It’s hard to say which emerging segment of Conway’s entrepreneurial community best typifies the city’s economic development, retail or tech start-ups. City leaders aren’t complaining either way.
“I think [Conway] has evolved, but it’s not evolved out of anything necessarily,” said Mayor Tab Townsell. “We have taken hits on the industrial side, like a lot of American cities have and the American economy has. We still have a strong industrial presence here in Conway, but we’ve also developed a strong retail market and a restaurant industry. More recently, we’ve expanded on information technology and have leveraged resources to grow the tech sector.
“So, I wouldn’t say that we’ve typecast ourselves in one particular sector; I think we’ve broadened our audience and demonstrated that we’re an economy capable of hosting elements of many sectors.”
From a visibility and square footage standpoint, retail has grabbed the most recent headlines as large developments continue to shape the economic and physical landscape of the community and the region. Conway Commons, opened nearly a decade ago with 750,000 SF on 80 acres, broke the seal as the city’s first development to line up a string of national retailers side by side, including Home Depot, Old Navy, Target and Best Buy.
The development demonstrated the city’s ability to support several big box outlets at once and paved the way for two new, massive retail developments. One, Lewis Crossing, boasts 442,000 SF over 54 acres along Interstate 40 at Dave Ward Drive, within sight of the new Baptist Health Medical Center, also under construction. Lewis Crossing, a development of Collett, based in North Carolina, will feature Bed Bath & Beyond, Academy Sports, Michael’s and PetCo among others and is anchored by a 135,580-SF Sam’s Club. It is slated for a late 2016 completion.
Further north along the freeway another ambitious development is being built, the 303,000-SF, 150-acre Shoppes at Central Landing. Developed by Jim Wilson & Associates of Montgomery, Ala., Central Landing promises a mixed-use development including shops, restaurants, businesses, single-family homes, apartments and hotel and office space. Anchored by Arkansas retailer Dillard’s, Central Landing is predicting a 2018 completion.
Both developments reimagine their build sites — Lewis Crossing is being built on the grounds of a former sale barn and Central Landing on the site of the city’s former airport — and both have required re-engineering of the city’s transportation grid plan to accommodate the additional traffic.
“We’ve already commenced on our largest investment in street improvements we’ve ever done,” Townsell said. “Over a multiple number of years, we’re investing $34 million in construction of a lot of the roads across and around our commercial areas to take better advantage of our Interstate highway presence.”
Less headline-grabbing, but no less dynamic, is the growth and development of the city’s tech and startup sector. While not as immediately conspicuous as real estate-intensive retail growth, Conway’s resident technology companies are growing in number and attracting attention.
Conway tech residents Acxiom and Hewlett-Packard helped seed the current growth in startups, either through former employees spinning off on their own or by their presence attracting existing tech companies. In January 2015 alone, three tech firms — Metova, Big Cloud Analytics and Eyenalyze — announced plans to build facilities in Conway, bringing with them 140 jobs and $2.5 million in capital investment.
Conway institutions have, in turn, nurtured the tech-friendly environment. Last year, the city launched the Data District, a seven-block area served by gigabit Internet service, to eventually include 18 blocks in downtown. And, the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) announced the bottom floor of its forthcoming Donaghey Hall will be devoted to students’ entrepreneurial interests, an outgrowth of its innovation and entrepreneurship program, offered through the college of business.
“We have a residential college that is designed to help develop student entrepreneurs who have ideas and want to try to develop them regardless of their field of study,” said Tom Courtway, UCA president. “In opening Donaghey Hall, which is a four-story, mixed-use development, we’re going to set aside about 2,000 SF on the bottom floor as an innovation hub.
“I think we’ve got all the tools necessary to really make some great strides over the next few years. When you have a young, very smart group of people, which is what Conway has, then this is the kind of innovation that you get. And we’re very proud of it.”
But perhaps the most impressive measure of the city’s future in technology lies in the creation of Cadron Creek Capital, the city’s first venture capital group, representing 62 investors who raised more than $1.5 million to invest in promising early-stage start-ups.
“Main Street businesses are absolutely part of the fabric of Conway,” said Jeff Standridge, Cadron Creek co-founder. “We have a handful of very large employers, but like everywhere else in the United States, the vast majority of employees work in small to medium businesses.
“So, I think it’s really beginning to shape up that the next step in the evolution of Conway, Arkansas, is to build this startup environment. The fact of the matter is, being a startup entrepreneur is a viable career path today where years ago it was very difficult.”
Standridge, a UCA alum, said Cadron Creek’s long-term goals include serving the needs of entrepreneurs beyond just providing capital.
“Startup entrepreneurs in Conway and around the state need access to three things,” he said. “One, access to programming where they can get together to share ideas and receive training and development on how to start a business. Second, they need access to mentors; and third, access to capital.”
Standridge said the long-term goal is to be completely invested in Conway-based companies and also to launch startup incubators as can be found in other parts of the state. He said while such things take time to build, he’s encouraged by the response from investors who have bought into Cadron Creek’s vision.
“From an investor perspective, we have some investment from northwest Arkansas but the vast majority of our investments are from central Arkansas, ” he said. “Roughly 75 percent of our investors have never invested in startup companies before and they would never do it one-on-one, because the risks are too high, but they are very interested in a fund that deals with these types of companies.
“The reason Cadron Creek started in Conway was because our sole purpose is to build the startup ecosystem in central Arkansas, and we believe Conway is the perfect location for that.”