Two Little Rock men in their 20s look at the long-abandoned Sterling Store at Capitol Avenue and Center Street downtown, pigeon-droppings and all, and see a restaurant and urban market, a coffee shop with a window on the street, a fitness center on the ground floor.
Where older entrepreneurs might be jaded about the prospects for success on 200 block of Capitol, Myles Roberson, 26, and Jason Meier, 28, incorporated as Panoptic LLC, are all confidence. They're raising $11 million to renovate the nearly 37,000 square foot building and an annex as the Sterling Center, which will also include high tech business office space on the second floor and a public events room on the third. They say they are well on their way to their goal; they close on the building in mid-June.
Roberson initially looked at the property as a place to house technology enterprise on the second and third floors that would design video game software. Meier then took a look at the building. "I was blown away ... there's opportunity out the rear here" he said.
Meier says Panoptic has already generated interest by a high-profile retailer for the third floor, and that there are "highly interested parties" looking at the tech business space on the second floor.
"We look at ourselves as a natural progression," Meier said, a "bridge to Main Street" in a line of businesses that include the Bank of the Ozarks at 325 W. Capitol and Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods at 303 W. Capitol. There's a substantial gap in the bridge east of the Sterling Building, however; the only draw for foot traffic is a sushi restaurant and a chicken wings eatery, which stand out from empty storefronts surrounding them.
Roberson, from the Roberson Jewelers family, is the visionary, Meier said. Meier, who's the numbers man, is an accountant and consultant with a background in tech firms. He's done the market research on the area.
"There are 42,000 people within a square mile of our building," Meier said. Panoptic projects that, based on a percentage of that customer base, that the project will have made sales of more than $40 million in restaurant, rent and other income over the first five years.
Meier said he and Roberson have consulted with downtown developers Rett Tucker and Jimmy Moses, brokers in the sale of the property to them for $615,000. Meier said the Sterling Center should be a boon to downtown residential development; without it, he said, "It's like you're having a party with no food."
Thinking about food in the Sterling Center are ZaZa's John Beachboard and Scott McGehee*, according to Meier and Roberson. Jody Hardin, of Argenta Market, has expressed interest in an urban grocery, Meier said. Rush Harding, of Crews and Associates, is advising on financing. Meier and Roberson are tempting investors with state and federal rehabilitation tax credits, and federal New Markets Tax Credits. John Greer of Witsell Evans Rasco is the project architect.
The building, designed by Charles Thompson and built in 1918 as a speculative office building, was operated as a Sterling Store by the Dave Grundfest family until it closed. The Downtown Little Rock Partnership has applied for historic district designation that would include the Sterling Center. The area has Capitol Avenue on the north, East Sixth Street on the south, Main Street on the east and Center Street on the west.
Partnership head Sharon Priest called the project "very exciting."
"It will breathe some life into that part of Capitol Avenue. It will certainly help a building that has been an eyesore."
Meier and Roberson are planning on a May 2012 opening. There is still an opportunity to invest, Meier said. They're offering units of $100,000; there are 30 left.
He doesn't believe he and his partner are being overly optimistic. He said he believes the market is prime; "we believe we're on the front of the curve for the downtown area."*After an earlier version of this article was published, Donnie Ferneau, who Meier and Roberson said was thinking about opening a business at the Sterling Center, called to say that he was not involved in the project nor had any intention of joining it.