Brad Lacy, president and chief executive officer of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, takes a deep breath to consider the question before him: What economic identity has the city forged for itself over the past 20 years?
There’s much to draw upon for that question, which is part of the difficulty with the answer. Years of population growth, economic development and community improvement leave a mark on a community, as Conway can readily attest. Exactly what shape that mark takes for the future — the peg upon which business leaders can hang continued economic development — is harder to define.
“I think that we’re confusing sometimes to people, even here in Arkansas,” Lacy said. “It’s hard to compare us to the next whatever, because we’re a little bit of a lot of things. We’re very much a college town but we’re not Oxford, Mississippi. There’s a part of us that’s very much a suburb, so some people want to lump us into this category of being just a bedroom community to Little Rock, but that’s not true. We have a sizable tech community but we’re not Austin, Texas.
“We’re a little bit of a lot of things, so to say, ‘Yeah, we want to be the best Conway that we can be,’ and look for places to compare ourselves to and benchmark, we’ve never found someone exactly like us.”
Conway has had an impressive run over the past couple of decades, from downtown redevelopment to luring national and international companies to addressing tourism and neighborhood infill. Throughout, Conway enjoyed a steady population growth of highly educated, mostly family types the majority of whom, unlike past generations, now work as well as live here instead of commuting to Little Rock.
The additional rooftops proved enticing enough to attract new retail corridors and even a new hospital, but still couldn’t meet labor demands, making the city a magnet for people from other small towns as far away as Beebe, Clinton and Russellville.
Despite all this — or more accurately, because of it — civic and business leaders find it difficult to draw one core strategy for developing the Conway of the future. Instead, as it has done throughout its history, city leaders are embracing growth through reinvention.
“Every generation in Conway has had to deal with managing a town very different from the one that they were first introduced to,” said Jamie Gates, executive vice president of the chamber. “We’re seeing changes in the style of housing, changes in the style of commercial development, we’re going to a place that frankly, a lot of people in Arkansas aren’t used to.”
Recognizing these trends is one thing; demonstrating the will to address them by taking matters in hand when necessary is another. In this regard, Conway’s legacy of leadership runs deep. A century ago a downtown businessman’s hotel was deemed necessary to spark Main Street, so the Chamber sold stock to build the Bachelor Hotel. Today, this outlook survives through Conway Development Corporation (CDC), an adjunct, nonprofit organization to the chamber devoted to nurturing a sound business environment up to and including land development and advocacy.
“The thing that repeats itself over and over again throughout the history of the city is that we’ve done things ourselves when we needed to,” Lacy said. “Sometimes that was the chamber, sometimes it was the CDC, and sometimes it was the city. We’re not a place that’s in the path of growth where developers are just coming in and building stuff and it all happens on its own. Sometimes we can’t wait for someone to come in and do it; we have to be smart enough to figure out how to do it ourselves and then do it.”
Hewlett-Packard’s name comes up a lot in discussions about Conway economic development and with good reason. Landing the global technology giant in 2008 was a watershed get for the city, not only for the company’s presence, but for demonstrating the lengths to which Conway factions cooperatively mobilized amenities. These included $5 million in site prep and new roads by the city and a $28 million, 150,000-SF building by the CDC in an office and technology park developed by the group. Conway officials also played a key role in brokering HP additional incentives through the state.
“Hewlett Packard has a huge backstory, but it has been profound in terms of its impact,” said Conway Mayor Tab Townsell. “No matter where you are in the world, Hewlett Packard is a name you recognize and their coming to Conway, Arkansas, brings us a huge economic presence and gave a different impression of our city from the outside looking in.
“It also allowed us to think about ourselves differently as well. It put us in a different mindset and made us think, ‘Hey we can compete with some of the best places in America.’ So that for us was an all around game-changer.”
Facilitating the arrival of HP, and the arrival of Southwestern Energy that followed, and supporting the growth of homegrown entities such as Acxiom underscored the interconnectedness of developmental priorities. Guaranteeing skilled labor in adequate numbers, for instance, meant continually fortifying Conway’s three residential college campuses to train workers, developing living spaces and recreation to retain them or recruit from outside and improving transportation infrastructure for the growing number of commuters from a halo of surrounding towns.
“The things we did for ourselves got us ready to be in that game,” Townsell added. “The things that we did — resurrecting downtown, upgrading our design standards across the city, preserving our historic district, investing in our parks system, pursuing a more business-friendly atmosphere for both restaurants and hotels — positioned us better to take advantage of our own demographics, but also to accept the type of demographic recruitment that industry would be looking for and would be trying to recruit.”
Not everything Conway touches has turned to gold on this front. Lacy said that while the city is a natural fit for young families, it’s still a long way from offering what the millennial generation requires.
“The traditional [labor] model for us has been that we produce so much of it from the schools and while we’ve had a fair amount of success relocating people, the expectation people have now for the kind of place they want to live is very different than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “Downtown housing; you want to talk about a problem that we have, that’s it. We don’t have large-scale downtown development for young professionals who would choose to live in an apartment downtown.
“I think that’s a harsh reality sometimes for people to have to accept, that you really are competing for talent with the rest of the United States, and in some cases the world, and those people expect certain things.”
“Economic developers don’t set the agenda or decide what’s important,” Gates said. “The new things that we’re talking about are the things our businesses are talking about. The fact is, we’re a small city in a small state and when you get outside of here, those numbers are impossible to argue with. So, the classic economic reality is we have to be nicer than anyone who is a better value and we have to be a better value to any place that’s nicer. We try to compete on one of those two fronts.”