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  

Davis bought her first piece of South Main property in 2005, the building at 1417 Main, the old Bernice Building. She soon after bought the then-vacant lot at 1401 Main, the northeast corner of Main and Daisy Bates Drive. She went on to buy three more buildings on the street and two vacant lots.

In the intervening years, she has been able to attract as tenants, in addition to Boulevard Bake House & Market (which includes Boulevard Bread’s bakery and catering operations), the Green Corner Store and the Root Café.

And what began as a search to store possessions has evolved into a revitalization of South Main Street that has also led to the relocation of the offices of the Oxford American magazine and its sister enterprise, South on Main, a restaurant and event venue.

“Anita is almost entirely responsible for the revitalization of this neighborhood,” said Warwick Sabin, publisher of the magazine and a state representative. “I didn’t even question the wisdom of bringing the Oxford American here because of the progress that had already been made. There were so many good things happening down here.”

To hear Davis tell it, “none of this was planned.”

“It was kind of a life change,” she said. “My parents were elderly, so I was moving things around and I needed a place to put things. I looked at a lot of different places and I loved this building. It was called the Bernice Building and my grandmother’s name happened to be Bernice.”

Although Davis speaks shyly and with a kindly and somewhat vague air — she’s both an artist and an art collector — she has been managing the timberland that underlies her wealth for a number of years. Her father was Clarence Anthony, of the Anthony family whose members own thousands of acres of timberland in south Arkansas.

Ask her if she knows how much she has spent on her South Main projects and she comes back quickly: “Of course I do.” That figure is not, however, for public consumption.

At the same time she found the Bernice Building, Davis became interested in managing her timberland in an environmentally sensitive way. That led to an interest in green living and green urban development, including the Main Street movement, as exemplified in the National Main Street Center and “place-making,” as exemplified in the Project for Public Spaces.

As Davis was learning about green urban development, she was paying attention to what was going on in the neighborhood. She was particularly pleased when USA Drug bought the property at 1601 Main and built a store (now a Walgreens) and when Edwards Food Giant opened in a former Harvest Foods location at 1701 Main.

The Main Street program “made total sense to me. It was about economic development and promotion,” she said. In addition, Davis said, “I knew that we had lots and lots of rooftops that were underserved as far as goods and services.”

With those two retail powerhouses helping anchor the neighborhood to her south, Davis felt increasingly comfortable about her investments.



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