In his almost 20 years as head of Conway Development Corporation and over 10 years with the Conway Chamber of Commerce, Brad Lacy has seen the landscape of Conway grow almost beyond recognition. And more change is ahead.
Conway’s Retail Landscape
“Just the change in the retail climate here is so different than it was when I took the job, downtown is a completely different place than it was,” Lacy said. “We’ve just seen a lot of what I would consider very good, methodical growth. I would call it a quality growth really across the board. We’re seeing a resurgence in some of the old neighborhoods in the city, where they’re as healthy as the new neighborhoods and they’re as viable for someone moving here as a new home would be, and that is not something that was the case 20 years ago.”
One retail project that garnered a lot of attention was Dillard’s anchoring the Central Landing development. The project has had its share of tenant changes and slowdowns, but Lacy says Conway Development Corporation recently bought the property.
“We’re still working on a new developer who would pull that deal together. So I would not call it dead by any means,” he said.
Regardless of the state of current development, there’s definitely been a change in the last two decades.
“I think the biggest change that we’ve seen in retail is that, you know if you were to go back 20 years ago, the retail landscape of Conway looked very much like the retail landscape of Searcy or Russellville or Batesville,” he said. “So we were sort of this somewhat regional retail market. As you have seen more retail development in Target, Old Navy and Kohls coming into Conway Commons, and then now with Sam’s [in Lewis Crossing] our retail mix is very different than a lot of cities that used to be our peers.”
Lacy says that with that growth, Conway draws close to 400,000 people from the nearby area for shopping, health care, work and entertainment.
“It’s just a very different place than it used to be,” he said. “What used to be probably a 15- or 20-mile draw is now as much as a 50- or 60-mile draw with some of those services.”
As for the health care draw, Conway is now a three-hospital town to match its status as a three-college city, with the January 2018 opening of Conway Behavioral Health.
“Now not only do you have Conway Regional [Health System] and Baptist [Health Medical Center-Conway], you have Conway Behavioral Health, so there’s even more specialty offerings in the market,” Lacy said. “You see people coming here for treatment that would have passed us by 20 years ago. People passed us by for decades to go to Little Rock to shop or eat or work or seek some sort of health care and now we don’t see that as much.”
Going forward, Lacy expects more specialized care to be offered in the local health care market.
A Seven-Point Plan
Conway’s plan for the future has seven important parts: creating a startup space, building a trail system for bikers and walkers, placing public art in the roundabouts, putting up wayfinding signage, beautifying interstate exits, placing splash pads in city parks and restoring downtown’s Grand Theatre.
All seven items arise from the Conway 2025 plan, which took feedback from 1400 community members on the city’s most important needs in 2010. The plan was updated in 2015.
“We looked back through the plan and looked at things that we thought were a little bit of a push, so they wouldn’t just happen because you want them to,” Lacy said. “There’s going to have to be some thought behind them and resources. But then when you weave them all together and you think about what happens if we get all seven of these done, I think anybody would come to the conclusion that Conway suddenly becomes a very different place.”
None of the projects, which were announced in 2017, are finished, but they’re all in the works. Conway Corporation plans to fund the Arnold Innovation Center, the startup space that will be located in downtown, in honor of its former CEO, Richie Arnold. That space will be the new home for the Conductor, an entrepreneurship incubator currently housed in Donaghey Hall on the University of Central Arkansas campus. Lacy said an announcement about the innovation center’s location is upcoming.
“We like to think of it as this continuum of space that if you were that entrepreneur and you’re starting out and all you need is a desk, then you have some coworking space,” Lacy said.
As the company grows, the innovation center can serve different purposes to match that growth, whether those needs involve a small office or an encouraging community.
“It’s not just about sort of the physical space or the physical environment,” he said. “It’s also about creating the other environment for those entrepreneurs where they’re going to interact with each other on best practices. There will be mentoring opportunities for them with other people in the community and so it becomes a pretty vibrant place in the community for startups.”
The Conway Area Chamber of Commerce has commissioned master plans for the interstate and signage projects and has opened three bridges along the interstate in the last year. A splash pad is set to open in Conway’s Laurel Park this summer. As for the Grand Theatre, the chamber has purchased its building at the corner of Oak and Chestnut Streets.
Together, these seven projects will transform the city and, Lacy hopes, make it a place where even more people want to live.
“We believe that economic development is really about community development, that there’s no amount of money that you can pay a company to come to your community if it’s not worth coming to,” he said.
The reinvestment in downtown and creation of trails may be hard work, Lacy said, but it’s necessary.
“All of it works together to send a message to a new employer that we’re special and that we have our eye on the ball, because the thing that I think people lose sight of is that today, economic development is about talent, recruitment and retention,” he said. “And talent is attracted to cities where they want to live.”