Whisenhunt's Land of Milk and Money

by George Waldon  on Monday, Sep. 11, 2006 12:00 am  

The search for a new church home has triggered a multimillion-dollar chain of construction in west Little Rock.

Bulldozers already are moving dirt to open up 120 acres that were formerly part of Shackleford Dairy Farm for development along Kirk Road, north of Chenal Parkway and south of Rahling Road.

The land is slated to become the home for a mix of retail, office and apartment projects. But the first project to launch is a nonprofit venture featuring a Little Rock mega church.

Fellowship Bible Church in July bought 50 acres on the north end of the tract for $6.5 million to develop a new campus. The seller was Whisenhunt Investment, led by Joe Whisenhunt, which had an option on the land and closed on it just in time to sell it to the church.

Little Rock's CDI Contractors LLC has signed on as general contractor to build the $52.8 million complex designed by The Wilcox Group of Little Rock.

Church leaders contending with nearly maxed-out facilities at the landlocked, 12601 Hinson Road location decided last year to buy undeveloped land and build new.

"It gave us an opportunity to develop an integrated facility, which we never had," said Mike Robinson, an elder at Fellowship Bible. "We never knew the church would be this big."

The current church has a two-service capacity on Sundays of 4,500 adults and children. The enlarged facility will accommodate an additional 1,600.

Site work began before Labor Day to relocate 700,000 cubic yards of dirt to prepare for construction of the Fellowship project. The dirt work will moderate the rolling terrain of the church site.

In addition to reworking the topography, Whisenhunt Investments is doing more than $7 million of infrastructure improvements that will fill gaps in the city's road network.

"It is going to change traffic patterns in a big way," said Kemp Whisenhunt, property manager for Whisenhunt Investments. "It's above and beyond what the city had planned.

"What we're trying to do is put in the streets and improvements to accommodate the traffic five, 10 years from now."

Among the improvements will be converting Kirk Road from a two-lane, dead-end street into a minor arterial with four lanes of traffic and a center turn lane.

The roadwork will include a 150-foot diameter roundabout on Kirk Road, where a westward extension of Wellington Hills Road will connect with Systems Drive.

Kirk Road will be extended north to connect with Champlin Drive, providing a north-south corridor between Chenal Parkway and Rahling Road. Also on the north end of the acreage, Wellington Village Road will extend west to connect with the new stretch of Kirk Road.

The road-related construction will occupy about 14 acres. Whisenhunt Investments has retained ownership of a remaining 56 acres.

About 40 acres zoned for retail and office development lies to the south of the Fellowship Bible property. The remaining land, lying north of the church site, is divided into two parcels zoned for multifamily development.

A 4.8-acre site is at what will become the northeast corner of Kirk Road/ Champlin Drive and Willington Village Road. An 11.7-acre apartment site neighbors it to the west.

What dirt isn't needed on the 120-acre site will be hauled nearby for fill on additional land owned by Whisenhunt. This 55-acre tract adjoins the west side of Whisenhunt's Dairyland Shopping Center at 16105 Chenal Parkway, anchored by Kroger.

"We are in a hot spot for when the development comes," Joe Whisenhunt said. "I cannot tell you when that will come. But I'm in the financial position to hold the property debt-free for as long as it takes. We're going to let the market come to us."

New Plan

Whisenhunt long had plans for developing the 120-acre tract, originally part of the Shackleford Dairy Farm. But when the church approached him about buying land, he altered his course.

"I went ahead and changed my long-range plans to accommodate their purchase," Whisenhunt said. "I was very impressed with their program."

Striking the deal with Fellowship Bible also allowed Whisenhunt to sell the least commercial portion of the property and gain the prominent congregation as an ally.

When Whisenhunt — who was not yet the legal owner — sought a more favorable zoning configuration on the southern 40 acres, Fellowship Bible was in his corner at city hall. If Whisenhunt couldn't get rezoning, the church wouldn't be able to buy and build on its first choice of sites.

Deltic Timber Corp. of El Dorado, which owns undeveloped commercial acre-age in the neighborhood, unsuccessfully opposed the rezoning.

"They extended that process through two planning meetings," Whisenhunt said. "We finally weathered that and were able to prevail."

The church's No. 2 choice for a new site was owned by Deltic. That location on the west side of Chenal Parkway, north of Chenonceau Boulevard, presented even more challenging topography than the Whisenhunt land.

Hank Kelley, president of Little Rock's Flake & Kelley Commercial, helped Fellowship Bible in the site search process. The Whisenhunt and Deltic sites were comparable in size and cost, Kelley said. However, the steep terrain of the Deltic land would have left the church with less developable land.

"We got down to the wire with the two sites," said Mike Robinson of Fellowship Bible. "If we weren't able to ink a deal with Joe, we were going to go with (Deltic)."

Deltic Timber would've completed widening Chenal Parkway all the way to Highway 10 as part of the deal.

The search for a new church site was accelerated last year after Fellowship Bible agreed to sell its facility to neighboring Pulaski Academy for $18 million.

Over the years, the private school and church informally talked about one or the other buying each other's property. But one amenity at Pulaski Academy became a sticking point for any would-be purchase by Fellowship Bible.

"What we struggled with is what will we do with a football stadium," Robinson said.

Negotiations for a sale to the school gained momentum last year when Pulaski Academy learned the church was pursuing plans to build new facilities.

"We've pretty well hit functional capacity for these facilities," Robinson said of the Hinson Road development. "The furthest thing from our mind was to sell the campus. We were looking at establishing more satellite churches as a way to address this.

"(Pulaski Academy) knew we had an option on some property on Highway 10, so they called and asked us if we're interested in selling. That started a series of meetings that ran into the fall."

The church had the first right of refusal on more than 30 acres on the north side of Highway 10 just west of Ferndale Cutoff Road.

Leaders thought the location might be a good place to develop a branch church, but it wasn't deemed to be a good site to move the whole congregation. The land is outside Little Rock, which presented expensive infrastructure challenges.

The property is without water and sewer service, and the Highway 10 road system would be overwhelmed with vehicles bringing upward of 6,000 people to Sunday morning services.

"It felt a little disconnected with the city, and we want to be a part of the city," Mike Robinson said.

The new site takes the congregation farther into west Little Rock but will be more accessible.

"By putting it there, they are close enough to the (Villages at Wellington) neighborhood that people can walk to church," Hank Kelley said. "The church has tried to create a setting to be a welcome addition to the neighborhood they're joining."

The new location will also relieve traffic congestion along Napa Valley and Hinson roads during Sunday services.

• Click here for a look at the dairyland development and future Fellowship Bible Church.

• Click here for a look at the dairyland expansion.



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