As the slideshow concluded during a recent public meeting focused on a planned downtown development east of Interstate 30 in Little Rock, Cromwell Architects Engineers Chief Operating Officer Dan Fowler wanted to make sure something was clear to the audience.
While the 50 or so attendees were shown plans for a new downtown development including a marina, creative spaces for artists, restaurants, housing and a new KATV studio, Fowler stressed that the slides were merely a vision for what some hoped could happen. Cromwell purchased a 50,000-square-foot factory and plans to move its offices and 120 employees there.
Whether anybody joins Cromwell, the Clinton Presidential Center, Heifer International and a few other existing businesses remains to be seen. Fowler acknowledged that.
"We've taken a lot of liberties with other people's property. We're just trying to put on paper some ideas of what could be developed," Fowler said. "We're a tiny member of this community. We're new here. Everyone else has been here a long time. We want feedback. We want input. We'll invest in our project and our property and we hope we're a catalyst to generate something great in an up-and-coming neighborhood. We want it to be the next great Little Rock neighborhood."
Deep Ellum in Dallas and South Main in Memphis were hailed as examples of what the area could be. A look at how Little Rock's own River Market District has grown over the past 20 years also is worth considering when dreaming about the potential that exists.
Fowler said he and childhood friend Chris Moses of Moses Tucker Real Estate looked at the former Sterling Paint factory about five years ago. That initial visit was enough to convince him it would make a good future home of the company and could help spur further development as long as other people bought into the idea of redeveloping the area.
Also planned for the area is a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campus of the eStem charter school. It is set to open in 2017-18.
Current commercial operations located in the areas include Rock Town Distillery and Lost 40 Brewing. Both businesses had representatives among the 50-plus who attended the meeting, which also drew homeowners and the Downtown Neighborhood Association, among others.
Because of where the properties are located -- infrastructure challenges and sometimes negative public perception of what lies east of the interstate -- this portion of downtown often is disconnected from the other, more vibrant parts. Redeveloping the area is seen as a way to reconnect the eastern half of the city with the rest of downtown.
What seemed clear from the meeting is that nobody wants to further damage the connection that exists between east Little Rock and the rest of the city.
Most vocal at the meeting was Gregory Simmons, who has lived in the area for 25 years. His wife has been in the same house near the proposed development district for 50 years. He reminded those gathered that any development or redevelopment will happen in an area that already has neighborhoods and neighbors.
That point seemed to be well received when the time came to weed through 10 or so potential names for the development. East Village was the runaway winner and while the name isn't set in stone -- and it could evolve over time -- it generated the most positive attention by far.
Other options include E30, Rock Island, Maker's Spur, The Tracks, The Feed, and the Feed and Grain District. Because of the negative association people have with the current I-30 expansion project and the phrase "the other side of the tracks," both E30 and The Tracks were quickly dismissed.
Village struck a chord.
As Simmons pointed out, the word "village" connotes community. Including "east" in the name is a nod to the folks who have lived, and sometimes struggled, while raising families and working industrial jobs in the area.
"When y'all talk about the East Village, it's about the history. It isn't just about the history you're creating," Simmons said. "We have a lot of history of what east Little Rock used to be. There are communities that built up around these old factories. It's important to tie all of that in together."
That sort of feedback, Fowler said, is exactly why his firm and Moses Tucker wanted to host the meeting. The variety of voices in the room and the emphasis placed on not further alienating or disconnecting east Little Rock from the rest of the city was exactly what they had in mind.
"If we don't get feedback, if we don't get the turnout, we're just doing our little project on an island," Fowler said. "The numbers and the interaction was exciting to see. We want more of this."
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SundayMonday Business on 03/13/2016