Why should the city invest so much in downtown when it’s such a small geographic part of the overall retail and commercial economic "engine?"

According to Mayor Tab Townsell, there are several reasons.

"A downtown is almost like the community’s living room," Townsell said. "It’s where you go and see people and socialize; it’s our communal space, the historic nerve center of the old city and with the revitalization, what it’s becoming again. That’s where we have our parade, our Christmas tree. It is where our community gathers. It’s also a critical litmus test for the health of a community and its pride in itself for economic development purposes, and I can say that it was very impressive to that first group of Project Sigma execs who turned out to be Hewlett-Packard when they first visited Conway."

Wes Craiglow, the city’s deputy director of development, said that his department is working to steer downtown development into continued mixed use and greater density. In a generation or two, he said, "downtown is going to be a true economic engine for the city."

"When you increase your per-square-acre density, you increase job creation and property and sales tax, and it’s also good for small businesses and entrepreneurs because space is priced very competitively. All in all, we’re pushing for a downtown that’s going to generate more jobs and raise our tax base without the need to increasing tax rates."

Craiglow, along with other city planners and the city’s economic development organizations, are working on the Markham Street Corridor project, which is planned to turn the two dozen blocks between downtown and Hendrix College into a mixed-use development "that will be very complementary to downtown."

If the Markham Street Corridor project and other ongoing efforts continue apace, Craiglow said that we can hope for a downtown that will one day be "a significant regional draw" on the order of Fayetteville’s Dickson Street or Little Rock’s River Market district.

Two Front Street entrepreneurs are on-board with this plan. Kings, a bar and concert venue on Front Street, marked the end of its second year of business this month.

Marcus Bobbitt and Dustin Botsford, co-owners of Kings, were both in their mid-20s when they decided to start a business downtown. Bobbitt said that he and Botsford "were driving to a different college town every day, five days a week" selling textbooks, and learned that "cities that have entertainment districts or thriving downtowns" did better overall. They came up with a business plan and eventually found an investor to help them get their foothold in Conway’s downtown.

"We’re really the first business in downtown that’s what I’d consider first and foremost a bar, someplace that focuses on other things besides food, and sometimes we’ve felt like we’re on an island. But it’s not about the first two years or the first five years; it’s about what Conway’s going to be in 10 years. Our goal is to have what Fayetteville has with Dickson Street in Conway on Front Street. I’m very confident that in the next few years we’ll be able to open another new location downtown."

(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by email at joe.lamb@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1277.)