July/August 2015 Issue
Downtown Conway has established a Data District to attract
tech-focused firms and bring in more jobs from that industry
to ensure long-term economic success.
Downtown Conway has a nostalgic feel, inviting people to meander its streets lined with restaurants and jewelry, clothing, antique, furniture, candy and soda-pop shops — many of them family-owned and some in the same locations for generations.
But behind its old-fashioned facade are some fast-paced, high-tech, uber-modern goings-on, spurred by city leaders who intend to market the area in a way that will propel Conway’s economy forward.
In the spring, Conway became one of a handful of cities in the nation that offer the capability of gigabit internet service, powered by Conway Corporation, a big step toward attracting data-oriented businesses to the Conway Data District, an 18-block area that overlaps with civic and business retail space in the heart of downtown.
Gigabit service is available now in a seven-block area of downtown Conway and will expand with customer demand to the 18-block district, which is expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2017, said Jeff Matthews, public relations coordinator for Conway Corp.
“We’ve had a number of companies make the move. The highest-profile announcement was in February when we announced three in one day,” said Jamie Gates, senior vice president of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce.
Those three companies — Eyenalyze, Metova and Big Cloud Analytics — joined Rock-Pond Solutions, Fairmont Specialty, ABC Financial, American Management Corporation and Home BancShares, tech companies already ensconced in downtown Conway.
“There are still small pockets of vacant or underused real estate,” Gates said. “And, we’re working on the next generation of larger office space. I don’t think there is a ceiling. As the opportunities grow, so will the community’s appetite to build. We’ve got a great destination with the Meadows [Office &] Technology Park for companies [including HP, Crafton Tull, Arkansas One Call, CAT Squared and USAble Life] that want a campus-style setting. Now, with the Data District downtown, we’ve got a destination for companies that want a more urban and clustered setting.”
Laying the Groundwork
The physical technology infrastructure is but one facet of the Data District initiative, however. Connections are forming throughout the land.
“The other thing is kind of the soft infrastructure, which is a critical mass of companies that can gain something from being around each other and just having all those tech professionals working, in some cases in the same building or just blocks away from each other,” Gates said. “That’s kind of the community side of the Data District. Sometimes they’re even customers.”
Eyenalyze, for example, uses the services of Metova, which occupies the space across the hall in the nearly 100-year-old Halter Building, for its mobile app design.
Mike Rasmussen, founder and CEO of Eyenalyze, is a certified public accountant who came to Arkansas from southern California nine years ago. His company has “married accounting and code,” and collects and analyzes data that helps restaurants manage their businesses.
He was running his business out of his home before setting out to find something with “the Google look or something like Silicon Valley” and settled on the Halter Building, Conway’s first three-story building when it was built in 1917.
“There are 190 restaurants in Conway, and there are about 45 within walking distance,” Rasmussen said. “At some point they will all be our customers. Several of them already are.”
When Rasmussen needed to take his company and its services mobile, he interviewed Metova, which, at the time, was based in Franklin, Tennessee, Conway’s sister city.
“I just said I’m not going to use a developer that far away, and then I got a call over Christmas and Josh Smith [Metova chief revenue officer] says, ‘We’re moving across the hall,’” Rasmussen said. “We do all the technology on the web and the accounting on the one side, and then across the hall is Metova and they build the mobile. That’s us. And you would not know it by looking at the building. We’re nationwide, we’re working with, like Papa John’s in Costa Rica, and it’s actually pretty cool — you wouldn’t know we’re there.”
— Jamie Gates, senior vice president
of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce
Eyenalyze wasn’t the only draw for Metova, though. The app-development company’s human resources and finance offices are in Cabot, making Arkansas a natural fit. Since its inception in 2006, the company has built an impressive portfolio with clients including Flixster, eHarmony, Yelp, WebMD and Dropbox and foresaw growth beyond what the 70-or-so developers housed in Franklin could accommodate. An expansion, therefore, was in order.
“Conway had some of the same characteristics we found in Franklin — just outside a large metropolitan area, although Franklin’s downtown is much more developed, and just the progressive nature of [the University of Central Arkansas] and how adaptive they are to our needs are some of the main draws that fit the profile for what we were looking for to expand our agency,” said Smith of Metova in Conway.
A Conway address has the added benefit of cost-efficiency for Metova’s East and West Coast clients.
“It’s just the cost of living in a flyover state versus the Bay area or Boston or whatever,” he said. “It makes us competitive with those agencies in those places.”
Smith was co-founder of PrivacyStar, which, along with another tech company, Inuvo, Inc., recently announced moves from Conway to Little Rock, citing a need for more space and different amenities. Smith hired Metova to do PrivacyStar’s mobile development.
He also once worked at Acxiom, as did several other up-and-comers in the Data District, further proving how small the tech world really is.
“I guess it’s just second or third generation in, and you’re starting to see the benefits of having something like that being in place,” Smith said, “and companies are springing up as a result.”
Educating a New Workforce
The Data District concept dovetails with the governor’s computer science initiative, which aims to see computer science offered in every public high school in the state, according to J.R. Davis, spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
“I think it’s time to get our students interested in it and see what that industry has to offer, and if you ask the governor, this is an opportunity for Arkansas to lead in the field of technology,” Davis said. “We want data districts popping up all over Arkansas. This is a great start, but that’s just it — it’s a start.”
UCA held a panel discussion in April, inviting representatives from Metova, Acxiom and another startup company, Grainster, to talk about the kinds of skills they would like new graduates to have.
Still, job descriptions at some of the tech companies are nebulous.
“We’re just looking for people who are great communicators and have strong problem-solving skills and some technical aptitude,” Rasmussen said. “We believe if we can find a person like that we can train them to code and do all that.”
Rasmussen went directly to the source to fuel his company, seeking out a teaching position at UCA so he could personally prepare students to work for him. He did the same at California State University in San Bernardino.
“I’m a CPA by trade,” he said. “When I landed here, I applied at UCA and I’ve been teaching about one class a year. I interview students, and that’s how I’ve built my practice.”
This year, he’s teaching a new class, dubbed Hi Tech CPA.
“I get to handpick the students and it’s for accounting students to help them find jobs, number one, but to help them learn the skills the big firms are looking for,” he said. “Part of it is a lab, and they have to come work at Eyenalyze two to four hours a week … that’s part of the class.”
The jobs provided by companies setting up in the Data District are the kind state leaders are eager to help along, and that qualifies the companies for incentives, like the Equity Investment Incentive Program, which provides a 33.5 percent income tax credit for investors in new technology-based companies paying wages that are higher than state or county averages.
Eyenalyze was awarded tax credits in January 2014 based on $600,000 the company raised.
“The idea, especially with these tech companies or knowledge-based companies, is to give them the resources they need to allow them to launch in Arkansas,” said Scott Hardin, communications director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. “That’s where the equity investment tax credit would come in just to help them get the financing they need to get launched, and then from there a lot of the other incentives are designed to sustain them and give them the tools they need to grow here.
“Simply put, the kinds of jobs that are being created in Conway right now are the kinds of jobs that are going to move our per capita income up quickly.”
Establishing a Downtown Community
City leaders help negotiate those incentives from the state and look for real estate solutions for companies interested in locating within the Data District.
“When a company shows interest in the Data District, or Conway in general, our team promises concierge-level service,” Gates said. “Strategically, we’re looking at long-term parking solutions like a deck. We’re working on amenities like more residential development and hotel space. And, we’re also working to grow our local investor base. It’s a holistic approach to help Conway companies succeed on every front.”
The city is currently working on a downtown parking study with Crafton Tull, Gates said. While parking is plentiful now, it might become less so with the expected new businesses.
“I think Conway’s secret sauce for economic development has been ambition, creativity and cooperation,” Gates said. “Those are the same advantages we will use moving forward. Things like the parking deck will take multiple private and public partners to succeed. I think we’ve got a lot of options for sustaining adequate infrastructure for downtown. It’s a model we’ve been successful with ever since we started really focusing on downtown in 2001.”
Grainster, a tech startup that created a secure platform for farmers to negotiate the sale and purchase of grain, recently announced it would be moving into the American Management building on Oak Street, once occupied by one of its board members, Steve Strange, who sold American Management Corp. in 2008 and bought part of it back in 2013.
“He’s had a lot of success in that building,” said Cotton Rohrscheib, Grainster’s chief operating officer. “He’s had a ton of influence on us. He’s helped us really mature the company. It’s a huge building, but the interior has this exposed brick and it has this industrial tech feel to it that we wouldn’t have found anywhere else.”
Grainster has ties to Conway but was exploring locations in other states before they attended the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce annual meeting in March, where the Data District was announced in a video produced by advertising agency Eric Rob & Isaac.
“They had given me a heads up a few days before, wanting me to really pay attention to that video, and it just blew our minds. The entire crew from Grainster was there, and we saw that and we kind of knew right then that we wanted to be in Conway,” he said.
There has been no economic impact study to show how the Data District’s development might benefit Conway’s economy or the state’s.
“But I think we intuitively know that traditional economic development is changing,” Gates said. “We will continue to work more projects with smaller companies — many of whom want to locate in a place like the Data District. The jobs we’ve already seen locate in downtown are some of our fastest-growth and highest-paying companies. It’s an important part of Conway’s long-term economic growth.”
Rohrscheib is excited about the potential of Grainster and also of the Data District.
“We’re not just big talkers. It’s a huge industry, and the way people trade grain has not been touched in 124 years. We feel extremely blessed that we’re the ones this idea came through, because somebody is going to do it. We have to keep pinching ourselves that this is our baby, and we get to watch it grow,” he said.
“I’ve got friends in agriculture that are not going to be farming this year, and not because they didn’t work hard and not because they didn’t pour everything they had into their business, but because there are these outside factors that make farming not profitable anymore,” he said, “and that’s what we’re trying to take on headfirst.”
Rohrscheib said the businesses located in the Data District will work together to form a community. He specifically points to Bob’s Grill, across the street from where Grainster will be, as a gathering place for his team.
“We’ve had some of our most productive meetings over breakfast at Bob’s Grill. And then you just walk right across the street and go to work,” Rohrscheib said.
“It’s a very cool vibe. There’s a lot of synergy that’s going to happen between all the tech companies that are down there. Even between companies that will become competitors eventually there’s just a cool synergy of people working together and making each other better through their relationships, and I just love that.”