Verizon Arena is recognized as the key that started a redevelopment engine for downtown North Little Rock. Celebrating its 20th birthday in October, the facility is touted as an $83 million, debt-free, financially self-sufficient showcase for central Arkansas events.
The track record of the arena underscores a vision fulfilled, and the ripple effect of the project and its crowd-drawing concerts and more continues to be felt on both sides of the Arkansas River.
“The arena was the first substantial infrastructure that said we’re committed to making our downtowns — and that’s downtowns plural — more viable,” said Pat Hays, who helped champion the project during his 1989-2013 tenure as North Little Rock mayor.
The 18,000-seat venue will start its third decade of operations with a new name on Oct. 3. Verizon Arena will become Simmons Bank Arena when the lender’s $10.5 million naming rights agreement begins a 15-year run.
The terms of the deal reflect a market appreciation of the arena since Little Rock’s Alltel Corp. landed a 20-year deal to hang its name on the project for $7 million.
At $700,00 per year, the Simmons Bank naming rights deal is double that of Alltel. The telecommunication firm’s $350,000-per-year deal was inherited by Verizon when the wireless giant acquired Alltel for $28 billion in 2009.
A lively mix of residential and commercial projects has cropped up since the arena made the scene. Today’s changes in the downtown landscape were only dreams when construction kicked off with groundbreaking ceremonies on Aug. 21, 1997.
“It’s amazing,” said Michael Marion, general manager of the arena since its opening. “When I first came to North Little Rock, there wasn’t a good reason to walk around downtown. Now there’s a million.”
In addition to development dollars tallied in the millions, the arena and subsequent projects have attracted millions to dine, drink and enjoy downtown North Little Rock.
The headcount of Verizon Arena crowds since it opened in 1999 is expected to top 8.8 million with B2K’s Millennium Tour and Carrie Underwood’s Cry Pretty Tour 360 rolling into town May 3-4.
“Right now (as of April 29), we’re at 8,788,198,” Marion said. “We’ve done pretty well for the site of an old strip center.”
The retail project, featuring a Kroger, a former Kmart store and a Taco Bell, was the biggest component of the land assembly for the multipurpose civic center.
Today’s 11.6-acre arena site and its supporting 2.2-acre parking lot were once home to a Firestone Tire & Service Center at 400 E. Broadway, Payless Shoesource at 220 E. Broadway, Red Barn Wholesale Outlet at 201 N. Magnolia St., Club Cameo at 222 E. Washington Ave. and River City Materials at 410 E. Washington Ave.
Completing the arena property puzzle was a parking lot owned by President Baking Co., which operated the Jackson Cookie Co. bakery at 113 S. Olive St. The cookie factory too is gone, sold to make way for the 260-unit Metropolitan Apartment project originally known as The Enclave.
Boosters championed the location months before the special countywide sales tax vote on Aug. 1, 1995, and more than a year before the location was officially selected on June 27, 1996.
“We wanted it downtown,” Hays said. “The two sites we looked at real strongly is where it is and where Dickey-Stephens Park is.”
Dickson Flake, a Little Rock commercial realty veteran, was hired to negotiate with property owners on behalf of Pulaski County.
“Everyone knew they would sell, and they were supportive of the project,” Flake said in a recent interview. “It was just a question of how much and were they willing sellers.”
Binding arbitration with a “baseball clause” was the most common means used to arrive at a price, he recalls. Like the baseball clause arrangement used by owners and players to arrive at a salary, the county and owner each submitted a sales price and supporting documentation to an arbitrator who chose one or the other.
“Because it was a public project, we had the right of eminent domain,” Flake said. “But the advantage with arbitration is you don’t get involved in a drawn-out court process with long testimony and legal expenses.”
The arena was paired with a $20 million expansion of Little Rock’s Statehouse Convention Center, backed with a no-nonsense funding formula of state, local and private money. Known as the River Project, the tandem projects were put in motion when Pulaski County voters approved a one-year sales tax by a margin of 30,889 to 20,452 in 1995.
The Pre-Arena Argenta
A look at how North Little Rock's Argenta district near the Arkansas River has changed in 30 years. The first slide, in black and white, was taken in 1977. The second slide is from 2017.
Sold as River Project
“We sold the arena project not so much as an arena, but a river project,” Hays said. “In our minds, it was much more than two pieces of infrastructure. It was tapping one of the biggest assets of the two communities: the Arkansas River.”
The arena set an anchor that helped lead to more development dominos falling into place during the past 20 years.
“Looking back, we should all be pleased with the location decision that was made,” Flake said. “At the time, downtown North Little Rock didn’t have much density of development. Downtown North Little Rock had no identity. We didn’t know yet how it was going to develop.
“It wasn’t master planned by a big study, but it worked out better for both cities to have it where it is.”