As published in Arkansas Business, March 14, 2021
by Hank Kelley
At Kelley Commercial Partners, we focus a lot on downtown properties because it’s been home to our company for so long. When we tour the market with out-of-town clients, we proudly tell the stories of our landmarks and the amenities that define us.
James and Deborah Fallows, the authors of “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” helped shape my view of Little Rock and central Arkansas. The couple traveled the country for five years focusing on thriving flyover communities and outlining attributes common to each of these progressive cities. After they published their book, they visited Little Rock to discuss their findings. They believe communities that have positioned themselves to thrive possess these traits:
- People work together on practical local possibilities, rather than allowing disagreements about national politics to keep them apart.
- Citizens can name local patriots.
- The phrase “public-private partnership” refers to something real.
- People know their civic story.
- They have downtowns.
- They are near a research university.
- They have and care about a community college.
- They have distinctive, innovative K-12 schools.
- They embrace diversity.
- They have big plans. Municipal governments are where real improvements can be done.
- They have brewpubs and/or distilleries where the product is made and served in a setting that encourages people getting together.
This is a good list of priorities worthy of focus, commitment and action to help Little Rock become its best. But of those priorities, the Fallowses believe a downtown is the best single marker of the condition of the town. Downtown Little Rock has changed for the better since we first moved into the Simmons Tower 38 years ago, thanks to the combined efforts of city leaders and the private sector championing progress. Today, downtown is home to the arts, history, retail, housing and entertainment. From historic Robinson Center to the $142 million Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, from boutiques to farmers markets, from historic homes to high-rise condos, there’s something for everyone. The past decade has added marinas to both sides of the Arkansas River, along with hundreds of apartments and homes for those who want to live in an urban environment.
Speaking of North Little Rock, Argenta plays a huge role in our downtown. Dickey-Stephens Park, Simmons Bank Arena and the restaurants that line Main Street provide countless entertainment opportunities. With two cities across one river, we punch well above our weight in concerts, performing arts and local dining options. While the Arkansas River may seem to be a dividing line, the cycling, walking and running along the Arkansas River Trail connect us.
With 33% of the local total commercial real estate inventory (12.7 million SF), downtown is the largest submarket in the metropolitan area and offers the greatest value. In fact, businesses, offices and residents have never had a more exciting and diverse menu of amenities downtown — benefits that can’t be replicated in suburban areas. Downtown boasts the lowest average cost per square foot in the area and can satisfy the needs of users large or small. And the Interstate 30 rehabilitation will provide the best regional access to downtown for occupants and visitors.
Whether it’s a national grocery store, restaurant chain, fashion retailer, office user or manufacturer, all our prospective commercial real estate clients want to know what’s happening downtown, which is why we must think of downtown when making key decisions about infrastructure, business expansions, education initiatives and other items on the Fallowses’ list.
These prospects know that American downtowns serve as benchmarks as to where a community is headed. We need visitors to clearly see new developments happening on both sides of the Arkansas River, making this place a great place to live, work and play.
So I challenge you to reread the Fallowses’ observations. Where does Little Rock stack up? Where are we going? What do you want to see next? If you want to listen to the music I hear, call me. Let’s meet and walk to lunch! In downtown of course.