Melissa Dunbar-Gates

That's what more than a dozen downtown business owners, who are all female, told me about owning a business downtown. I wanted to know why they all do what they do, especially in the downtown area, and those were the answers I got.

Most downtown businesses used to be owned by men but are now mostly owned by women. I was surprised many of the ladies opened businesses because a family member once had a downtown store. They were simply going back to family roots, or carrying on tradition.

For example, Something Blue owner Karan Kendall says, "My grandmother had a store downtown when I was growing up and that's what started itâ¦I think I just had it in me." Kendall's grandmother used to own a cosmetic store and gift shop.

Fletcher Smith's has been in the family since the early 1900's. Owner and veteran downtown businesswoman Sherry Smith says, "I leave my house every morning and I come home. I know everyone here. I go down the street and speak to everybodyâ¦and everyone knows my name. It's just a wonderful experience."

I sat down with 18 business owners in a room full of loud laughter and great conversation, with questions in hand.

Over the years, how have you watched women business owners take over downtown?

Smith In 1991, when I came downtown there were no women. Since then we have virtually taken over and the results are obvious. Storefronts have been updated, selections of merchandise have broadened, the downtown has come back to life.

Smyers Twenty years ago, men seemed to dominate DT, but slowly, as the business climate changed, women started opening businesses or taking a more prominate role if a couple owned the business.

Wilkinson Rose Women have been released from the home and are in the professional world in many aspects.

What's the best thing about owning a downtown business?

Strack It's nice when we bring people to town and they are so amazed about what all we have to offer in a downtown setting.

Starr You get to meet a lot of interesting people.

Bass Gaiser Easy directions from the interstate.

Arnold Excitement is in the air!

Strain-Dayer It's part of our family history.

Glover With so many additional retail shops and new restaurants it makes it one stop shopping.

Gullic Keeps us connected with our community.

What kind of demand do you see for your niche product in downtown?

Strain-Dayer A LOT! We specialize in high school senior portraits. They love all the funky downtown looks we have to offer. Plus we have downtown Conway's true secret garden right behind the studio. People LOVE it!

Arnold The demand has been greater now that I'm in a store front. With Conway's growth the demand will increase because people love to decorate their homes.

Bass Gaiser There are only seven needlework stores in the entire state! Downtown is an excellent area for my shop due to the ease of directions from the interstate.

Starr I see the demand growing as everyone is becoming more health conscious. Also with the increase in gas prices people are staying closer to home and getting more involved in running, walking, and activities they can do as a family.

Strack We offer quick delivery of product needed, especially in last minute needs as often not everything goes as planned in a wedding/party.
You could have put your business anywhere; why downtown?

Henry We want to be a part of the impact downtown makes on our community.

Kendall Downtown is supposed to be the heart of the city, so that is where I felt I belonged.

Glover With location being key, our choice was downtown.

Gullic We chose downtown before the redevelopment when everybody questioned our decision. Look at us now!!
What advice would you give someone wanting to open a downtown business?

Henry Support and work with other competitors.

Gullic Really consider family, time, goals, and expectations; everything takes a lot of time but is SO MUCH fun!

Kendall Go for it! It's a lot of work but worth every minute.

Henry Find your niche or specialty service. Support and work with competitors.

Glover We would for sure advise them to (open a business). It has been a wonderful experience thus far and we feel so welcomed downtown.
How have women changed downtown?

Wilkinson Rose Filled up the store fronts and made it more appealing to shoppers. They have filled the niche for women's fashion needs.
Smith Creativity, Creativity, Creativity! We've gone from tired and boring to alive and fun. We bring our friends. We shop, we visit, we laugh, and we share everything.

Smyers The businesses have a fresh trendy look. The merchandise is fun and upbeat. This draws women, who are usually the shopper in the family, to shop our DT.

What do you see in the future for you and your business?

Arnold GROWTH! We are always trying new things, make new things.

Strack Our business has grown since the beginning. We are hoping to continue this fast growth in offering holiday party planning and any home party, not just weddings. Strain-Dayer Growth and lots of fun! The direction downtown is heading and it's changing at such a rapid pace that, for us, the new clients it brings is almost overwhelming.

Kendall A lifetime in the paper business. I would like to expand on current inventory and continue to provide personalized customer service.

Wilkinson Rose Growth! We believe in offering items that are not offered by big box stores. Over the years (40 years; our anniversary in 2008) we know our customers' wants and needs and go by that.
Your store is unique. What challenges or opportunities does that bring?

Starr It brings more opportunities because it is unique. Customers come specifically for your product and especially for the personalized customer service.

Bass Gaiser Challenges: getting the word out about the shop since there are so few in Arkansas. After four years I'm still hearing, "I had no idea you were here!"

Arnold Opportunities: All kinds! Drapery service is something you don't see in most downtown areas. With a store front, people walking by come in and ask questions. Challenges: not enough time.

Regardless of the challenges they may face it appears to be unanimous; owning a business in downtown Conway is an opportunity. It's an opportunity now mostly owned by women, women who are familiar with home, family, and deep generational ties.

Natalie Wilkinson Rose, the granddaughter of long time business owner Jean Wilkinson Spain has worked at the store since she was 12. She plans to carry on the tradition and hopes to stay at the store as long as her grandmother has, 40 years. Rose says, "You want to see the store doing good because your name is out on the billboard."

Brandy Strain-Dayer, who co-owns Strain Photography with her sister, took the business over from their father. Strain-Dayer talks about how women have changed downtown. She says, "In the last three years, it's amazing what we see out front door, how much it's changed."