis wrote. “We are in discussions regarding how student-focused food services, student recruitment and enrollment services, and university innovation and outreach components can make better use of open space. In particular, we are looking at what recent surveys of students have shown to be the greatest demand for new food offerings on campus.”

Two students were eating ice cream from Marble Slab Creamery as they sat on benches in front of the building.

Nena Igbokidi of Hot Springs, a sophomore biology/pre-med student, said she had never patronized Blue Sail Coffee or Uncle T’s Deli.

“I didn’t go to Blue Sail because there’s a Starbucks right on campus; that’s less walking for me,” she said. “I heard they didn’t have anything going on to appeal to students.”

A typed note taped on the former Blue Sail location states: “Dear Beloved Friend, Sadly, this location cannot sustain itself any longer and is permanently closed. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to serve you here. Memories visiting with you fill our hearts with gratitude. Blue Sail downtown is still alive and well. We hope to serve you there.”

Igbokidi, a vegetarian, asked what kind of food Uncle T’s Deli served. She was eating vegetables from the cafeteria. Igbokidi suggested Blaze Pizza for one of the empty spaces.

Samantha Pierce of Batesville, a freshman biology/pre-med student, said she isn’t concerned about the loss of tenants.

“As long as they don’t take out Marble Slab, I think we’ll be OK,” she said.

Rhi Small of Maumelle, shift leader for Marble Slab Creamery, said the business isn’t leaving.

“We stay pretty busy,” she said, although business slacks off during the day when students are in class.

She said the business has “an influx of people” at noon when it opens, and it gets busy again right before and after supper. Also, the weekends, especially Sunday after church, stay busy.

Although Small said the owners don’t tell employees how much the rent is, “I think it’s competitive” with other locations, she said.

Diane Newton, UCA’s vice president for finance and administration, said Marble Slab Creamery pays $1,500 a month, plus trash and maintenance fees, for its 1,200-square-foot space; Blue Sail, which filled 1,511 square feet, paid $1,888.75 a month, plus fees; Mosaique Bistro, which occupied 3,519 square feet, paid $4,398.75 a month, plus fees; Uncle T’s

Deli, which filled 3,722 square feet, paid $4,652.50 a month, plus fees; and Trek paid $2,682.50 a month, plus fees.

Uncle T’s Deli also had a note on the door, and the store still had merchandise inside.

The notice states, in part: “Although we wish to continue, business at this location can no longer sustain our operation. We have enjoyed our time in Conway and appreciate the support we have received, as well as the relationships that have been developed.”

The notice invites people to visit Uncle T’s Deli in Little Rock, “as our 50-plus-year foundation remains strong.”

The UCA president noted in his email that the student housing is “performing as originally planned, and the overall project is performing against revenue targets.”

“It is also helpful that finishes made to the open first-floor space should be able to be reused with minor modifications for university-related uses,” Davis wrote. “This will aid in pivoting back toward university functions.”

Davis said details will be coming soon.

“I will keep you apprised as those details become firm,” he said.

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

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