Anita Davis Serves as One-Woman Economic Development Agency, Brings Vision to South Main

Anita Davis’ vision — along with her money, as she acknowledges — has led to the redevelopment of Little Rock’s SoMa neighborhood, including her Esse Purse Museum.
Anita Davis’ vision — along with her money, as she acknowledges — has led to the redevelopment of Little Rock’s SoMa neighborhood, including her Esse Purse Museum. (Michael Pirnique)
The map shows some of the many businesses, new and of long standing, along South Main Street.
The map shows some of the many businesses, new and of long standing, along South Main Street.  
The Bernice Garden in SoMa
The Bernice Garden in SoMa (Michael Pirnique)
South on Main restaurant and Boulevard Bread & Bakehouse.
South on Main restaurant and Boulevard Bread & Bakehouse. (Michael Pirnique)
Warwick Sabin inside South on Main restaurant.
Warwick Sabin inside South on Main restaurant. (Michael Pirnique)

Anita Davis is a one-woman economic development engine. It would be easy to dismiss her — as some perhaps have — because she is not a natural self-promoter with a sound-bite-ready spiel about the wonders she plans to work on South Main Street in downtown Little Rock.

Instead of talking, Davis acted. And now all kinds of people are interested in the magic that she — and many others; she makes clear that she’s hardly alone in her commitment to the neighborhood — has wrought in what has become known as the city’s SoMa (Southside Main Street) neighborhood.

The native of Murfreesboro readily acknowledges that her personal wealth has underwritten her development dreams. Although money can accomplish a lot, it can’t compensate for a lack of vision or of energy. Davis has both, though she allows as to how her energy is waning a bit after all the work of the last five or six years.

Individual aspects of the revitalization of the street have received positive piecemeal publicity: the Bernice Garden Farmers Market, the Cornbread Festival, the addition of a Boulevard Bread Co. location. But not until this spring has the totality of the redevelopment that Davis and others have accomplished generated much attention. That may be because only recently has she put the last major piece into play: her Esse Purse Museum.

Now, Davis said, she’s done with initiating projects. She will, however, continue to promote, support and sustain efforts like her annual sculpture project, a competition for Arkansas artists.

“It’s been nothing but a lot of fun. A whole lot of money too,” she said, laughing. She was “sort of at the right place at the right time. And we’re not there yet.” But where previously she was “begging people” to rent from her, “I don’t have any trouble renting my space now.”

Although Davis declines to put a figure on how much she has spent on her development along South Main, public records indicate that she has paid almost $2.26 million just to acquire buildings and lots. Add to that figure guesswork about the cost of extensive green renovation of the buildings, sponsorship of events like the sculpture competition, the creation of Bernice Garden and its upkeep, and her investment is past $3 million, possibly closer to $4 million.

“I give her credit for really making the difference these last five years,” said Joe Fox, the owner of 30-year Main Street fixture Community Bakery. “My perspective on South Main is that some people like myself and Mark Abernathy and Garbo Hearne back in the ‘80s got in here and kind of scrapped together to make businesses run.”

Hearne moved her business, what had been Pyramid Gallery, off Main Street in 1997. Abernathy founded Juanita’s Mexican Café & Bar in 1986; the restaurant, no longer owned by Abernathy, moved off Main in 2011.

“In the mid-’90s things kind of plateaued,” Fox said. “And then Anita came in and got things going.”

(Also see: Some SoMa Properties Developed as Destinations)

The Bernice

Davis bought her first piece of South Main property in 2005, the building at 1417 Main, the old Bernice Building. She soon after bought the then-vacant lot at 1401 Main, the northeast corner of Main and Daisy Bates Drive. She went on to buy three more buildings on the street and two vacant lots.

In the intervening years, she has been able to attract as tenants, in addition to Boulevard Bake House & Market (which includes Boulevard Bread’s bakery and catering operations), the Green Corner Store and the Root Café.

And what began as a search to store possessions has evolved into a revitalization of South Main Street that has also led to the relocation of the offices of the Oxford American magazine and its sister enterprise, South on Main, a restaurant and event venue.

“Anita is almost entirely responsible for the revitalization of this neighborhood,” said Warwick Sabin, publisher of the magazine and a state representative. “I didn’t even question the wisdom of bringing the Oxford American here because of the progress that had already been made. There were so many good things happening down here.”

To hear Davis tell it, “none of this was planned.”

“It was kind of a life change,” she said. “My parents were elderly, so I was moving things around and I needed a place to put things. I looked at a lot of different places and I loved this building. It was called the Bernice Building and my grandmother’s name happened to be Bernice.”

Although Davis speaks shyly and with a kindly and somewhat vague air — she’s both an artist and an art collector — she has been managing the timberland that underlies her wealth for a number of years. Her father was Clarence Anthony, of the Anthony family whose members own thousands of acres of timberland in south Arkansas.

Ask her if she knows how much she has spent on her South Main projects and she comes back quickly: “Of course I do.” That figure is not, however, for public consumption.

At the same time she found the Bernice Building, Davis became interested in managing her timberland in an environmentally sensitive way. That led to an interest in green living and green urban development, including the Main Street movement, as exemplified in the National Main Street Center and “place-making,” as exemplified in the Project for Public Spaces.

As Davis was learning about green urban development, she was paying attention to what was going on in the neighborhood. She was particularly pleased when USA Drug bought the property at 1601 Main and built a store (now a Walgreens) and when Edwards Food Giant opened in a former Harvest Foods location at 1701 Main.

The Main Street program “made total sense to me. It was about economic development and promotion,” she said. In addition, Davis said, “I knew that we had lots and lots of rooftops that were underserved as far as goods and services.”

With those two retail powerhouses helping anchor the neighborhood to her south, Davis felt increasingly comfortable about her investments.

Her interest in pedestrian-friendly urban revitalization and her exposure to “pocket parks” in New York and Seattle led her to transform the lot at 14th and Main into the Bernice Garden, which has become a community meeting place.

Last year, the garden became the site of a Sunday farmers market with an emphasis on Arkansas-produced fruit, vegetables and other locally sourced goods.

The theme of locally sourced green products carries through to the retail ventures that have found homes in Davis’ buildings along Main, including the Green Corner Store. The store, owned by Shelley Green, opened in July 2009.

The first couple of years were a struggle, Green said. Her enterprise was self-funded. But the rent she paid Davis was below market rates, helping her withstand soft demand and not much foot traffic.

Davis’ promotion of the neighborhood through events like the Farmers Market, the sculpture competition and the now-annual Cornbread Festival has attracted increasing numbers of shoppers and visitors to Main, and now “business is going in the right direction,” Green said.

“I’m guessing that she’s not requiring that she herself get a typical rate of return on her investment,” said Fox of Davis. “She’s doing this because she’s committed to the area.”

Her investment is not yet earning a return, Davis acknowledged. But “I’m here for the long haul.”

Davis is 67. “If you’re still in business at this age, you’re in a big hurry to make things happen, just so that you can enjoy seeing it,” she said. “I think that’s the thing that I’ve enjoyed the most. Right before my eyes I see people participating.”

“She’s made a difference,” Fox said. “You asked me what my first reaction was when she first came. My first reaction was that the real estate taxes on my property were ratcheted up. I went in to contest it. And they showed me what Anita had paid for her properties and said, ‘You know, that’s market value.’ At which point I had no argument left.”