REX NELSON: A mixed bag downtown
I’m in the Simmons Bank building in downtown Little Rock’s River Market District with George Makris, the president of the company who led Simmons through his massive growth spurt. I ask him why the bank, which still has its technical headquarters in Pine Bluff, decided five years ago to buy this structure along Interstate 30 that had been built for Acxiom.
“There were several reasons,” says Makris. “First, we already had hundreds of people working in Little Rock, and we knew we would hire more. We were running out of space. We had people scattered all over town. A second reason was its proximity to Pine Bluff. We started inquiring about buying the building, I knew it would be a good opportunity, it was a six month process, but we ended up here and were thrilled about it.
Since Acxiom is a data company, the building had the kind of cabling that Simmons needed for its computer networks and security operations center. It also came with a gymnasium, cafe and conference center. Simmons installed lighting outside and coordinated with the city to match the colors to the lights on the bridges crossing the Arkansas River.
It is a beautiful building and a house worthy of a regional banking power. But as Simmons expanded its presence downtown, the state government moved, moving hundreds of employees to the former Alltel (and later Verizon) corporate campus in the Riverdale neighborhood. Combined with a loss of office jobs due to the pandemic, there are now gaping holes in the downtown office market.
I work at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Scott Street and often walk around the neighborhood. I remember my excitement shortly before the pandemic hit with the transformation of two former Capitol buildings into the hip AC Hotel by Marriott. Somehow this hotel survived after opening at the start of a two-year pandemic, but adjacent spaces that I thought were filled with restaurants and bars now remain empty.
Downtown Little Rock is a mixed bag as we emerge from the pandemic. On the plus side, the River Market District, South on Main (known as SOMA) and the area now called East Village are vibrant. Capitol Avenue, slated to be the state’s largest urban boulevard from the freeway to the state capitol, is a sad sight. It remains lined with empty storefronts, abandoned bank lobbies and tacky surface parking lots.
There have been many stories in recent months about legal proceedings and financial issues clouding the future of two of the Capitol’s towers, the Regions and the Bank of America buildings. Meanwhile, on the section of Main Street, the city dubbed the Creative Corridor, the two tallest buildings – Donaghey and Boyle – stand empty and decay.
When writing about downtown Little Rock, I like to consult Rett Tucker and Jimmy Moses, who have played key roles in its revitalization over the past decades. They tell me restaurants have weathered the pandemic surprisingly well while downtown apartment and condo occupancy rates have held steady. Tucker says there’s enough demand for additional apartments downtown, especially since the neighborhood offers the state’s only true urban living experience.
Downtown highlights include the transformation of the Museum of Fine Arts of Arkansas (formerly the Arkansas Center for the Arts) and the potential for expansion of Little Rock Technology Park. A city is only as strong as its downtown, and a state is only as strong as its capital. It is important to all Arkansans that downtown Little Rock realizes its potential.
Moses and Tucker aren’t the only smart people seriously thinking about the future of downtown. Former Conway Mayor Tab Townsell, who now heads regional planning agency Metroplan, included me in a series of emails inviting people to come to Austin, Texas to see how leaders made the downtown of this city more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists.
“One of the top destination cities in today’s economy has chosen to calm traffic in its downtown core,” Townsell said. “This is a city where cranes are everywhere as they build skyscraper after skyscraper. A thriving downtown and an accessible, livable downtown are not mutually exclusive.”
What Little Rock too often lacks is coordination. As the pandemic winds down, now is the time for city government, state government (it still has a vested interest in downtown), the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Little Rock Partnership to join forces with private sector investors to achieve these goals. three things:
• Restore Avenue du Capitole. House employees and other economic developers should work just as hard to attract investment to downtown as they work to attract manufacturing and distribution facilities. Where is the new headquarters with high-paying white-collar jobs? It is also high time the city made the avenue a priority with a smoother street, improved lighting, extensive landscaping, banners, etc.
• Convince the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to have a major presence downtown. How about moving the business school and associating it with Little Rock Technology Park?
• Raise the necessary funds to expand the Downtown Partnership Ambassador Program. These are the people who wear bright uniforms, walk the streets, and work closely with the Little Rock Police Department to keep downtown safe. Feeling safe, especially at night, is key to bringing more people to live, work and play downtown. There’s not even a close second.
Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.