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Warren Stephens: Moving carefully on downtown holdings

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WATCHING: Warren Stephens (left) with Bill Valentine.
  • WATCHING: Warren Stephens (left) with Bill Valentine.

Stephens Inc. CEO Warren Stephens thinks Little Rock needs to be “more aggressive” about committing tax dollars to downtown development projects, and he has shied away from dictating the future of his own downtown properties, lest he provoke a “backlash.”

“I want to be part of the process,” Stephens said in an interview with the Arkansas Times. “I’m not going to be the sole factor to make any development come to light.”

Referring to Dickey-Stephens Park, the new minor league baseball stadium under construction in North Little Rock for which he donated the riverfront property, Stephens said, “I’m willing to buy the land, but I can’t build the ballpark. And it wouldn’t be good if I did that. I’ve watched what’s going on in Seattle. [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen has spent tons of money investing in downtown, and there’s kind of been a backlash against him. People have said he’s the one running the city, making the decisions. I don’t want there to be a backlash against us.”

North Little Rock taxpayers approved a temporary 1 percent sales tax increase to fund construction of the stadium, and Stephens says Little Rock should not be afraid to propose similar initiatives to finance downtown projects.

“I think the city needs to be more aggressive to put taxpayer money to work to support development, like the ballpark in North Little Rock,” Stephens said.

Stephens’ opinions about downtown development carry weight because of his extensive holdings in the area. The Times reported in 2004 that the financier had assembled through shell corporations a series of properties along Main Street, from Markham to Capitol Avenue.

Stephens-owned parcels include two parking lots that comprise the entirety of the west side of Main Street from Markham to Third Street, as well as a sizable portion of both sides of the block between Fourth Street and Capitol Avenue. The headquarters of Stephens Inc. is on Center Street, only two blocks away, and Stephens also owns the Capital Hotel, which is less than a block away from Main Street on Markham.

Stephens continues to look toward expanding his downtown real estate collection. Most recently, Stephens made headlines with an offer to purchase the Block 2 apartment complex at the corner of Markham and Main streets, but that deal may be contingent on relaxing restrictions that accompanied a federal grant to renovate the building.

“Block 2 is still very much in the air,” Stephens said. “I don’t know what will happen with that. There are a lot of issues with Block 2 that may not be able to be resolved. … Our interest is that we own so much around it. That building is not being maintained right or run right, and it could have a negative impact on that part of Markham Street and affect some of our properties. That doesn’t mean we can do anything about it.”

Stephens insists he does not have an overarching plan or specific goals for developing his downtown properties. Rather, he is waiting for good ideas and other sources of financing.

“I’m interested in what can be achieved, what is feasible,” Stephens said. “I don’t have a plan because I don’t know where the money is going to come from. … I’m interested and want to see something happen. But it has to make economic sense. It has to be a self-sustaining entity.”

Among his Main Street holdings is the old Center movie house, which was slated to be restored as a dinner theater. But renovation stopped not long after it started, and reports indicated that the project was on hold until the homeless shelter across the street moved away. Now the shelter is gone, but the Center theater site remains idle.

“There hasn’t been any progress to speak of on that,” Stephens acknowledged. “There have been discussions from time to time about the [Arkansas Repertory Theatre] going into the Center theater or into the buildings next to the Center theater. That would be great. But we’ve got to have the money, get the money to make that happen.”

Stephens also offered his parking lot between Second and Third streets as the site of a new location for the Rep, currently housed in an old building at Sixth and Main. Such a facility was anticipated as the anchor of a Main Street renaissance, but it was contingent on a $15 million grant from the Reynolds Foundation that didn’t come through.

“Any downtown struggles with keeping people here after work,” Stephens explained, “and I do think it’s important for this downtown to do that. The ballpark is part of that. There will be 70 games a year there. The Rep puts on shows 230 nights a year. The symphony, those are the kinds of things we need. And adding living spaces, upscale and not-so-upscale.

“The motive is to see downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock develop and become the best it can,” Stephens continued. “Any vibrant community has to have a successful downtown. It has to have a place people identify as ‘town.’ We’re fortunate to have that in Little Rock and North Little Rock. We have an identifiable core. Is it as good as we want it to be? No. That’s why we’re coming in and doing things like investing in the Capital Hotel. It’s a great asset as an owner but also a great asset to the city. It’s not mutually exclusive; it works to the benefit of both. I want to see more like that type of investment take place.”

Stephens says he doesn’t have a timeline or deadline for developing his downtown real estate. “We’ve paid for all the buildings, so there’s no drop-dead date on them. We’ll see what can be a successful development.”

And he’s even open-minded about the definition of “successful.”

“We’re looking for the best use for the property,” Stephens said. “That may be for-profit endeavors, or it may be non-profits that can be self-sustaining. The main thing we want to do is commit the resources to help downtown and be part of the process.”

— Warwick Sabin

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