A nascent group of business executives from southwest Little Rock wants their area to be included with other parts of the capital city often promoted using some variation of a "great place to live, work, invest and play."
Think downtown Little Rock, which has its own organization promoting the city core. Or the River Market, South Main and, more recently, East Village.
Why not southwest Little Rock, too, they ask.
If the executives don't necessarily live there, they spend a good part of most weeks working there and, as with businesses in other areas of the city that have more panache, they need to attract new workers.
The alliance has already worked with the Arkansas Economic Development Institute at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to produce a report on the 16.5-square-mile area that includes a demographic profile and explains the "issues, opportunities and expectations" of its residents.
And its challenges.
"Southwest Little Rock neither deals with abject poverty nor abnormally high crime," the report's authors, Mike Collins and Susan Jackson, wrote in the report. "However, the perception of SWLR being a dangerous, dirty or destitute part of town has been both economically and emotionally devastating to the area."
Southwest Little Rock may be overlooked compared with the attention other, more prosperous sections of the state's capital city receive.
"Are we taken for granted?" asked J.D. Lowery, an executive with the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, which has its headquarters in southwest Little Rock. "Maybe -- because there's a lot of emphasis in other parts of Little Rock -- downtown and East Village -- and deservedly so.
"I am not saying that to begrudge the efforts that are occurring in those areas at all. But obviously you've seen some good things happening in southwest Little Rock."
He and others involved in the effort point to the development of the Bass Pro Shops and the Outlets at Little Rock and the growth of associated restaurants and other businesses at the Interstate 30/430 interchange; the recent expansion of Riggs CAT, which sells and leases heavy construction equipment; the opening of a bilingual clinic by Arkansas Children's Hospital; and the construction that has begun on a new $101 million high school by the Little Rock School District.
Lowery, a member of the Southwest Little Rock Business Alliance, said the group takes its inspiration from the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, which is a business-centric group promoting downtown as a "place to live, work, play and invest."
But Lowery said the year-long discussions have ruled out so far using the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, a nonprofit organization, as a model. Nor is the alliance going to be modeled after the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce -- although organizers haven't ruled out being a part of the chamber.
"We are still, to be quite honest, in the early stages of trying to figure out what we're going to do, what we're going to be about and how we're going to function," Lowery said.
Another executive involved in the effort, Miguel Lopez, who is the Hispanic community liaison for First Community Bank, said the group is putting thought into how it wants to be organized.
"It is not a struggle," he said. "There are so many different ways to go about it. We are trying to be as creative as we can to be most effective for the business and most effective for the community. What is the most effective way to do that?"
Early participants in the effort include Duane Highly, president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., which employs about 300 at its headquarters in southwest Little Rock; Brian Marsh, president and chief executive officer of Goodwill Industries of Arkansas, which moved to its resource center to southwest Little Rock three years ago; and John Riggs, president of Riggs CAT and immediate past chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Others include Frank Scott Jr., vice president at First Security Bank and a southwest Little Rock resident who is weighing a bid for mayor; representatives from the Little Rock School District's Metropolitan Career-Technical Center; the Arkansas Department of Transportation; and the Mexico Consulate in Little Rock.
The Arkansas Economic Development Institute report used surveys and listening sessions with southwest Little Rock residents to identify some of the community's challenges, which include poor dialogue with City Hall; a lack of code enforcement; inconsistent garbage collection; poor maintenance of public spaces; crime and drugs, racial tension; a high number of abandoned houses and buildings; and limited information about city programs and resources.
For all its challenges, southwest Little Rock remains a vibrant community, younger than much of the rest of the city with a large number of young children, according to the report.
It is home to 37,976 people, a number that would make it the 12th largest city in the state, behind Pine Bluff and ahead of Bentonville.
Sixty-three percent of the population is black compared with 43 percent in greater Little Rock. Its Hispanic population makes up 12 percent of the community compared with 3 percent in greater Little Rock. The mix gives southwest Little Rock a "unique combination of cultures, customs, faith and families," the report said.
Lowery said he and other business leaders made it a point to reach out first to people and organizations long active in southwest Little Rock, including city directors Joan Adcock and B.J. Wyrick and Pam Adock, who heads the Southwest Little Rock Alliance for Progress, a grass-roots organization.
"The last thing we want to do is try to come into this and say, 'Hey, we're going to come and do all these things to help the community' without having talked to people and see what the needs are," Lowery said.
They also enlisted the Mexican Consulate as well as Lopez to involve the Hispanic community, which has a concentration of small businesses, including restaurants and grocery stores to serve the population.
"They are certainly an element we've been wanting to be cognizant of," Lowery said.
Lopez said including the Mexico consulate was key to the organization's outreach in the Hispanic community.
"Any time you can align yourself with the consulate, it is well received," he said. "It's a trusted organization in the Hispanic community."
Lowery said the alliance members want be a part of making southwest Little Rock a more attractive area for residents and workers, alike.
"In a nutshell, we want to contribute and be a better neighbor," he said. "Not all of us live in the area but work in the area. But we spent quite a bit of our time during the work-week here and we want to work and operate in a safe place that benefits us as companies to have that image so we can attract quality employees.
"But there is the benefit of being good neighbors for the other businesses in the area and for the people who live here. We just want to try to help do our part."
State Rep. Fred Love (D-Little Rock), whose legislative district includes southwest Little Rock, said the area has a vibrancy and energy "you don't see anywhere else in the city." But he said it needs to be leavened with some business savvy to fully harness it.
"The business alliance will add a different flavor" to the mix that is southwest Little Rock, Love said.
A lot of the population has lived in the area a long time, unlike more prosperous areas of the city such as west Little Rock, he said.
"They want to see it the way it used to be," Love said.
The business alliance, he said, is integral partner for that effort.
"You will see some amazing improvements to this part of the city," Love said. "We can rethink what southwest Little Rock can look like. This part of the city will take off."
SundayMonday Business on 05/20/2018