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It is not a stretch to say that John Gaudin was the prime mover, the sower of seeds that have transformed downtown North Little Rock in the past eight years. And the changes he wrought — giving the railroad town's Main Street a new identity as arts district — might have happened in Little Rock instead.
"North Little Rock was so far off my radar" when he was looking for new office space that would allow him to have a gallery along with his investment consulting business, Gaudin said, sitting at a table in his office over Cregeen's at Broadway and Main, a building he constructed to fit in with Argenta's historic buildings. "I had no idea what was here — all these cool buildings."
Gaudin, 56, a native of Lafayette, La., who moved to Arkansas in 1982, was methodical in what some might have considered madness, this goal to bring in the arts and chic housing to an old downtown whose mercantile bustle was fading. He hired an architect to "plot out, building by building" what a successful arts-based business district might look like. With investors Harold Tenenbaum and Greg Nabholz (doing business as The New Argenta Fund, The Mill LLC and other entities), he began to buy and transform buildings and lots on and off Main that are now home to the Thea Foundation, the Argenta Community Theater, Starving Artist Cafe and City Grove Townhomes; he's also bought the former Mountaire Feeds property, to one day be developed for a hotel. His fingerprints are all over the Argenta Downtown Council, a mini-chamber of commerce/city beautiful group for the neighborhood, and the Argenta Arts Foundation.
Gaudin's newest project: the North Little Rock Moon Shot project to raise educational achievement, involving the A+ School program embraced and promoted by the Thea Foundation, the federal City Year program and a new creation, Art Connection, an arts-based teen afterschool and jobs program modeled on the Artists for Humanity project in Boston. He's a believer in arts as good for the soul, good for young minds, and not bad for business, either.
Keith Jackson's earlier claim to fame was his football career. He was a tight end for the University of Oklahoma and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Jackson went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers. But since 1993, Jackson has come to be known for the non-profit organization he started in Southwest Little Rock to help at-risk teen-agers. Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids (PARK) offers a place for students who may be struggling with school or a violent environment a safe place to study and play. Jackson said students who come in with a 1.5 GPA may improve their grades — and attitude — so much that they can go to college. Today, there are 175 PARK graduates enrolled in college. Jackson said the PARK program started as a vision from God. (In a 2003 interview, when asked how he knew he was hearing God's voice, Jackson said, "Hey, I'm a football player ... it couldn't be from me.") Jackson wanted to be "more than just a football player," and was concerned about teen violence. With a current enrollment of 250 students and countless changed lives, Jackson proudly reflects on the program saying, "PARK has done as much for me as I've done for it." He's also still part of the sports world; he's a commentator for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
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