Argenta Plaza is an enduring testament to North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith’s willingness to swing for the fences. All artist’s renderings aside, the ambitious project, with its fountains, audio-visual elements and performance space is hard for many people to imagine, given its location is currently little more than a flat patch of gravel in the city’s historic district.
But the audacious plan came into crystal clear focus Monday when Little Rock technology firm First Orion Company publicly announced it was bringing 200 employees and a 60,000-square-foot sparkling new headquarters building to anchor the development.
“What [First Orion is] doing, I think, is backing up our vision all along of making our downtown not just an entertainment district, but now it becomes a business district,” said Smith. “I think this is the first of many businesses that are going to choose to locate downtown because of the amenities that we have and the atmosphere and the vision that we’ve had in revitalizing our downtown.”
“What we’ve been trying to do for a number of years is here. We’re really excited about this being the beginning of many new opportunities as far as the business district is concerned.”
Smith said the deal came together as both he and First Orion CEO Charles Morgan started to take notice of what the other was doing and came to the conclusion that theirs was a mutually good fit. The fact that the upstart Argenta lured such a company from their current digs in the River Market, one of the most iconic neighborhoods in Little Rock, was icing on the cake.
“There’s no secrets in central Arkansas,” Smith said. “Mr. Morgan was following our successes and we got together one day and I gave him the tour and showed him what I saw as the future of our downtown. He agreed with me.”
“As I toured his facility and saw some of his employees, they’re all young and excited, I said this has got to be where they would love to come to work every day. So we were able to put a deal together pretty quickly.”
The press conference was the capstone on a big year for the city that included the announcement of a $50 million development that will bring a hotel, office space and apartments to the riverfront and the completion of $260 million in improvements by the North Little Rock School District.
“I think it’s very obvious to employers today that to get the educated and employable you have to have the amenities and the atmosphere that they like to have when they work,” Smith said. “We have slowly put that package together.”
With a little luck, the plaza will be completed by Christmas 2018, although Smith admitted the concurrent First Orion construction might push that into 2019. In the meantime, the mayor has other ambitious projects to attend to in the coming year.
“We are going to start work on a new police and courts building which will be about $20 million. We’re almost there to announce a location on where we’re going to build it; hopefully we’ll break ground on that by this time next year,” he said. “I’m anticipating that we’re going to build at least two new fire stations and renovate the other eight. We’re also going to spend about $2.5 million on streets and drainage every year for the next five years.”
“That is a plateful, absolutely. We’re so busy it’s unbelievable.”