A crowd of 200 folks gathered at breakfast on Thursday morning for the opening event of the Business Expo to hear Brad Lacy recount how the area has experienced a "Decade of Growth."

Lacy is president and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, sponsors of the Business Expo and Taste of Conway.

Population has grown 37 percent to 58,908 in 10 years, and, Lacy said, if it weren’t so expensive to challenge the report of the U.S. Census, Conway might find that it is, in fact, now home to 60,000 residents.

In 2000, Conway had 1,766 businesses. In 10 years, that number has grown to 2,700, a 53 percent increase.

The number of jobs grew from 33,601 in Faulkner County in 2000 with 7,400 of those in manufacturing.

"We’ve had an aggressive plan to keep jobs," Lacy said, and now there are 40,129 employed with only 3,000 in manufacturing, an 11,000 job increase or 19 percent.

As an aside, he said that 65-70 percent of those working in Faulkner County also live here. 

"This is a strength for us," Lacy said. "In Saline and Lonoke counties, for instance, those numbers are reversed with most of their population working someplace else."

In 2000, 21 percent of the jobs were in manufacturing; only 8 percent in 2010. The number of those working in construction, business and professional jobs stayed about the same, but there have been increases in health care and education.

It’s difficult to measure the impact of Fayetteville Shale on professions, he said, because they stretch across many categories.

One way that impact can be measured, however, is the rise in average weekly salaries.

That category has risen 40 percent, from $515 per week in 2000 to an average of $720 in 2010.

Payroll grew 54 percent from $895 million to $1.4 billion.

That is reflected in spending power as well with retail sales rising from $718 million to $1.2 billion, a 61 percent gain.

"We’ve become a regional destination for shopping as we capture more of our own money and as shoppers coming from the northern part of the state are funneled into our shopping areas.

"So much of the city’s revenue comes from sales tax," Lacy said. "This allows the city to do more for the community."

What’s ahead for the next 10 years?

Lacy presented opportunities on the horizon including

• The widening of I-40 to six lanes from Highway 65 through Conway to I-430. "This will encourage more people to use the Interstate and our five full-service interchanges. 

• Six lanes will be more attractive for those who now commute but would rather live in Conway because of excellent public schools.

"We have safe schools where students perform higher. Most people don’t understand what a Benchmark is, but most do know what a National Merit Scholar is. We have many," he said.

• Development of the new Conway Airport will be important for safety and economic development, but even more important will be the opportunity to redevelop the 200 acres in the heart of the community where the airport exists.

"Will this redevelopment be done really well, or will it be unplanned?" Lacy said.

• Growth in Southern Conway will be assured as it’s realized that from the new southern-most Gold Creek Interchange it will be less than 20 miles to West Little Rock.

• Manufacturing growth will be seen not only in existing Conway industries but also in surrounding communities, such as Vilonia. "We’ll have renewed efforts to help our neighbors develop, as 500 new jobs in Vilonia will be the same as if they were in Conway."

• Natural gas will continue to be a huge factor. "Our economy would be very different without the Fayetteville Shale. Because of its importance, you will see our Chamber oppose any increase in the severance tax. It’s easier than you think for a company to pick up its rigs and drill someplace else. ...Natural gas will create generational wealth our state has never had. While some will say it’s ‘not in my backyard,’ the growth of the industry will be to their benefit."

• Retail growth continues to be important. "Every purchase we make in Conway will go toward another police officer, more playground equipment for our parks,"

The next decade, Lacy said, will be about quality, continuing to demand quality at all levels, making Conway a place where people choose to invest, a desirable place to live and do business.

"Being cheapest is not what drives decisions," Lacy said. 

He announced that Crafton-Tull has, for free, prepared landscape and architectural drawings of how the six-lane I-40 corridor through Conway should appear.

"It can be the location for more high-end retail, lodging and housing if we do the right thing," Lacy said.

Plans will be presented to the City Council for consideration.

"Making this happen will be a sign that we are, indeed, someplace special."

The breakfast was sponsored by Bank of the Ozarks. Tom Nelson, the bank’s president, said "In this economy, we are ready to help, ready to do business."

(Staff writer Becky Harris can be reached at becky.harris@thecabin.net and 505-1234.)