Millions of dollars have been invested in improving Conway infrastructure and adding retail destinations to the growing city, and according to panelists at the first Outlook Conway conference on Tuesday, the development isn't slowing.
Members of a commercial real estate panel discussed projects by their respective companies, including multimillion-dollar retail centers and strip malls. They also talked about the history of the city and the growth they have seen in the area.
Panelists were Woody Rush, senior vice president of leasing, Jim Wilson & Associates of Montgomery, Alabama; Joshua Brown, principal of Haag Brown Commercial of Jonesboro; Brent Salter, vice president of Salter Properties of Conway; Greg Nabholz, CEO, Nabholz Properties Inc. of Conway; and Hank Kelley, CEO and partner of Flake and Kelley Commercial of Little Rock.
The panel was moderated by George Waldon, a senior editor at Arkansas Business who covers commercial real estate and banking.
"For somebody who's born and raised in Conway to see the transformation – it was 20,000 when I was in high school and 65,000 now," Nabholz said. "One of the most exciting things for me is the revitalization of downtown Conway has been huge."
Nabholz said that the city's colleges help provide an attractive environment to develop around and that he sees a lot of demand in the health care, technology and creative sectors.
"A lot of that [demand] is from people who are starting new companies, but these are homegrown businesses being started here, and that's exciting because they're going to stay," Nabholz said. "We don't have to worry about a corporate decision in NYC or something and they leave."
Rush, whose company is pre-leasing space at the city's highest profile retailer development, the planned Shoppes at Central Landing, said Internet sales are taking away from brick and mortar. But in Conway, retail sales remain "tremendous."
In order to attract tenants to the city, Kelley said Conway must market itself as part of a bigger "central Arkansas" area. He said by highlighting the region as a whole rather than only the county, it allows them to capitalize on the area's strengths.
"Conway is a bright spot in the north Arkansas market, but I encourage you to think of yourself as something bigger than one county," Kelley said.
With a median age of 29.3 and median household income of about $51,000, Kelley said Conway is a prime destination for new retailers.
Brown agreed and said Conway has the advantage of being able to play off Little Rock and central Arkansas area. He said potential retailers can look at Conway and see that people can easily come from other cities in central Arkansas to shop there.
Recent upgrades to surrounding highways and interstates are helping make travel into Conway easier, according to members of another panel at the conference, one on public projects.
Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, said work on Interstate 40 between Conway and North Little Rock was completed in April. The 22 mile, $117 million project took about four years, which he called "phenomenal for a project that size."
Bennett said improvements to Highway 64 are underway, with 18 miles completed, 10 miles under construction, and three miles yet to be scheduled. Bennett expects the work to be complete by end of 2018.
The city is also in the process of adding infrastructure to access the yet-to-be-built Shoppes at Central Landing, which is set for a 150-acre site formerly used by the city's airport. Infrastructure improvements include adding a new "Central Landing Boulevard" and an overpass to provide interstate access to the retail center.
Mayor Tab Townsell said Central Landing Boulevard will be "the best street the city has ever had." It's one of seven major street projects the city is currently overseeing at a total cost of almost $33 million. City leaders believe new infrastructure is vital to the growth of the city.
"Without infrastructure growing we can slip easily," Faulkner County Judge Jim Baker said. "I think the city will continue to grow, and I think the county will continue to grow to match that … The work the highway department is doing is a good example of preparing for that growth."