The past ten years have been transformative for much of Conway, and nowhere more than in downtown.
The story of downtown’s revitalization might be said to have started in 2001 with the formation of the Conway Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization created by the Action for Conway’s Tomorrow group to promote, plan and maintain downtown. One of the downtown partnership’s first projects was the renovation of Front Street using federal grants.
In 2003 and 2004 the city’s decision to invest in Front Street started paying off with Mike’s Place, an ambitious restaurant that, with some difficulty, got its license to serve alcohol in 2004. Mike’s Place, most agree, was the catalyst around which today’s downtown grew.
"No matter how wonderful we think our city is, those looking in from the outside have a far less nostalgic view of our wonderful city," Mayor Tab Townsell told the Log Cabin Democrat in an Aug. 26, 2004 story about Mike’s Place getting its alcohol license. "The simple fact is for people looking to locate their business to Conway, when they are told that a city of 50,000 people with three institutions of higher learning, with the third-highest percentage of college graduates of any city in the state, with the level of incomes Conway has, with the demographics Conway has, when those people are told they cannot get an adult beverage in a restaurant in Conway, they are simply stunned."
In this same story are comments from the opposition saying that the lack of alcohol hadn’t hindered growth in the decades prior and that Mike’s Place would the first "domino" that would "open up the door for every restaurant in town" to get its private club license.
This prediction panned out. Nearly 10 years later, there are five downtown restaurants serving alcohol and it’s hard to count the number of restaurants in town with alcohol licenses.
Townsell said on Friday that "going damp" has had "a profound effect not only economically, but also the economics of psychology, too."
The city’s tax on alcohol brings about $400,000 into the general fund annually, he said, but more importantly "for a business looking to come into Conway, especially the national [restaurant] chains, it is much easier to contemplate a business model that includes alcohol ... and I think we’re taken much more seriously now in Little Rock circles."
But downtown’s evolution into a place to get a good meal and a drink is only part of the story of its revitalization. In 2007 EM Jeans built its flagship store downtown — the first large new construction project there in recent memory.
Larry Rogers, who co-owns EM Jeans with his wife, Liz Snipan, said that his decision to make the move from a strip mall to downtown is vindicated when out-of-town customers tell him how nice it is "to come in here, shop, eat, walk around, have a drink and feel safer here than in Little Rock."
He also said that younger customers who "might have been raised in mega malls" are seeking out more authentic downtown experiences.
"It’s a cycle," he said. "Every 25 or 30 years the focus goes back to downtowns."
Around the time that EM Jeans was opening its new building, the $2.5 million renovation of the Halter Building downtown was being completed. The grand re-opening started with Michelangelo’s, which shared ownership with Mike’s Place, on the bottom floor and offices on the second and third. Now Table Mesa Bistro has taken Michelangelo’s place and the offices are mostly occupied and busy.
In 2008 came the renovation of the Steel Chevrolet building on Main Street, where Old Chicago pizza and J.J.’s Grill are now, and in 2011 two young entrepreneurs renovated the old Smith Ford dealership on Front Street and opened Kings, a bar and concert venue, and The Brick Room, an events center.
A current project is turning the scrap metal salvage yard on Spencer Street into a park and stormwater retention pond. It’s hoped that catching rainwater there will make downtown flooding — a pain for generations — something that only used to happen downtown.
Jamie Gates, who now works with the Conway Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corp., had his first job in Conway in 2001 as the first director of the newly formed downtown partnership.
"I think it’s pretty universally accepted that downtown today is dramatically better than downtown 10 years ago," Gates said, "and people need to know that it didn’t have to be. There are other towns around America that chose to focus on other things or chose to not pursue improving their downtown. We’re a small enough place to still have a great deal of control over how well our city develops. That’s something for every resident to be proud of. It’s not a foregone conclusion that downtowns just improve over time. Some of them go the other way.
"So often you see cities everywhere go through grand planning processes and set really big ideas for things, and for a number of reasons they don’t come together. It’s encouraging when it does."
In 2007 a series of Conway travel posters were commissioned. One shows a woman in a black dress holding a glass of wine and looking onto a nighttime Front Street scene.
"That’s kind of a futuristic scene," Mayor Tab Townsell said in a conversation at the time, meaning that the day when downtown Conway truly stayed open late as an entertainment destination was not yet upon us. The lady in the black dress doesn’t look so futuristic today.
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1277.)