UALR Seeks to Include Neighborhoods in Its Success

(Editor's Note: This is the latest in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future "Fifth Monday" articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at (501) 372-1443 or by e-mail at gmoritz@abpg.com.)

What began 82 years ago as Little Rock Junior College, tucked away in a few classrooms on the second floor of what is now known as Little Rock Central High School, has developed into a behemoth higher education institution that occupies more than 2.5 million SF under roof on more than 272 acres in central Arkansas.

And the explosive growth of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is by no means slackening.

In addition, the school has tackled the revitalization of the area surrounding its campus. UALR's strategic growth plan will benefit homeowners and potential homebuyers in nearby neighborhoods. Participants in a program fostered by UALR could be eligible for a $20,000 tax credit.

"We are of the view that the fate of the city and the fate of the university are intertwined," said Chancellor Joel Anderson. "And if the city prospers, the university prospers. If the city suffers, the university suffers."

"So that brings with it an obligation on our part to do what we can to make the community a healthier and better place to live and work," he said.

UALR recently completed two bond issues, the proceeds of which will fund, among other things, a dormitory for up to 400 honors students and the school's first outdoor athletic complex.

The most recent bond issue, sold at about 4.4 percent and completed a couple of weeks ago, generated $30 million, which will fund the $23 million student housing facility and the $4 million sports complex.

The 18- to 20-month dorm project is expected to be much like the existing dorm - about 137,000 SF of apartment-style spaces. The school expects to break ground in early 2010 on the site, which is currently a parking lot immediately west of the current dorm.

The new soccer and track and field complex, which comes in response to growing demand, Anderson said, will be the university's first facility built south of Asher Avenue.

"One of the first things it's going to do that we're excited about is upgrade and strengthen our intramural program," Anderson said. "And that's been a need for a long time, and it's one that only grows as you have more students living on campus."

The facility will also bolster the arsenal of athlete recruiters.

"At minimum it will make UALR a more attractive place to athletes who want to be intercollegiate athletes in those sports. And the facilities will strengthen the hands of the coaches in recruiting athletes," Anderson added.

The other bond issue, sold at 3.85 percent in September, will fund a series of projects, including construction of a new nanotechnology science center and a student services center, converting an administration building to a health and wellness building, upgrading elevators for safety, renovating the Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall and completing the Donaghey Engineering & Information Technology building, which will open in the spring.

Anderson expects many of the changes, particularly the new facilities, to affect the university's image as a commuter college. "I think our image has very much been changing over the years as you have more honors programs, as you have more students living on campus, as you have more graduate programs, as you have notable research activities going on on the campus," Anderson said. "The image has changed because the university has changed."

'A Perceived Need'

As he recounted for a reporter UALR's history, a theme in Anderson's story began to emerge. Many pivotal decisions in the life of the institution were steered by the needs of central Arkansas residents.

UALR began in 1927 when John A. Larson, principal of Little Rock High School, now called Little Rock Central High School, petitioned the Little Rock Board of Education to fill a need for higher education in the area.

Little Rock Junior College began that year, using a set of second-floor classrooms in the north wing of Little Rock Central's facility at West 14th and Park streets.

The school soon outgrew that space and moved in 1931 to the Uriah M. Rose Grammar School, which is now Philander Smith College.

After 18 years of growth in that facility, Little Rock Junior College received a donation from Raymond Rebsamen, owner of Rebsamen Insurance (now Regions Insurance), of an 80-acre tract of land just off of Hayes Street, better known now as University Avenue, that would in 1949 become the first home LRJC didn't have to share.

Though Rebsamen's donation resolved the issue of space, big changes were still in store for the two-year school.

"Following the Second World War, all across the country in urban and metropolitan centers, states were finding that they needed public universities that they did not have," Anderson said.

"And that was a time when there was quite an explosion of demand. You had the G.I.'s coming home with the G.I. Bill. You had, just in general, people recognizing that a college education was more important than it had been," Anderson said. "You had a need on the part of states to serve place-bound citizens, particularly minorities and women that were not in a position to move away and go to college. So if you put all that together, correctly there was a perceived need in central Arkansas for a public university."

Anderson speculated that, to offer a four-year university, the administration at the time figured it would be easier to go private than to try to sort things out with the board of education. After all, LRJC already survived mostly on tuition, so transitioning to a private school wasn't much of a leap. In this way, LRJC became Little Rock University.

But as the trend of public universities began to trickle into the South and as the school began to realize that a private university didn't fully serve the needs of the community, Anderson said, LRU decided to merge with the University of Arkansas to become the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1969.

Though UALR has retained its name and location for more than 40 years now, the school has continued to adapt and grow.

In 1975, the UA law program in Little Rock transferred to UALR. A couple of years later, UALR also added a graduate school. Over the years, UALR absorbed several other UA programs that had branches in Little Rock.

In 2005, the school built a new gym with a donation in the name of the late Jack Stephens, the Little Rock financier.

UALR also is about to complete its Donaghey College of Engineering & Information Technology.

A Good Neighbor

As part of its mission, UALR aims to revitalize the community - a lofty goal likely held by many organizations for public relations purposes, but pursued by few.

However, UALR incorporated some specific tactics into its strategic plan to accomplish that goal.

For some time, UALR has purchased residential properties with the intent to remodel and then rent those houses to graduate students or faculty. The area the school has targeted sits between Fair Park Boulevard and Filmore Street and 24th and 30th streets.

"We do purchase homes that come available there in that area, and if they're in good condition, we will do a minor renovation and then rent them," said David Millay, associate vice chancellor for facilities management at UALR. "And if they're not in good condition, we generally just demolish them and just leave the land unoccupied for some future use."

However, UALR has a much bigger plan in the works for the Fair Park and Broadmoor neighborhoods.

Anderson said that UALR had fostered the University Initiative, which last year gave birth to the University District Development Corp., a nonprofit that works with the Broadmoor Property Owners Association and the Fair Park Residents Association.

The UDDC's main function will be to buy houses and remodel and sell them to first time homebuyers.

The UDDC hopes to soon get a $200,000 grant from the HOME program, UDDC Director Ron Copeland said.

The HOME Investment Partnerships Program is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development that provides grants through states and localities to increase affordable housing. Such money is often channeled to nonprofits like UDDC to buy, build or rehabilitate properties with the intent to sell or rent.

The UDDC expects to either build or remodel six single-family units with that $200,000.

"Hopefully, it will not take 18 months and we can apply and get funding for more," Copeland said. "But we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We don't have a track record since we're new. And so we want to be sure and be prudent about it."

However, the UDDC already has some funding through banking partnerships, which allowed the nonprofit to buy its first house. With the help of Arvest Bank of Fayetteville, the UDDC closed on a property at 1516 Harrison St. on Nov. 12.

The UDDC staff of three will manage the subcontracting process of all the projects, and bid out the plumbing, electrical, mechanical, carpentry, painting and roofing jobs.

Copeland added that all of the UDDC projects would focus on energy conservation by installing Energy Star appliances, insulation and efficient doors and windows.

But here's the kicker: First-time homebuyers with good credit can qualify for a $20,000 tax credit to buy a home that has been redeveloped by the UDDC. The only catch is that the buyer must stay in the home for 10 years. If he sells within that time, part of the tax credit is prorated for the remaining portion of the 10-year period.

"And if we can succeed in revitalizing [the University District]," Anderson said, "we're confident that those good effects will just continue to ripple throughout the rest of the city."