Chuck Haralson and Ken Smith were inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame during the 43rd annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism
Maybe you don’t think so. Maybe you’ve driven down North Little Rock’s Main Street lately and noticed how many storefronts are still as empty as they’ve ever been.
Maybe if you went exploring, you turned down Sixth Street, still heavy with plywood-covered windows and sagging porch roofs, instead of Fifth or Willow or Orange, where renovation is both visible and, with one or two exceptions, comprehensive. Maybe you heard about that embarrassing incident with the drug store and the city development agency, and took that as confirmation that the folks over there just don’t have their stuff together.
Well, that’s OK. To live in North Little Rock, especially downtown, is to make peace with the fact that some folks on the other side of the river will never get it.
“I felt that way until I put the business over here,” said photographer Larry Pennington, who set up his studio on Main Street five years ago. “I realized it was totally different than what I thought it was.”
What it is, is an old-school neighborhood — front porches, sidewalks and all — that’s so clearly bounded by railroad tracks, Interstate 30 and the Arkansas River that it feels like its own small town, but is so close to Little Rock’s urban heart that it shares the same cultural beat. The neighborhood is now known as Argenta, from North Little Rock’s original name. (Dogtown? That’s the unflattering label hung on the city decades ago by snooty Little Rock neighbors who may soon see reason to envy their across-the-river little sister. It was buried ceremonially, if not actually, in a civic ceremony that produced the City Hall marker.)
Argenta claims to be one of the first integrated neighborhoods in the state, and the non-profit organization responsible for rehabbing almost 100 of Argenta’s long-neglected houses followed a course that maximizes its chances of staying that way, both racially and economically, even as gentrification drives up home prices.
And it’s the apple of the eye of Mayor Pat Hays, a smart politician who’s clearly open to out-of-the-box ideas and who’s fostered a culture of accessibility and responsiveness at City Hall. He’s spearheaded the big-ticket projects like the submarine and the new Arkansas Travelers ballpark, which went from proposal to reality at a speed all but unimaginable on the south side of the river.
Argenta hit rock bottom about the same time that Hays moved into the mayor’s office in City Hall. This was the early 1990s, decades after Main Street was hamstrung by McCain Mall and 15 years after the federal government’s Urban Renewal program cut a swath of destruction — razing old buildings to clear the way for new — between the riverbank and East Broadway.
Fortunately, the program ran out of money before it could renew much farther north, but the damage had been done: Many longtime homeowners had already sold out, their houses converted to rentals that decayed as the years went by. Crime went up, gangs got a toehold, and eventually few people remained in Argenta who could afford to live elsewhere.
The low point came in 1991, when two men were murdered — on the same night, in the same week or within a couple of months of each other, depending on who you ask.
“People were afraid to go out of their doors,” Mayor Hays said. “They let government know in no uncertain terms that that was not acceptable.”
The rebirth began with a kind of human alchemy: a single gathering — homeowners, renters, landlords, members of the First Presbyterian Church on Fourth Street — that morphed into three groups, each of which tackled a separate, but entwined, thread of the problem.
The Argenta Community Development Corporation almost singlehandedly transformed the residential areas of the neighborhood, as Main Street Argenta tackled economic development. What’s now called the Argenta Neighborhood Association continued as the representative of residents. Meanwhile, the city focused its sights on riverfront development.
“All of these things have come together in the last 10 years, and really focused in the last five years,” said Scott Miller, current president of the Argenta Neighborhood Association and a Fifth Street resident since 2002.
The first piece of the puzzle was the residential revitalization. A non-profit corporation using public funding was the only way to accomplish it, said Rosemary Hamel, owner of an apartment building in Argenta since 1984 and the only executive director the Community Development Corporation has had.
Most of the funding for the rehab projects has come through federal and state grants, with some fund-raising on the side and a steady commitment of city funds as well. The total investment over a decade topped $12 million.
“At the time we did this, we could not have done it by going to the bank and borrowing money for market-rate housing,” Hamel said.
The city stepped up in other ways as well: a move to community policing put more cops on Argenta’s streets and a substation on Main Street. An effort called Operation Focus targeted city neighborhoods for two weeks at a time, blanketing each one with every available city service — cleaning up trash, filling potholes, replacing streetlights, clearing alleys, erasing graffiti.
For Hamel and the CDC, the undeniable mark of success comes in the form of a dilapidated house on Willow Street that recently sold for $68,000 — far too high a price for the CDC to think about buying. It’s a sign that market forces have taken over, Hamel said, and that Argenta’s become desirable. The CDC has now moved its efforts north, to the neighborhood on the other side of the railroad tracks that split North Little Rock at Ninth Street.
Property values have shot up in the last few years, to the point that it’s not unusual for renters who’d like to buy in the neighborhood to find themselves priced out of it.
“They’re popping over $100,000 left and right if they’re renovated,” said architect Gary Clements, who bought his then-condemned house on Fifth Street for $5,500 in the early 1990s. “If they’re not renovated, they’re triple what they were eight years ago.”
That’s not welcome news to Margo Tenner, who owns a small deli and market on Willow Street at the entrance to Melrose Circle, where she’s lived for more than 20 years.
Not that she isn’t thankful for what the CDC’s done to improve the neighborhood, and for the welcome drop in crime and gang activity. But she doesn’t like the influx of private buyers who’ve driven up the cost of homes.
“How’s that helping low- to moderate-income people?” she asked.
And a second residential transformation is on the way. Two large developments near the river — one of luxury apartments, the other of high-end condominiums — promise to bring in a sizable influx of people with a lot more disposable income.
Meanwhile, Main Street Argenta began tackling economic development. Kandy Jones, who’s since moved to the neighborhood and organizes the yearly community garage sale, hired on as the first executive director in 1994; the first high-profile project, Alltel Arena, opened on the north side of the river five years later.
Until this year, there hadn’t been much evidence that anything else would follow, other than Hays’ next pet project, the retired submarine Razorback. Scoffing was common, especially on the south side of the river.
But a steady, if slow, stream of small-business owners like Pennington and attorneys Bob Hardin and David Grace moved into the neighborhood, attracted by the relative bargains, the historic architecture and the small-town feel. A fine restaurant and an instantly popular pub opened on Main Street. But large-scale development took much longer to materialize.
Current Main Street Argenta Director Michael Drake has made a priority of simply getting people into downtown to see what’s available. Last year’s city centennial party made major progress, Drake said.
“There were places for people to go and see downtown, and that stirred their imagination,” he said. “Right after that, we saw real estate sales take a tick up.”
As for the scoffing, Drake said no single project — Alltel Arena, the trolley, the submarine — was ever meant to be the silver bullet that would singlehandedly reverse Argenta’s commercial fortunes.
“The whole idea of destinations having [economic] spillover is true in an incremental sense, but not in a direct sense,” he said. “That’s why the mayor didn’t quit when Alltel Arena came.”
Still, it’s a common refrain among newer arrivals on Main Street that the trolley helped cement their decision. And city officials say that the prospect of a baseball stadium on the riverfront has brought to the table large-scale developers with plans for major residential and multi-use projects — and, more importantly, the money to carry them out.
There’s the Enclave at the Riverfront, an apartment complex now in construction just south of Alltel Arena. And John Gaudin, a wealth management consultant who’s bought close to a dozen commercial properties in Argenta since 2003, has plans for both small-scale renovations and a major mixed-use project. (See sidebar.)
The latest announcement, though, is perhaps the most interesting. A group of local developers — led by North Little Rock lawyer Sam Hilburn, who’s worked in Argenta for more than 30 years — want to build a $40 million marina/condo/retail project called Marinas North on the river just west of the Broadway Bridge — next door to the future ballpark.
The land, which the city owned until recently, was contaminated by a long-gone factory, and a private developer would most likely not want to take on the liability that would fall on whoever took on the task of cleaning it up, Drake said. Enter Main Street Argenta, which Drake calls “the developer of last resort.” The agency plans to use grant money to clean up the land — Drake hopes within a year — and then sell it to the Marinas North crew.
To hear Hilburn talk, building on the north side of the river is a no-brainer.
“If you come over here [to North Little Rock] and look back, you’ve got a skyline,” he said. “If you’re over there, you can’t see anything.”
All of Hilburn’s partners come from the south side of the river.
“I’m the only who lives over here. People who’ve been in real estate development for years — they believe in it,” he said.
Still, not everything has been a success. As grand and inspiring as the mayor’s and the CDC’s and Main Street Argenta’s vision for the neighborhood may be, it’s sometimes come up hard against the fact that in the end, much of what happens is up to individuals — commercial property owners and residents — who can choose to go along or not.
The most public example, but not the only one, is the failure several months ago of a deal between the CDC and David Chu, owner of Argenta Drug. Chu, who’s as mild-mannered as they come, started working at the pharmacy — believed to be the oldest continuously operating drugstore west of the Mississippi — in 1980, and bought the business in 1986. He knows his customers by name. He delivers. His business is exactly what anyone living in an urban neighborhood would want.
But his building, which includes several other now-empty storefronts, is also badly in need of renovating. The CDC’s Hamel was confident enough that she’d reached an agreement with Chu to buy the building (and lease Chu’s drugstore space back to him) that renovations had already started, and other tenants had moved out, when Chu backed out, saying he couldn’t reach an agreement on lease terms with the CDC.
He is planning to get a loan to do some renovations on the ground-level retail space. But turning the upstairs into loft apartments is just too expensive, he said.
Cornerstone Deli and Pub, which quickly became the neighborhood’s prime gathering spot when it opened on Main Street in 2003, closed several months ago after a dispute among its original partners.
But this month should see the return of Cornerstone — right next door, in the old Magic 105 building, which brothers Chris and Mike Kent bought in 2004. And their former partner, Louis France, is opening a restaurant in the original Cornerstone space.
And as with the CDC’s residential renovations, the commercial revitalization of Main Street carries with it the difficulty of integrating the newer vision with the older reality.
“For downtown, one of the biggest obstacles has been that it’s hard for a lot of people to change the way they do business,” said Chris Kent, who’s also president of the Main Street Argenta board. “It’s hard for them to see how they can change, to fit in more with the vision of an entertainment district.”
Wayne Hogan, owner of Galaxy Office Furniture, a huge storefront just down the block, won’t fail for lack of trying. Hogan’s store, once a drab, straightforward purveyor of used office furnishings, is now the most visible business on Main Street. He’s added funky, colorful home furniture and other eye-catching merchandise that he displays both in his giant front windows and on the sidewalk in front of the store. The latest addition is an in-store coffee shop.
The city’s role in all this — most visibly through Hays, but also through a friendly City Council and helpful department heads — has been part visionary, part cheerleader, part deal-maker, and part protector.
Even before Hays, the city council had its eye on downtown, said Martin Gipson, a council member from Park Hill since 1983, when the council passed an ordinance to prevent commercial development from encroaching any further into Argenta’s residential district.
More recently, Hays and the council members have held fast to their vision for downtown in dealing with would-be purchasers of city-owned land.
Little Rock attorney Sam Perroni, who decided to build himself a new office on Main Street after seeing his friend Bob Hardin’s rehab project, initially just wanted to build a one-story office and leave it at that. But the city, which owned the land at Main and Sixth that he wanted to buy, had other ideas.
“It was very clear to me originally that if they were going to consider selling this land, I had to consider a retail aspect — they wanted that,” Perroni said. They also wanted residential. So Perroni expanded his plans into a three-story retail/office/condominium project with public garden areas on either side. In return, the city will build a parking lot in the back. From the street, Perroni said, the building will look like its century-old neighbors.
The one thing everyone in Argenta seems to share is the belief that bigger and better things are just around the corner — and, most importantly, that they are inevitable. There’s no shortage of people willing to bet their money on it, either.
“I think it’s on the cusp of something very exciting,” Perroni said. “In the next two to five years people are going to see a total transformation.
“I’m not betting the ranch on it, but I’m betting enough.”