Still Big on Little Rock

Millie Ward Commentary

Still Big on Little Rock

In the ’90s I was privileged to be a part of the Big on Little Rock campaign, in which we spotlighted the positive aspects of the city. Nearly 30 years later, I find myself still Big on Little Rock. There has recently been what seems to be an unbalanced portrayal of Little Rock — a great deal of criticism and glass-half-empty viewpoints. I’d like to present an alternative glass-half-full view of Little Rock.

Livable City on the Rise
For the first time in several years, Little Rock has a thriving, livable downtown. City leaders have created an environment to attract creative young talent to live, work and play in our downtown. Take Main Street, for example. Ten years ago it was dormant, but now there are five new restaurants in the 300 block alone, and on the 500 block, 34 apartments are being built over an expanded Ballet Arkansas location. And south of Interstate 630, south Main Street, what’s known as the SoMa neighborhood, is home to some of the most eclectic shops our city has to offer.

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Just a few blocks over, you’ll see the revitalized East Village. Another once-dormant area now holds the headquarters of Cromwell Architects Engineers, eStem East Village Elementary School, Cathead’s Diner, 12 Star Flats and Lost Forty and Rebel Kettle breweries. One editor recently wrote, “Shall Avenue has never been busier,” and I have to agree.

The Arkansas Arts Center promises to transform MacArthur Park and nearby neighborhoods with a $70 million expansion and renovation. Redevelopment of the Hall and Davidson buildings on Capitol Avenue into the trendy AC Hotel by Marriott is a huge win for our city.

High-quality entertainment options are plentiful downtown. In the last year we’ve seen a vintage bowling alley, beer garden and our first rooftop bar open. The newly transformed Robinson Center has made the city a destination for Broadway productions such as “The Lion King” and “Wicked,” high-caliber performances previously only available in larger cities. The Clinton School’s speaker series continually brings an impressive group of people to Little Rock, including Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel Prize recipients. The Oxford American Concert Series at South on Main brings live performances like you won’t find anywhere else.

There’s exciting growth going on downtown. We just need to take a step back to see how far we’ve come.

Diverse, Thriving Economy
We often hear the word “stagnant” used to describe our city, but that simply isn’t the case. Little Rock’s economic development efforts this last year alone have resulted in 1,100 new jobs and $47 million in new payroll. Businesses are thriving, and the facts are there to back this up.

Bank OZK has deepened its commitment to Little Rock by building a $100 million 247,000-SF headquarters. Simmons Bank is further proving we have a healthy banking sector by acquiring the former Acxiom Building.

Little Rock’s technology scene is burgeoning with opportunity. A new generation of innovators is developing within the Little Rock Technology Park. Fifty companies are now housed within, including the one-of-a-kind VC FinTech Accelerator backed by FIS. In the first three years, the VC FinTech Accelerator has attracted 30 companies from around the world to participate in the program. Upon completion and seeing the area’s potential, six companies have relocated from larger “tech cities.”

In two and a half years, the Port of Little Rock has recruited 41 companies and created more than 3,500 jobs, 600 of which were added last year. Little Rock is home to the largest Dassault Falcon facility in the world, and it handles all phases of aircraft completion and modification.

We remain the state’s capital for health, education and government sectors, a circumstance that translates into a significant number of jobs that are critical to our economy. This is unique to Little Rock and is ours alone to leverage.

Our city has a big heart too, as countless donors and volunteers give of themselves daily to serve “the least of these.”

Stone Ward principle 15 is “the person in charge of making things better is you.” My experience is that there is an abundance of Little Rock people doing just that every day. Yes, there are things about our hometown that can be improved, but there is also a lot to love about our city. My hope is that more people from all walks of life will start speaking for our city’s positive achievements.

Millie Ward is president of the Stone Ward advertising agency in Little Rock. Email her at