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“Hip college town” are not the first words most people use to describe Conway, the city 24 miles northwest of Little Rock on Interstate 40.
Despite being home to the state’s fourth-largest public university (University of Central Arkansas) and two private colleges (Hendrix College and Central Baptist College), Conway is not conferred the kind of mystique ascribed to places like Fayetteville, even among those who went to school there.
Perhaps that is because Faulkner County is dry, and therefore without the watering holes that give college towns a certain flavor. Perhaps most outsiders get their impression of the city only from its four-exit presence on I-40, which offers an unoriginal landscape of fast-food restaurants and gas stations. Or perhaps Conway is thought to be too close to Little Rock to have a unique character of its own.
The city’s leaders are the first to acknowledge these perceptions, and they are adopting an economic development strategy that is as much about atmosphere as it is about infrastructure and tax incentives.
“Young, educated people expect an urban lifestyle, and we have to provide it,” said Jamie Gates, who works for Mayor Tab Townsell. “We have the opportunity to be the cool, quirky, artsy town that Central Arkansas doesn’t have.”
The context for Conway’s development philosophy is recent sociological and economic studies indicating that younger, better-educated workers want to live in places that provide a certain quality of life. The best-known discourse on this subject is a book by Richard Florida, “The Rise of the Creative Class.” It mentions specific amenities that are crucial to attracting the best employees, and by extension, the best employers. These include varied entertainment options (music venues, art galleries, performance spaces, and theaters), places for outdoor recreation, an active street culture (cafes, bookstores, restaurants), and authenticity and uniqueness (historic buildings, established neighborhoods and other cultural attributes).
Conway has taken these lessons to heart. T.J. Johnston, the director of Conway Downtown Partnership, is leading an effort to beautify sidewalks and storefronts while promoting the development of more residential space in downtown. Already there is a wide variety of retail offerings in that area, including an established independent bookstore (That Bookstore at Montebanq Place), and a popular cafe closer to the Hendrix campus with wireless Internet access (Something Brewing). The city almost has completed a scenic 3-mile walking and biking trail that follows Tucker Creek, and many of its historic buildings remain intact and in use.
And while Faulkner County is dry, a seminal event occurred earlier this year when the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board approved an alcohol permit for a new restaurant in Conway. When it opens on Front Street next year, Mike’s Place will be the only establishment, aside from private clubs, serving alcohol in the city.
“That’s the last missing piece,” said Brad Lacy, the director of economic development for the Conway Development Corporation (CDC). “It puts the community in a position to be competitive for a different type of business and person.”
Lacy’s contention is tacitly supported by a June 2000 study of Conway conducted by the Wadley Donovan Group, a New Jersey-based consultancy that specializes in corporate location and economic development. While citing the alcohol issue as a major concern, the report said:
“Reactions by employers were mixed regarding Conway’s dry status. Many felt this was why there were no national or upscale chain restaurants in Conway. As a result, the city was losing revenue from people traveling to Little Rock to go out to eat. It was also considered a disincentive for people who had business in Conway to stay at hotels or motels in Conway.
“Those who approved of the dry status felt that the character of the community would change drastically should alcohol be served in restaurants or sold in package stores.”
Although UCA and Hendrix do not have a public position in the alcohol debate, they are supportive of, and work closely with, Conway’s political and business leadership. In fact, most of the city’s leaders appear to share the same goals — a rarity in civic life — and where they do not directly cooperate, they at least view each entity’s individual successes as contributions toward Conway’s progress.
“While we serve the entire state of Arkansas, we are inextricably tied to the city of Conway,” said Lu Hardin, UCA’s president. “Our fortunes rise and fall together. The concept of a university being an ivory tower is a thing of the past. A successful university should be intricately tied to the business community of the city in which it is located.”
The UCA-Conway relationship has manifested itself in more than just goodwill. After the Wadley Donovan summary noted that “computer science and information systems courses in the Conway-Little Rock corridor are barely meeting the needs of local industry,” the CDC contributed $300,000 to UCA, part of which went toward hiring Chenyi Hu to chair the computer science department there. For its part, UCA is supporting the downtown residential initiative by leasing 16 units in a loft apartment development for married student housing, and the university’s private foundation contributes $5,000 a year to the downtown partnership.
Hendrix is similarly invested in the way Conway moves forward, according to the college president, J. Timothy Cloyd.
“The growth and enhancement of Conway benefits Hendrix, and we have a deep interest in making sure Conway is an attractive place to students,” Cloyd said.
With that in mind, Hendrix has invited the nationally recognized urban planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company (DPZ) to visit Conway in January as the next step in a master plan that DPZ began in 1995 to inform the way Hendrix grows and relates to Conway for the next 20 to 30 years.
DPZ most famously designed the city of Seaside, Fla. in the 1980s, and it practices a philosophy called “New Urbanism,” an answer to suburban sprawl that promotes the creation and restoration of high-density, pedestrian-friendly cities. Cloyd hopes that Conway can become a national example of New Urbanism strategies.
Of course, even if Conway’s higher education institutions were not so engaged in the city’s civic life, they would be major assets just by being there. According to the 2000 census, the median age of the city is 27.3, reflecting not only the student population, but also the graduates who decide to remain. UCA is the biggest employer in Faulkner County and the fastest-growing four-year university in Arkansas, and Hendrix also has a multimillion-dollar economic impact in the community.
Furthermore, both schools have ambitious plans that can only be helpful to the city they call home. For instance, Hendrix recently launched a new curriculum that it calls a “national model,” and Cloyd maintains that the college’s reputation and well-positioned alumni help to improve Conway’s image.
Similarly, UCA has entered into a $5 million contract with IBM to enhance its wireless capabilities and become the first university in the nation to be a third-party host for Internet and cellular services. That will make Conway more tech-friendly, because local companies can take advantage of those services, and city leaders will be able to point to the UCA-IBM partnership as evidence of progress in an area that only four years ago was considered one of its weak spots. The university also is enhancing its standing in the liberal arts by becoming the new publisher of the Oxford American, a Southern literary magazine. (Full disclosure: This writer is on the magazine’s board of directors.)
As much as Conway’s recent progress has been influenced by grand ideas and new philosophies, the city’s leaders are not inattentive to the less romantic aspects of economic development. Lacy, for instance, points to Conway Commons, the sprawling shopping center on Highway 64 near I-40, as a huge advantage for the city.
“It has changed our world with regard to retail and sales tax revenue,” Lacy said of the complex, which includes Target, Pier One and Old Navy. “Before this, we were like Russellville and Harrison from a retail standpoint. Now we are a truly regional shopping destination, and we have pushed our retail grasp further west to Fort Smith.”
Recognizing these kinds of practical considerations is crucial, because Conway is growing faster than the current infrastructure and services can handle. Mayor Townsell recently told the city council that necessary capital expenditures will lead to multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls unless Conway finds other ways to generate revenue. “We can’t afford our city anymore,” he said.
Traffic is frequently mentioned as the city’s biggest problem. There are few routes through the area, and those that exist cannot handle the daily volume of cars. City planners and advocates hope a proposed bypass will win the approval of the state Highway and Transportation Commission.
“If we can successfully address the transportation challenge, I believe Conway will be the second-largest city in Arkansas,” Hardin said. “It could happen within 10 years.”
That would make Conway second to Little Rock in terms of population, which would surprise many who regard Conway as merely a suburb or bedroom community of the state’s capital city. In fact, Conway already has the second-biggest job market in Central Arkansas, and two-thirds of the city’s residents work in Faulkner County, rather than commute to Little Rock.
Far from feeling in competition with Little Rock, Conway’s civic leaders want to make the most of the city’s proximity to its more prominent neighbor.
“We need Little Rock, we wish we were closer to Little Rock,” Gates said. “Our trick is to become the best part of Little Rock — as synonymous with Little Rock as Knob Hill or Sausalito are with San Francisco.”
In this respect, Conway shares a vision with the Metro Little Rock Alliance, a nine-county Central Arkansas partnership that is pushing for more formal ties among regional municipalities.
“We are Little Rock,” Gates added. “In the sense that we have great utilities, rising property values, low crime statistics, and good public schools, you could compare us to Chenal, the Heights or Hillcrest. But we also have ready access to a college population, and we are a smaller city with lower-cost utilities and free or reduced land costs. We are working on providing the quality of life expected by a younger community.”
Part of the reason why Conway’s leadership cadre is so attuned to what young people want is that they are young themselves. Mayor Townsell is 43, Lacy is 32, Gates is 26, and Johnston is 24. Not all of them are Conway natives, but they were members of the same fraternity at UCA.
Any conversation with them is peppered with references to the “new economy,” “information age,” and “mental capital.” Clearly, some of their thinking has been shaped by the recent decision by Acxiom, the Fortune-500 data management company, to relocate some of its most important operations from Conway to Little Rock.
“That was the wake-up call,” Lacy said. “We were not providing the type of environment that would appeal to the people living here. Acxiom had a hard enough time recruiting employees to Arkansas, much less Conway.”
The Acxiom move was part of a “natural evolution,” according to Jerry Adams, who handles community relations and economic development for the company, but he says Acxiom remains committed to the city where it was founded. He approves of the economic development strategies adopted by the city’s leaders, noting that “the progressiveness of the community has to be maintained.”
Acxiom still has a campus with 1,800 workers in Conway, and the city also is home to American Management Corp., which employs 200 people who provide administration services for the insurance industry. The other big company in town is IC Corp., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of school buses.
But Conway’s leadership wants to focus on creating more knowledge-based jobs; Gates’ signature credo is “no jobs where people are going to lose a finger.” The city has prioritized its recent land purchases with that in mind, and Conway now owns or controls 1,600 acres of industrial and business property.
The centerpiece of this effort is a planned 200-acre office and technology park called “The Meadows.” Currently set in a bucolic landscape of rolling hills and ponds, the project will offer land and financing assistance to high-tech companies that want to put a building there.
“If you want to be a competitive community, you have to start hoarding mental capital,” Gates said. “The more that is in the bank, the better you can recruit. Twenty-five to 30 years from now, that is what it is going to take to survive.”
As Conway adapts to its more progressive path, it will continue to encounter tensions along its town-vs.-gown, rural-vs.-urban divides. One manifestation of these difficulties occurred last June, when a Greenbrier farmer dumped a load of cow manure in the path of a gay pride parade in Conway.
However, the trends seem to favor tolerance there. For example, the Conway City Council refused to consider a resolution that proposed to ban the parade. And despite Conway’s image as a “white-flight” community, one city council member, Sheila Whitmore, is African-American, a reminder that 12 percent of the city’s population shares that racial background, the same proportion as the rest of the nation.
It may be that Conway can become a hip, high-tech, pseudo-urban college town simply because it wants to. Without a dramatic event or a dominant corporate presence fueling its growth, the city adopted a philosophical vision for its economic development and is systematically realizing it. If Conway is successful, its story will be a testimony to the effectiveness of urban planning, focused leadership, and civic cooperation, which could serve as a model for other Arkansas cities in the future.