ELEVENTH IN A SERIES
We reach Conway, one of the fastest-growing cities in the state, on our trip west. This is a place that seems to have its act together.
Back in 2010, the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce developed a strategic plan for the city. That plan, along with a lot of hard work by both the public and private sectors, led to roundabouts, additional parks, more efficiency in city government and other improvements.
Chamber officials hoped to begin developing a new strategic plan in March 2020. Then the pandemic came along.
“In July 2020, we convened our steering committee and asked them if they thought we should move forward,” says Jamie Gates, the chamber’s executive vice president. “They emphatically agreed that it was more important than ever to have an updated plan. So we went out in August and September of that year and surveyed the community. We received more than 1,800 responses, a 30 percent increase from the 2010 effort. We offered 39 possible priorities and said ‘mark all of these that should be included in a strategic plan.'”
The results surprised economic development officials.
In 2010, the priorities were streets, job creation, education and public safety. This time the top category was overwhelmingly arts, culture and entertainment. It was followed by parks and recreation, bike paths and trails, and job creation.
“I was really conflicted,” Gates says of the decision to move forward with the strategic plan during a pandemic. “I didn’t know if it was appropriate. I was worried about participation. And I didn’t want the result to be a plan that focused on the trauma and uncertainty that surrounded us. Thankfully we already had an incredible steering committee in place for big decisions like this.
“It was an important moment when we heard committee members say that people needed an opportunity to imagine a better future and that the plan would bring the community together during a time of isolation.”
The steering committee consisted of seven women and six men. Two of the members had lived in Conway for less than three years. Only one went to high school in Conway. Six had lived there from 20 to 25 years.
The committee hired the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain to move the plan forward. The folks from WRI facilitated 57 Zoom meetings with almost 200 residents.
“We had more than 1,000 hours of professionally facilitated, intentional, goal-setting conversations about our community,” Gates says.
These are the things that surprised him:
— The strong belief on the part of steering committee members that it was important to develop a strategic plan during a pandemic.
— The shift in priorities toward quality of place.
— The fact that Zoom meetings were more engaging than town hall-style meetings since they allowed glimpses into people’s real lives.
“It has been inspiring to see people so committed to participating in the process,” Gates says. “Folks were Zooming while feeding their kids or just doing the best they could. There was a different — but just as authentic — sense of community when you get those glimpses into people’s real lives.”
In some ways, Conway represents the future of Arkansas. This is a state that’s becoming more urban with 53 of the state’s 75 counties losing population from 2010 to 2020. For years to come, most growth in the state will be in the Little Rock metropolitan area (of which Conway is a part), northwest Arkansas and the Jonesboro region. These areas are positioned to thrive while rural Arkansas struggles.
Conway is also a college town, the home of three four-year institutions of higher education — the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, college towns will naturally do better than communities without four-year institutions.
This will be true even in places outside the northwest Arkansas, Little Rock and Jonesboro metro areas. Think of Russellville, Clarksville, Batesville, Arkadelphia, Magnolia, Pine Bluff and Monticello as examples of towns where the presence of colleges and universities will serve as the kind of catalyst that communities in surrounding counties don’t have.
Due to its central location and because it’s a college town, Conway has thrived in recent decades. In the 1960 census, the city’s population was 9,791. That grew to 15,510 in 1970; 20,375 in 1980; 26,481 in 1990; 43,167 in 2000; 58,908 in 2010; and 64,134 in 2020.
A study by business-to-business service platform Upwork revealed that the shift to remote work in this country has prompted a record number of American workers to relocate. Among the study’s findings:
— Remote work will increase internal migration. From 14 to 23 million Americans will move as a result of remote work. Combined with those who are moving for other reasons, near-term migration rates may be three to four times what they normally are.
— Major cities will see the biggest loss of population. The study showed that 20.6 percent of those planning to move are based in a large city.
— People are seeking less expensive housing. More than half (52.5 percent) are planning to move to a house that’s significantly more affordable than a current home.
— Americans are moving beyond regular commuting distances with 54.7 percent of them moving more than two hours away from their current locations.
In an editorial that appeared in an in-house publication, the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce noted: “Our community has always been optimistic and ambitious. It’s easy to view this migration as a huge opportunity. And it is. Compared to big cities, we have affordable housing. Thanks to Conway Corp., we have tech infrastructure that allows businesses to operate seamlessly from home. Finally, we have a great community and quality of life.
“But we have to be honest with ourselves. The willingness to pick up, move and take your job with you is also a threat. We have thousands of technology workers in our community. Are we a town that’s determined to keep each of them here? Because of our three colleges, we get first crack at thousands of the state’s brightest young minds. Will we educate them only to see them move — diploma in hand — to northwest Arkansas; Franklin, Tenn.; or Frisco, Texas?”
Chamber officials pointed out that community development these days is as much about “build it and they will stay” as it is “build it and they will come.”
“Cities without a sense of urgency are cities that will be left behind,” the editorial said. “Not only left behind by their peers, but literally left behind by people choosing to live elsewhere. As a community, we need to make a promise and keep it. That promise is to never stop working to reach our potential; to never stop putting the best ideas from around the country to work here; to never accept a watered-down quality of place because we wouldn’t try.”
The strategic planning effort made clear that residents of this college town understand that economic development in the 21st century is much more about quality-of-life initiatives than it is about industrial parks and smokestack chasing.
“There’s no reason Conway can’t have northwest Arkansas’ wayfinding signage and bicycle amenities,” the editorial stated. “There’s nothing stopping us from having the live music venues and development standards of Franklin, Tenn. If we want the public art and aquatic amenities of Frisco, Texas, we can have them. It will just take all of us — government, residents and organizations — working together.”
I’m eating breakfast at Stoby’s Restaurant at 805 Donaghey Ave. Stoby’s represents a blend of the old and new Conway — the old Conway because the restaurant has been around since July 1980, and many Conway natives can be found here on a regular basis; the new Conway because a fire burned the original building to the ground in March 2016 and the modern facility that replaced it began attracting a younger crowd. The old building was declared a total loss after a defective motor on a roof vent caught fire. The replacement has 148 seats, more than double the previous 64 seats.
Conway is a far different city than it was when David and Patti Stobaugh opened their restaurant near the UCA campus. When I was growing up at Arkadelphia, I spent a lot of time in Conway. Both towns had two colleges in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, and my family attended AIC football games, basketball games and track meets on a regular basis. I thought of Conway as being much like Arkadelphia. For decades, they were similar in size. Now Conway has 65,000 folks, and Arkadelphia has less than 11,000.
UCA President Houston Davis represents the new Conway. Tom Courtway, a lawyer and former state legislator from Conway, provided steady leadership at the university after becoming president in late 2011. His two predecessors had left the school under a cloud. The popular, affable Courtway retired as president at the end of 2016, and Davis was hired away from Kennesaw State University in Georgia to take his place. Davis previously served as executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the University of Georgia System.
Davis says the dynamism of Conway was part of the draw. While Conway has benefited through the years from white flight out of Little Rock, it’s not a white-flight city in the sense of Cabot or Bryant. Much of its growth has been propelled by the presence of the three institutions of higher education and a group of visionary business and civic leaders.
“In the knowledge-based economy, you’re usually going to have growth where you have universities,” Davis says. “Where you live is important. When we lived in Oklahoma (where Davis served for a time as vice chancellor for academic affairs for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education), Conway was the halfway point on the way to visit my parents in Tennessee. We would stop here on trips, and it was clear that this city was growing and doing things the right way.”
Davis was impressed that Conway didn’t seem to have the town-and-gown separation that’s sometimes found in college towns.
“UCA has a beautiful campus, but we’re not an island,” he says. “We’re an integral part of the community. I’ve never wanted to be in an ivory tower. I’m a big believer in what I call the stewardship of place. We’re not going to shy away from applying the knowledge and services that we have on our campus to make Conway a better place to live. Place matters. Tom did a great job during his years as president in making sure the foundation was strong. On the day I arrived, it was clear that UCA was poised to take off again.”
When talking about Conway’s three colleges being a vital part of the community, it’s important to note the Village at Hendrix. That development adjacent to Hendrix College — which combines residential and retail components with office space — is among the best of the so-called New Urbanism projects in the country. It has played a role in Conway being able to build an environment that attracts young, talented people who want to call the city home after college. The Village helps give Conway a big-city feel.
During a conference I attended in Hot Springs several years ago, Brad Lacy, the chief executive officer of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, explained that city leaders were “very deliberate in recruiting more white-collar employees to town. You have to get the coolness factor right. Young professionals want things that are different from what Conway traditionally offered.”
Lacy said Conway experienced a crisis of confidence when high-tech Acxiom Corp. decided to move its headquarters to Little Rock. Though Acxiom continued to employ far more people in Conway than in Little Rock (it later sold the large building it constructed in Little Rock’s River Market District to Simmons Bank and moved the corporate headquarters back to Conway), the fact that Acxiom executives were working in the capital city caused Conway’s leaders to examine their priorities.
Lacy went to work in 2000 and immediately discovered what he considered to be a major problem — downtown Conway was dead at night. There was no place for company executives to entertain clients.
“You could shoot a gun down the street at 6 p.m. and not hit anyone,” Lacy said. “We were standing in downtown one night and a car filled with people from out of state came by. One of the people in the car rolled down his window and screamed out, ‘Hey, nice downtown.’ He was being sarcastic. We got the message. It was another wake-up call for us.”
The Conway Downtown Partnership was formed in 2001, and the trajectory has been straight up since that time.
“We want to extend that downtown feeling farther toward Interstate 40,” Lacy said.
Three colleges, determined city leaders and a revived downtown are all pieces of the puzzle. Another key to Conway’s explosive growth has been the work of Conway Corp., the city-owned utility system that provides electric, water, wastewater, cable, Internet, telephone and security services for Conway residents.
On May 6, 1929, city leaders signed a charter to create Conway Corp. Seven weeks later, the new corporation signed a lease to operate Conway’s electric light plant. In February 1930, the Conway City Council turned over operations of the city’s waterworks to Conway Corp.
In November 1957, Conway Corp. assumed responsibility for the city’s sewage system. In 1966, corporation executives recommended to the city council that Conway Corp. also receive the cable television contract for the city. In 1997, Conway Corp. became one of the first companies in the country to offer high-speed, broadband cable Internet service to customers. It began offering digital cable in 2002 and added high-definition cable service the following year. Digital telephone service came along in 2008, and free wireless hotspots were added downtown that same year.
In February 2017, Conway Corp. moved into a new three-story, 30,000-square-foot headquarters and announced plans for the Arnold Innovation Center, a hub for start-up companies that was named in honor of retiring CEO Richard Arnold. The one-stop shopping for utility services and the reasonable rates offered by Conway Corp. have helped lure businesses and residents through the years. There’s no corporate headquarters in another city that Conway Corp. must answer to.
“The company had a commitment to education when it was formed in 1929, and that has continued to this day,” says Bret Carroll, who replaced Arnold as CEO in 2017 after having served as the company’s chief financial officer since 1998. “We make regular donations to all three colleges. I’ve yet to hear of another utility that operates quite like we do.”
He describes Conway as that rare place where “leaders all pull in one direction.”
Gates says: “We’ve been able to keep people focused and move things forward.”