Anita Davis Serves as One-Woman Economic Development Agency, Brings Vision to South Main

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 12:00 am  

Anita Davis is a one-woman economic development engine. It would be easy to dismiss her — as some perhaps have — because she is not a natural self-promoter with a sound-bite-ready spiel about the wonders she plans to work on South Main Street in downtown Little Rock.

Instead of talking, Davis acted. And now all kinds of people are interested in the magic that she — and many others; she makes clear that she’s hardly alone in her commitment to the neighborhood — has wrought in what has become known as the city’s SoMa (Southside Main Street) neighborhood.

The native of Murfreesboro readily acknowledges that her personal wealth has underwritten her development dreams. Although money can accomplish a lot, it can’t compensate for a lack of vision or of energy. Davis has both, though she allows as to how her energy is waning a bit after all the work of the last five or six years.

Individual aspects of the revitalization of the street have received positive piecemeal publicity: the Bernice Garden Farmers Market, the Cornbread Festival, the addition of a Boulevard Bread Co. location. But not until this spring has the totality of the redevelopment that Davis and others have accomplished generated much attention. That may be because only recently has she put the last major piece into play: her Esse Purse Museum.

Now, Davis said, she’s done with initiating projects. She will, however, continue to promote, support and sustain efforts like her annual sculpture project, a competition for Arkansas artists.

“It’s been nothing but a lot of fun. A whole lot of money too,” she said, laughing. She was “sort of at the right place at the right time. And we’re not there yet.” But where previously she was “begging people” to rent from her, “I don’t have any trouble renting my space now.”

Although Davis declines to put a figure on how much she has spent on her development along South Main, public records indicate that she has paid almost $2.26 million just to acquire buildings and lots. Add to that figure guesswork about the cost of extensive green renovation of the buildings, sponsorship of events like the sculpture competition, the creation of Bernice Garden and its upkeep, and her investment is past $3 million, possibly closer to $4 million.

“I give her credit for really making the difference these last five years,” said Joe Fox, the owner of 30-year Main Street fixture Community Bakery. “My perspective on South Main is that some people like myself and Mark Abernathy and Garbo Hearne back in the ‘80s got in here and kind of scrapped together to make businesses run.”

Hearne moved her business, what had been Pyramid Gallery, off Main Street in 1997. Abernathy founded Juanita’s Mexican Café & Bar in 1986; the restaurant, no longer owned by Abernathy, moved off Main in 2011.

“In the mid-’90s things kind of plateaued,” Fox said. “And then Anita came in and got things going.”

(Also see: Some SoMa Properties Developed as Destinations)

The Bernice



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