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Warren Stephens: All business

Says Main Street needs private dollars to boom.

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There are 18 people tied for the 151st richest American, according to Forbes, and Warren Stephens of Little Rock, the CEO of the nation's largest off-Wall Street investment house Stephens Inc. and worth $2.7 billion, is one of them. The company also owns much of the 100, 200 and 400 block of Main Street, along with the Stephens Building and the Capital Hotel.

Should Stephens decide that the time was right to build on Main, the streetscape could change almost overnight. As it happens, Stephens changed the streetscape in a matter of weeks in 2009 when he decided to demolish all the buildings on the west side of the 400 block of Main. He caught a lot of flak for tearing down the buildings, which included the 1916 Kempner building, once a lovely Neoclassical structure that was covered up by an ugly veneer of concrete panels after the 1950s.

But Stephens got much praise for the $6.1 million restoration of the Exchange Building at 423 Main, across the street from what is now being paved for a parking lot. Ghastly gold aluminum paneling that covered the National Historic Register building was removed, bronze double doors were added and damage to limestone architectural features was repaired. The building now houses the offices of the state Department of Higher Education. The west side of the street, now being paved for a parking lot, will serve the employees at the Exchange Building and an annex next door, should Stephens decide to restore it. (Stephens Inc.'s original building was just around the corner from the Exchange Building on Capitol, a 1920s structure that Warren Stephens has "vivid memories" of.)

So rather than preservationist, Stephens is a pragmatist. One of the Capital Hotel's attractions is its historic beauty; Stephens preserved it. He didn't think redoing the Haverty's building (next door to the Kempner Building) would pay off, obviously.

Stephens is no fan either of architectural studies of what could be (such as the Creative Corridor vision of Marlon Blackwell and Steve Luoni of the University of Arkansas), calling them a "complete waste of time and money." He comes "unglued," he said, at the city's idea of "spending money on catching rainwater," referring to a grant the city has gotten for a demonstration project to green up downtown.

Still, given how much property Stephens owns, it's tempting to dream about what his money could build on Main. Though he's leasing to the public sector, real revitalization depends on private commerce. "We need more people working downtown, preferably private sector employees." He said tax dollars would be better spent on improvements like lighting rather than looks; he noted that Chattanooga has installed a citywide wireless network to appeal to business investment.

Downtown will never be a "retail hub" again, Stephens said, but it will be a place where people live and work, with a component of retail. "Whatever we do, it has got to be commercially viable. ... I think a lot of people lose sight of that."

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