Mr. Downtown Little Rock

The original version of this story ran in Talk Business & Politics magazine.

Jimmy Moses grew up steeped in the history of Little Rock, especially its downtown.

His great-grandfather, Herman Kahn, moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn and his sons, Sidney L. Kahn Sr. and Alfred G. Kahn, were involved in banking and real estate development.

Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood in Little Rock.

Herman Kahn’s best-known development was the Marion Hotel, which was among the most famous businesses in Arkansas for much of the 20th century.

Construction on the Marion began in 1905. It was the tallest structure in the state from when it opened in 1907 until 1911. The hotel closed in early 1980 and was demolished to make way for the Excelsior Hotel (which later became the Peabody and then the Marriott) and the Statehouse Convention Center.

The 500-room Marion had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The hotel was named after Herman Kahn’s wife, Marion Cohn Kahn.

The Marion billed itself as the “Meeting Place of Arkansas,” and the state’s top organizations held their conventions there. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a mounted alligator gar. Visitors to the Marion through the years included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Helen Keller and Will Rogers.

Within walking distance of the Marion, Moses’ family operated the music and electronics store Moses Melody Shop on Main Street. The business was established shortly after World War I by Moses’ grandfather, Grover Cleveland “Cleve” Moses, and operated for almost six decades until falling victim to downtown’s decline in the late 1960s.

During the 1960s, the store had what was known as the Color TV Lounge where customers could watch color television. There were soundproof glass booths for listening to records, and there were live Saturday radio broadcasts by radio station KALO that featured local bands. Jimmy Moses worked in the store as a boy.

Moses describes downtown Little Rock as “being in my DNA.”

He remembers the days when customers would come into Moses Melody Shop in droves. Down the street, the Marion Hotel lobby was filled at all hours. Downtown Little Rock was the place to be.

By the time Moses left for college at Washington and Lee University in the mountains of southwest Virginia, the capital city’s core had begun its long, slow decline.

Moses sits by a window in the Little Rock Club on the 30th floor of the Regions Center in downtown Little Rock and looks out on the city that has been central to his career. He’s now in his 60s and thinking about his legacy. He says he wants to be remembered as someone who helped transform Arkansas’ largest city back into a place where people “want to live” rather than fleeing to the suburbs in Saline, Faulkner and Lonoke counties.

“Little Rock is at a crossroads,” Moses says as he gazes down on the capital city. “We’ve done a lot of good things to set the stage for growth, but I’m not sure that our leadership has fully embraced the concept that we can be great.”

Those who compare the relatively slow growth of Little Rock to Austin or Nashville can become depressed when thinking about the city. But those are state capitals of far larger states that also are the homes of world-class universities and bustling music scenes. They have amenities that Little Rock will never have.

Little Rock looks far better, though, when compared to Southern cities such as Birmingham, Ala., and Jackson, Miss.

In 1950, Birmingham had a population of 326,037, more than triple the size of Little Rock at the time. Birmingham was the same size as Atlanta (331,314) in 1950. By 2010, Birmingham’s population had fallen to 212,237. While Birmingham was losing population, Little Rock was growing from 102,213 residents in 1950 to 193,524 residents in 2010. With a population that’s expected to surpass 200,000 during the next year, Little Rock is now the same size as Birmingham rather than a third its size.

Jackson, meanwhile, had a population of 202,895 in 1980, far larger than Little Rock’s population of 159,151 at the time. The current population of Jackson is about 170,000. The cities appear to be headed in opposite directions. In Mississippi, for example, Bass Pro Shops and an outlet mall chose to locate in the suburb of Pearl. In Arkansas, Bass Pro and an outlet mall chose Little Rock rather than a city in the suburbs.

Moses points out that public projects continue to complement private investments in downtown Little Rock. In addition to construction of a new Broadway Bridge, work is proceeding on the $68 million renovation of the Robinson Center. The city has committed $20 million to the Little Rock Technology Park downtown, and voters recently approved a bond issue of $35 million for upgrades to the Arkansas Arts Center, the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History and MacArthur Park. The bonds will be paid back over 30 years with collections from an increased hotel tax.

During the past year, other parts of town have seen the opening of a $23 million transmission operations center for Entergy Corp., a new Southern region operations center for the regional energy transmission organization Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator, a $52 million facility in southwest Little Rock for Federal Express and a major expansion of Dassault Falcon Jet adjacent to the city’s airport.

Dr. Dean Kumpuris, a longtime member of the Little Rock Board of Directors, says: “We’re headed in the right direction. The strongest thing we have going for us is a group of people willing to roll up their sleeves, identify the problems and then attack those problems.”

Kumpuris describes the decision to place the technology park downtown as “an absolute winner for everybody.”

Jimmy Moses and business partner Rett Tucker remain atop the list of those “willing to roll up their sleeves, identify the problems and then attack those problems.”

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee, Moses earned a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Florida. He was working for the planning firm Hodges Vines Fox & Associates in 1981 when Little Rock turned to the firm for suggestions on what to do with a downtown that had been gutted by so-called urban renewal. Most residents and many businesses had moved out.

In Moses’ words, downtown “barely had a heartbeat.”

It would be years before his vision began to be achieved, but Moses was an early proponent of attracting full-time residents back downtown.

In July 1982, Moses joined forces with Rick Redden and John Allison to launch Allison Moses Redden Architecture, Interiors and Planning. Allison Moses Redden later became AMR Architects Inc. when Moses and Allison began new firms. Moses teamed up with fellow Little Rock native and Washington and Lee graduate Tucker to form what’s now Moses Tucker Real Estate.

Moses Tucker’s efforts to bring residents downtown included development of the Arkansas Capital Commerce Center in 2002, the First Security Center in 2004, 300 Third Street in 2007 and the River Market Tower in 2009. The company has worked with hotel developer John McKibbon to bring four new hotels to the River Market District.

Moses Tucker later expanded its efforts to Main Street to transform the 1912 Blass Building into the Mann on Main. The popular Italian restaurant Bruno’s Little Italy was reborn in the complex.

Farther south on Main Street, Moses Tucker has joined forces with Cromwell Architects Engineers to bring life back to the building that housed the Arkansas Democrat from 1916 until the early 1930s. The building, designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson, later housed a furniture store and the Lido Cafeteria. The top floors have been vacant for more than 25 years.

In the River Market District, the company partnered with the Central Arkansas Library System to develop the Arcade Building, which is home to the upscale restaurant Cache, the Ron Robinson Theater and other offices and businesses.

On East Capitol, Moses Tucker tore down the former Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. headquarters and replaced it with the MacArthur Commons apartment complex. In November, the 59-unit, three-story building was sold for $10.5 million to MacArthur Commons LLC, led by David R. Thompson. The project, which was completed in September, was already 97 percent occupied at the time of the sale.

During the summer, Moses Tucker broke ground on the 36-unit Legion Village apartment complex on nearby Rock Street with additional plans to renovate the former M.M. Eberts American Legion Post building and an adjoining structure.

In October, Moses Tucker announced that it had teamed up with the Cromwell firm to develop a 3.5-acre area east of Interstate 30, near the Heifer International headquarters. Cromwell plans to transform a 50,000-square-foot warehouse into a mixed-use development and add 20,000 square feet to the building. About a third of the facility will house Cromwell’s Little Rock offices. Moses Tucker will handle the management and leasing of the complex. For now, the area, which already includes Lost Forty Brewing and Rock Town Distillery, is being billed as East Village.

“Forty years ago, when we built our building at Markham and Spring streets, the area was in need of a major redevelopment effort,” says Dan Fowler, Cromwell’s director of finance and business development. “Our building, along with investments in the Camelot Hotel, Excelsior, Stephens Building and Capital Hotel, created a vibrant district within the core of our city. We hope to do the same east of I-30.”

Cromwell CEO Charley Penix says that the addition of restaurants and apartments to the area could lead to “the new River Market.”

Moses also envisions an area that mixes retail, restaurants and residents, leading to activity 24 hours a day.

“In northwest Arkansas, you have had the Walton family and the Tyson family provide direction and vision,” Moses says. “We don’t have one dominant family here. But we do have a chance to be a great city. What we have to realize is that we’re not finished. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Moses also has turned his attention to the neighborhood where he’s having lunch on this day, which is now being called the Financial Quarter.

Almost 5,000 people work in the high-rise Simmons Tower, Regions Center, Union Plaza, Bank of America Plaza and Stephens Building. A large number of those workers drive into downtown Little Rock five mornings a week, walk from parking garages into their buildings and don’t come out again until walking back to their cars at the end of the day for the drive to places such as Bryant, Conway and Lonoke.

Moses Tucker took a first step with almost $1 million in improvements to the first and second floors of the Regions Center, which it manages.

A volunteer design cooperative known as studioMAIN has worked for more than a year on a plan to revitalize the Financial Quarter, which is bordered by Sixth Street on the south, the Arkansas River on the north, Main Street on the east and Broadway on the west.

Both Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker describe the neighborhood as “tired” and in need of renovation.

Once lively bank lobbies are now empty as more people do their banking online.

The first phase of a three-part plan for the Financial Quarter will include a so-called pop-up event designed to show what the neighborhood could be, better branding and the addition of street furniture, painted crosswalks, hanging banners and landscaping.

The second phase will involve the redesign of existing plazas and bank lobbies in an effort to draw people out of their offices for dining and shopping opportunities.

The third phase will include plans for building out the Financial Quarter, including the replacement of surface parking lots with high-rise housing projects and adjoining parking decks.

During a meeting of stakeholders last year, Moses recalled how desolate the River Market District once was and told those in attendance that the River Market area started with far fewer assets than the Financial Quarter.

Asked to list three top objectives for Little Rock during the next decade, Moses says:

— “Transforming the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. It needs to be to this city what Vanderbilt University is to Nashville. There’s no reason that UALR can’t be nationally recognized. To be a great city, Little Rock needs a great institution of higher education. Hiring the right person to succeed Joel Anderson as chancellor is critical to the future of this city. We must have someone who understands the role of an urban university and can build on what Joel has done.”

— “Continuing redevelopment of the city’s core. We’re creating a sense of place down here, and it’s important that we don’t lose momentum. Seeing what’s going on downtown has given people a sense of pride in the city. It’s time to accelerate that process.”

— “Building the brand of Little Rock. We need people across the country to recognize Little Rock as a city that’s on the right path. For instance, I like the fact that UALR is now simply branding its athletic teams as Little Rock. UALR has no meaning to people outside of Arkansas. Little Rock, however, means something.”

Moses is convinced that UALR needs a significant presence downtown. He thinks the university should find a way to partner with the Little Rock Technology Park, which is trying to develop a research-technology corridor along Main Street.

“If I were the new chancellor, the first directive I would issue would be that UALR must have a satellite campus downtown and that it must be aligned with the tech park,” Moses says. “Even if the project takes 20 years to complete, it’s important that we do it. We already have the law school, the Clinton School of Public Service and the Arkansas Studies Institute downtown. If we could somehow add more UALR departments to the mix, we could have a real intellectual powerhouse that would attract more young, talented people to live downtown. There are certain things that we simply have to do if we’re going to be great as a city, and this is one of them.”

Moses realizes that a new generation is taking on leadership roles in Little Rock. His son Chris was named the president of Moses Tucker in 2013. Chris Moses graduated from Little Rock Central High School and then received a bachelor’s degree in real estate finance from Arizona State University in 2001. After working for Moses Tucker in Little Rock and for firms in Orange County, Calif., and Atlanta, Chris Moses received his master’s degree in real estate development from Clemson University in 2011. He returned to Moses Tucker after earning the advanced degree.

Despite having his son as president of the company, Jimmy Moses has no plans to slow down.

He told an interviewer in 2014: “I’d like to keep doing this for another 25 years.”

Two years after making that comment, he’s busier than ever.

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