A series of recent property acquisitions on Main Street in downtown Little Rock can be traced to financier Warren Stephens, and sources close to the transactions confirm that they are part of a $100 million strategy to transform the neighborhood.
An announcement on specifics is not imminent. But the broad vision is said to include new theaters, other arts and entertainment venues, and new housing.
Stephens has been quietly assembling real estate on Main Street through a variety of anonymous limited liability corporations (LLCs) since 2000, but many of the purchases have taken place in the last several months. Moses Tucker Real Estate, headed by Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker, has been involved in this process.
Presented with an accumulation of evidence in the public record (see sidebar), one person familiar with the project said that Stephens is prepared to make a $100 million investment to create a theater and arts district that would have as its core a new home for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. This person, who did not want to be identified, said discussions were ongoing with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock about allowing the Theatre Arts and Dance Department to relocate to the current Rep complex, which is on Main between Sixth and Seventh Streets.
Another focal point of development is the Center, an old movie house on Main Street between Fourth Street and Capitol Avenue that Stephens has begun renovating for use as a combination restaurant and theater. The renovation halted some months back amid reports that Stephens did not want to move forward until the future of an emergency homeless shelter across the street was resolved. The shelter, Our House, is now raising money to build a new facility on Roosevelt Road, and Stephens is said to be interested in buying its current facility if it moves by next June.
A second well-placed source says that Stephens' concept currently includes redesigning the stretch of Main Street from its beginning at Markham to Sixth Street. Actual plans for individual properties have yet to be drawn, but the general approach will be to convert the existing vacant storefronts and buildings into mixed-use facilities involving some combination of residences, retail space and parking.
Stephens recently made headlines with another major property acquisition near downtown: a prime tract of undeveloped land in North Little Rock with a commanding view of the Little Rock skyline. There are indications that Stephens is willing to contribute the land as the site for a new stadium for the Arkansas Travelers baseball team. While not directly related to the Main Street project, the ballpark would be a big spectator draw nearly 70 nights a year, and it dovetails with efforts to transform the urban core into a vibrant place to live, work, and visit.
Called for comment about the Main Street plans, Stephens did not dispute the basic facts of his property acquisitions as described by the Times. But he was not forthcoming about his intentions. Stephens issued the following statement through his spokesman Frank Thomas:
"A lot of ideas, many with potential, have been proposed regarding the future of Main Street. However, there are no definite plans at this time for any of the properties I have acquired. I am supportive of downtown and want it to be successful."
Moses Tucker would not comment.
Bob Hupp, the producing artistic director for the Rep, said that he has visited with Stephens about how the Rep could affect the evolution of Main Street, but he emphasized that nothing has been decided.
"We have talked about how the Arkansas Rep can contribute to the ongoing conversations about how to revitalize Main Street," Hupp confirmed. "But it would be premature to say that we have gone down any other road than discussing our options."
Nevertheless, Hupp said that the Rep is applying for a multi-million-dollar grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation to construct a new theater. The "plan in place," according to Hupp, is to locate the new building on the west side of Main Street between Second and Third Streets on a parking lot owned by Stephens, although Hupp maintains that Stephens has made no commitment to cede the property for that purpose.
The chairman of the Rep's board of directors is David Knight, the general counsel for Stephens, Inc., the investment firm that Warren Stephens heads and which makes its home in the Stephens building at 111 Center Street, two blocks west of Main. Knight said that the Stephens family initially agreed to donate the Main Street site when the Rep started preparing its Reynolds Foundation grant application. A New York architectural firm designed a $21 million theater, according to Knight, and those plans still exist. However, the Reynolds Foundation recently restricted the parameters of its giving, and requests are limited to $15 million.
"We anticipate that [the Stephens family] will still agree to donate the property," Knight said. "But everything is in a very preliminary stage, and a final agreement has not been made."
Knight also mentioned that Stephens has talked about offering other Main Street locations for the new Rep home, but he declined to say which ones. And while he would not speculate on whether Stephens would make up the $6 million difference between the cost of the new Rep theatre and the Reynolds Foundation grant ceiling, he said that the Stephens family has had a "long-term connection to the Rep," and that they are "very interested in helping the Rep and other arts groups around town."
As for the possibility of the UALR Theatre Arts and Dance Department moving to the current Rep facility after a new complex is built, the outgoing department chair, Victor Ellsworth, says he has not heard anything about it. Hupp, who will take Ellsworth's place as acting department chair this month, also said he is not aware of any progress toward that end.
One issue affecting the future of Main Street is the presence of Our House, a homeless shelter at 408 Main that is directly across the street from the Stephens-owned Center. Renovation of the Center and adjoining buildings began in 2002 but abruptly stopped a few months later. Stephens is on the record as saying that the homeless shelter is an obstacle to redevelopment.
The unnamed source who is aware of the overall Main Street development plans says that Stephens has agreed to help raise money for a new Our House facility outside of downtown.
Barry McDaniel, chairman of the Our House board of directors, said that Our House is engaged in a $1.4 million capital campaign to construct a new emergency shelter near the old Veterans Hospital on Roosevelt Road where Our House already operates a center for people learning job skills. While he insists that there is no connection, formal or otherwise, with Stephens' ambitions for Main Street, he says the fund-raising effort is already halfway toward its goal, and that the Downtown Partnership has been steering donors in his direction. The president of the Downtown Partnership is Rett Tucker, who has been involved in the Stephens-related property acquisitions on Main Street; the vice president of the Downtown Partnership is Warren Simpson, the executive vice president and manager of Stephens Capital Management.
"I never heard from them, I had no direct contact with them, and they never said we need you out of there," McDaniel said of Stephens and his associates.
However, he mentioned that a lot of people are getting involved behind the scenes, and if the move away from Main Street is successful, he looks forward to giving credit to those who helped.
Some assembly required
Like the rebirth of the River Market district (which was conceived by Jimmy Moses), the plan for Main Street involves civic motivations as well as profit-driven ones. Stephens and his associates believe that a vibrant downtown would improve Little Rock's image, foster economic growth and epitomize responsible development by preserving historic buildings and reducing sprawl.
Nevertheless, they remain reluctant to discuss their intentions publicly, and they have made an effort to hide their involvement in recent property purchases. According to one person who is working with Stephens on the Main Street project, the secretiveness is due to concern among the partners that some landowners could demand high prices or decide not to sell if they know the prominent financier is behind the effort. The secret appears to be getting out, however.
At least some of the current Main Street property owners are aware of Stephens's idea for the area. Jim Penick, a local attorney who represents Penzel Heirs, LLC, immediately mentioned the Stephens name when asked to comment about the building that Penzel heirs owns at 616 Main Street.
"What Stephens will do between Third and Eighth Streets will have a big impact, and we are excited about what could happen," Penick said.
He added that while he was not privy to the exact plans, he heard that a theater or arts district might be in the works.
The Penzel family has held the building for several decades, but only in 2002 did they form the LLC and transfer ownership to it. Penick mentioned that Moses Tucker is the selling agent for the property, and he said the Penzels are "open to anything" in terms of potential buyers and development ideas, but the Stephens prospect is foremost at the moment.
Like the Penzel property, many of the buildings on Main Street have been sitting vacant for years, and their owners do not appear to be actively trying to develop them. Other landlords did not return repeated calls for comment, including Robert Francis of LPP, LLC; Tommy Lasiter of the Doyle Rogers Group; and Johnny Mitchum of Quapaw Restoration Associates.
Bob East, the CEO of East-Harding general contractors who sits on the executive committee of the Downtown Partnership and who has overseen some work on the Center theater project, said that if the full range of properties is successfully assembled, some buildings may be removed to make room for parking, open space, and possibly small parks.
"The place has to work economically, so you need things like parking," East asserted. "Some of the buildings are not historically significant and need to go."
The Stephens team appears to be anticipating this dynamic. Recently, the students in the landscape architecture program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville were enlisted to submit conceptual designs of a public garden that would replace a Stephens-owned building next to the Center. The building is structurally unsound and probably would have to be leveled anyway.
Loose lips sink ships?
Everyone who talked to the Times seemed to be confident that something is going to happen on Main Street, but they were hesitant to publicly discuss the subject.
"The time will come when people are willing to talk about this," is how David Knight put it.
Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, observed, "There has been a lot of talk, and land has been purchased. Exactly what is going to happen - I don't know. But something has got to be percolating."
If Stephens is determined to follow through, it likely will take years to assemble the property, finalize designs and make the dramatic physical changes. However, the logic behind developing there will remain constant. As Jim Penick said, "Soon they will run out of buildings to develop in the River Market, and everyone will turn their attention to Main Street."
That is certainly the hope of the current property owners there, and it corresponds with the vision of city planners and downtown advocates. Warren Stephens is one of the few local figures who have the resources to make it happen, and apparently he has the inclination as well.