During the Christmas holidays, with our two sons home from college, my wife and I decided that the four of us would go out for a nice dinner. We live in far west Little Rock. Our destination: Downtown Conway.
Our oldest son, who's now in graduate school at the University of Texas, received his bachelor's degree from Hendrix College at Conway and has always enjoyed the city. You think of people in Conway getting into their cars and coming to Little Rock for a Saturday night on the town. The fact that we found ourselves going in the opposite direction tells you all you need to know.
Conway has arrived. That's because the leaders there get it. They understand that economic development in this century is nothing like the development efforts of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that focused on industrial recruiting along with the roads, water and sewer lines needed to attract manufacturers.
In this era, economic development is also about creating a place that will attract and keep young talented entrepreneurs. Conway is attracting more of these people with each passing year. Many are graduates of Hendrix, the University of Central Arkansas and Central Baptist College who see no need to leave town once they graduate. I'm often asked if there's another place in the state where I feel the kind of entrepreneurial energy that characterizes northwest Arkansas. My answer: Conway.
The city's continued growth, which is outlined in a story on the cover of today's Perspective section, is proof that Conway's quality-of-place efforts are working. In 2016, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of what's now the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, chamber leaders announced projects in seven areas. Work continues in each area. They are:
• A partnership between the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, Conway Corp. (the city's public utility company), and the Conway Development Corp. to create the Arnold Innovation Center, a place much like the Little Rock Technology Park on Main Street in the capital city. Co-working spaces, leasable office suites and meeting facilities will help fuel small business job growth. The center is named for former Conway Corp. CEO Richard Arnold.
• More trails across the city for runners, walkers and cyclists. Pedestrian overpasses on Dave Ward Drive, Oak Street and Harkrider Street will connect trails. The Razorback Greenway in northwest Arkansas has been a major amenity for those living in that booming part of the state. Conway's leaders noticed and vowed to expand their trail system citywide.
• Public art in the roundabouts that have been built as Conway's population has soared in recent years. According to a chamber publication: "By raising private funds and partnering with the city of Conway on long-term maintenance, Conway's roundabouts can become a unique setting for large-scale works of public art of all kinds. Arts organizations, museums, artists and donors can team up to turn Conway's roundabouts into a regional destination."
• A better system of so-called wayfinding signs so visitors can find their way around town more easily. The Conway Convention & Visitors Bureau joined forces with Merje Design in Pennsylvania to identify locations for a 182-sign system.
• Beautification projects along Interstate 40. Private funds are being raised by chamber officials for landscaping master plans at Exit 127 and Exit 129. A plan for Exit 125 will be developed after interchange improvements are completed in 2019. The chamber notes: "Millions of people drive through Conway on the interstate. For many, that's the only impression they have of our city. A well-designed, properly maintained landscaping plan along our interstate corridor and exits--coupled with new, decorative bridges--will help Conway stand out on our nation's third-longest interstate."
• The addition of interactive splash pads at existing city parks. This will provide a place for visitors and residents to hang out in the spring and summer.
• Transforming the Grand Theatre building at the corner of Oak and Chestnut streets in downtown Conway into a 400-seat performing arts theater. The Grand opened in 1930 with 582 seats. It was operated by Arkansas Amusement Co. until 1935 and then was part of the Malco chain of theaters from 1935 until the 1950s. Once the renovation is completed, the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre and the Arkansas Educational Television Network are among the organizations expected to use the downtown facility.
The $65 million Lewis Crossing shopping center along Interstate 40 has given the city a new regional attraction. Construction began in August 2015. A 136,580-square-foot Sam's Club anchors Lewis Crossing. A bit farther west along Interstate 40, Jim Wilson & Associates of Montgomery, Ala., had announced that it would build a 302,708-square-foot center with a commitment from Dillard's to operate the anchor store. A new interstate overpass connected the 151-acre former airport site with the existing Conway Commons retail center. The cost of infrastructure improvements was almost $28 million. Due to the nationwide retail slowdown, Jim Wilson & Associates pulled out of the project. The Conway Development Corp. announced in November that it had secured financing to purchase the property and will work with a new developer in an attempt to achieve the original vision for the land.
"It's an incredible piece of property," Brad Lacy, CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and the Conway Development Corp., said. "We're committed to seeing it developed in a way that brings value to its neighbors and all of Conway."
Conway also improved its position as a regional medical hub when Baptist Health Medical Center opened along Interstate 40 in September 2016. That's in addition to the growth of the existing Conway Regional Health System. Troy Wells, the Baptist Health CEO, said people now see Conway as "not just a suburb of Little Rock or a bedroom community. It wants to be a destination community."
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 02/11/2018
Print Headline: Conway gets it