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Downtown Partnership wants expansion

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Sharon Priest sums up downtown development plans in two words: Main Street.

“There is nothing left to do on Clinton Avenue,” said Priest, the executive director of the Downtown Partnership. “Main Street is the next frontier.”

Toward that end, the organization will work over the next year to devise a strategic plan that will include a special focus on developing Main Street.

“The hardest spot is between Markham and Capitol Avenue,” Priest noted. Many properties on that stretch of Main Street remain vacant, although some are owned by local financier Warren Stephens, who has plans for revitalizing the area.

Priest points to progress on Main Street south of Capitol Avenue, including the Lafayette Square development, the recent purchase of the Donaghey building and the steady improvement just south of Interstate 630, which has taken on the trendy “SOMA” appellation (for South Main Street).

“We have done all we can do with the area of the River Market,” said Downtown Partnership president Warren Simpson. “We want to expand to include a wider radius of downtown, and I do think the best place for us to start is Main Street.”

The Downtown Partnership isn’t ignoring other parts of downtown, however. It just invested $220,000 of bond proceeds towards street improvements on Capitol Avenue between Louisiana and Center streets. The project includes tree removal, sidewalks, lighting, trash receptacles and benches.

Still, Priest wishes she could have extended those improvements all the way to the state Capitol, and she says her organization wants to expand its reach and increase its resources.

“We must create an improvement district to raise enough money to set aside for capital projects,” she said. “The current Metrocenter district is only 45 blocks, and its only assets are the [Donaghey] parking deck and the [Henry Moore] sculpture. Metrocenter floated the bonds to pay for the parking decks, and they must be paid off by the mid-2010s. Until then, our hands are tied.”

Therefore, expanding the current business improvement district is another major priority that will be addressed in the Downtown Partnership’s strategic plan. Priest also hopes to identify businesses and business sectors that can be recruited to locate in downtown Little Rock.

“To capitalize on walkability, we would like to see more retail,” Priest said. “Now we have critical mass, with five museums, the River Market, the Clinton Library, a nature center, the new ballpark, Alltel Arena and a trolley that pulls both sides of the river together. Now the biggest challenge is retail.”

The last piece of the strategic plan will be addressing the image and branding of downtown.

“We’re trying to get people to understand why downtown is important to the city,” Priest said. “And why it is also important to the state of Arkansas. It’s the downtown of our capital city, and what you have in downtown Little Rock is our cultural, legal, government and banking center.”

But without some way to obtain additional operating funds, the Downtown Partnership’s ambitious agenda will be slowed.

“We can’t expand until we pay off the bonds,” Priest noted. “It’s frustrating. We have a great desire to move forward, and the momentum is here. But we feel like we’re stuck on ice, spinning our wheels.”

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