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OPINION | REX NELSON: Betting on downtown

by Rex Nelson | April 24, 2021 at 8:55 a.m.

There was something reassuring last month when I saw a photo in this newspaper of veteran developer John Flake, wearing his mask and gesturing toward the former Arkansas Power & Light Co. building near Interstate 630 in downtown Little Rock.

Flake has seen it all when it comes to commercial real estate development in Arkansas. For those of us who believe that the revitalization of the capital city's downtown is important for all Arkansans, it's encouraging that this old warhorse hasn't given up on the central business district.

Flake is part of a group of local investors who acquired the structure, which was built in the 1950s. It was considered the city's first large International Style building. Located at 900 S. Louisiana St., it's on the National Register of Historic Places and still features what was known by AP&L as the "energy ball" on its roof.

Flake's business partners are James Hendren and David Payne. Hendren is a former chief executive officer of Arkansas Systems Inc., one of the state's early high-tech companies. He has long been involved in Arkansas' technology sector. Payne is chief financial officer for the Curtis Stout Co., an electrical equipment and energy solutions business based in Little Rock.

"This building will include leading technology with lighting and ionization solutions that will keep tenants safe," Payne says. "And we will have abundant parking available for tenants and visitors."

Flake plans to provide collaborative workspaces that "will include amenities found to be attractive to many types of businesses, from law firms to technology."

The four-story, 50,000-square-foot complex will have offices, conference rooms and common spaces on each floor. A restaurant is planned for the first floor along with an 8,500-square-foot common lobby. There also will be outdoor areas for meetings and seating.

Flake says this project is more exciting to him than development of the 40-story skyscraper on Capitol Avenue now known as the Simmons Bank Tower. I find that comment telling.

At the time it was developed, the Capitol Avenue tower was billed as the tallest office building between Dallas and Atlanta and between New Orleans and St. Louis. It was a huge deal.

The look of downtown began to change in the late 1960s with construction of headquarters buildings for two Little Rock-based banks, Worthen and Union National. Worthen's 23-story building was 375 feet tall, and Union National's 22-story structure checked it at 331 feet. Both were taller than the Tower Building, which had been built in 1960 by a group of investors led by Winthrop Rockefeller.

The future governor had moved to Arkansas from New York in 1953. The 18-story Tower Building was the tallest structure in Arkansas from 1960-68, replacing the Medical Arts Building at Hot Springs.

"Arkansas, like most of the nation, enjoyed a real estate boom in the late 1970s and into the 1980s," writes historian Kenneth Bridges. "For decades, the state Capitol and its familiar dome dominated the Little Rock skyline. ... In 1975, the First National Bank Building was completed downtown. The $23 million high-rise stood at 454 feet, with 30 stories. With a later bank merger, it became known as the Regions Bank Tower. For more than a decade, it was the tallest in Little Rock and the state.

"In an ambitious collaboration in the early 1980s, Flake and AP&L president Jerry Maulden gave birth to a new skyscraper. The plan for Capitol Tower was announced and ground was broken in 1984. The building rose on its lot on Capitol Avenue. The First National Bank Building was directly across the street and soon found itself overshadowed by its neighbor. In 1986, construction was completed."

Little Rock-based frozen yogurt chain TCBY moved into the tower and gained naming rights in 1991. TCBY was sold to the Mrs. Fields Corp. in 2000. Several years later, Metropolitan National Bank bought the naming rights. In 2005, the bank added exterior lights to the sides of the tower. Simmons Bank of Pine Bluff purchased Metropolitan National Bank in 2014 and with it the tower's naming rights.

These days, the revitalization of downtown Little Rock isn't about building towers. Instead, it's infill development; the polishing of old buildings. It's what Flake, Hendren and Payne are now doing. There are plenty of additional opportunities for developers. For instance, the two tallest buildings on Main Street--Donaghey and Boyle--sit empty, begging for restoration.

Downtown Little Rock should do well in the post-pandemic economic boom. AC by Marriott, a fantastic restoration of two buildings on Capitol Avenue, opened just before the pandemic began. It will now be able to shine. Farther west on Capitol Avenue, Parth Patel has begun a multimillion-dollar renovation of the historic hotel that Rockefeller first called home in Arkansas in 1953 when it was known as the Sam Peck. Patel has promised a facility that will "make you proud."

Recently, Priority1, a Little Rock-based logistics company that's growing rapidly, joined Flake in betting on downtown. Priority1 signed a lease for 20,618 feet, comprising the entire sixth floor of the Lyon Building at 401 W. Capitol Ave.

Flake is counting on more residents, more hotels, more restaurants and more corporate offices downtown. He calls the restoration of the AP&L building "an exciting project that we believe will infuse even more energy into downtown Little Rock."

Given his decades of experience, I wouldn't bet against him.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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