- WALTON COLLEGE OFFSHOOT: Coming to 117 Main St., the former Orbea headquarters.
Walton School of Business
The Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas is working to expand its executive education by opening an office in downtown Little Rock that would offer nondegree programs to the health, banking and finance and retail industries in Central Arkansas. Brent Williams, associate dean for executive education and outreach at the Walton College, said, "I love what's going on on Main Street ... the energy and the vibrance." He's been meeting with major employers and potential partners assessing need and how the school may "bring the right resources to Central Arkansas." The school would offer noncredit, certificate-targeted programs in such subjects as leadership, finance, accounting and technical skills. Williams said the college is working with Stephens' interests to lease space at 117 Main St., the former Orbea headquarters, but that "nothing is finalized."
117 Main St.
- FEEDBAG: The 300 block of Main is shoulder-to-shoulder eateries, with Samantha's Tap Room and Wood Grill, Bruno's Little Italy and Soul Fish Cafe on the west side (above), and Ira's coming to the Rose Building on the east side of the street.
300 BlockHas it really only been four years since the 300 block of Main Street was home to little more than Bennett's Military Supplies, Downtown Wigs and Mr. Cool (RIP)? Since then, the block has become the most fully realized stretch of a reinvigorated downtown. Local advertising behemoth CJRW moved into the newly spiffed-up 1890 Fulk Building (300 Main) in the summer of 2015. A short while later, CJRW's video production arm, Jones Film Video, relocated to a sleek new building across the street, on the site of Mr. Cool's, and changed its name to M-3 Productions. In February, Waymack & Crew purchased M-3 from CJRW and took over the space (301 Main).
The rest of the west side of the block has become a restaurant row. An offshoot of a Memphis catfish mini-chain, Soul Fish Cafe (306 Main) opened last summer in the former home of Dundee's. Back in the fall of 2013, the venerable Bruno's Little Italy (310 Main) moved to the ground floor of the Mann Lofts, constructed in 1890 and the former home of Gus Blass Dry Goods. Last year, the restaurant spun off Bruno's Deli (308 Main), a grab-and-go lunch spot next door, but because of the challenge of operating out of separate spaces, earlier this year Bruno's began serving its sandwich menu from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. at 310 Main and using 308 Main as a prep kitchen. Bruno's neighbor to the south is Samantha's Taproom and Wood Grill (322 Main), a sprawling and well-appointed modern bar and eatery from Cheers in the Heights' Chris Tanner and other partners. It opened in early 2015 in the ground floor of the Mann Building, a seven-story, 90,000-square-foot office building that once housed the Gus Blass Department Store.
Perhaps as early as May, chef Ira Mittleman plans to relocate his Ira's in Park Hill to 307 Main in the 1901 Rose Building on the east side of the block. It will now be called Ira's, seat about 86 and cater to lunch, dinner and bar crowds. Mittleman says he hopes to restore the walls and floor to the style of the 1900s, while adding other modern touches. Building owner Tommy Lassiter is offering living space upstairs.
Next to the Rose Building, Club Level (315 Main) since October 2013 has been packing in the folks who come downtown to drink and dance. It's the third club since 2011 on the ground floor of the former 1902 Gus Blass Dry Goods Warehouse, which Scott Reed of Reed Realty Advisors of Portland, Ore., purchased from the family of Little Rock City Director Dean Kumpuris in 2010. Reed's plan to rent 32 apartments in what he called KLofts never came to fruition, despite reports from Reed associates and others back in 2015 that the apartments were finished and only awaiting appliances. For several years, KLofts and other Reed downtown investments have been embroiled in financial problems and lawsuits. In January, Creek Capital Partners LLC of Fort Smith, led by the Steve Creekmore Jr. family, purchased the construction loan on KLofts from IberiaBank. Last year, IberiaBank sued to recover more than $1.4 million owed on an original $1.3 million loan to K Lofts LLC in 2013. If other legal entanglements were resolved, Creek Capital would own the building.
- PARK VIEW: Little Rock Technology Park Director Brent Birch stands at the large windows fronting Main Street on the fourth floor of the Tech Park's first building.
Little Rock Tech Park
It has been 10 long years since the Arkansas General Assembly passed a bill to create research park authorities, legislation that kicked off the Little Rock Technology Park. Finally, the park is being realized, with buildings bought, renovated and ready for business. Its first building, at 417 Main St., is filling up the first three floors of its buildings with co-working space and startup tech business offices so quickly that an open-space floor intended for one or two businesses is being remodeled to accommodate more entrepreneurs.
A little history: The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, where the Tech Park idea originated, first carried the ball, commissioning a feasibility study and then persuading the city to ask voters to pass a sales tax that would produce $22 million over 10 years to build the park.
There were several timeouts along the way, as the original plan of the park's board of directors, established in 2011, to level a neighborhood south of Interstate 630 turned out to be a no-go for the neighborhood and city directors. Several other sites were considered, including land owned by the UA Little Rock, one of the park's sponsors (along with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the city), and the Sears building lot on University. But Mayor Mark Stodola, saying today's young entrepreneurs wanted to be in a livelier place than an isolated campus, pushed for downtown, and in 2013 the authority board voted 4-3 to go along with his idea of a Main Street technology corridor.
Tech Park Director Brent Birch said the 417 Main St. building should be open (if not totally finished) the first week of March. The six-story, 38,000-square-foot address is made up of two renovated and connected buildings in the middle on the east side of Main. The first tenants include the Little Rock Venture Center, a business accelerator with a long-term lease; 14 technology companies, including long-term leaseholder Ritter Communications; two individual tenants and a coffee shop, Blue Sail Coffee Roasters, on the ground floor that will be open to the public. The building features high-speed internet and furnished co-working space on the second and third floors; showers for bike-to-work millennials; repurposed wood planks as decorative wall features; glass-walled conference rooms on the upper floors; and large windows offering western and eastern views of downtown.
The authority purchased 417 Main (formerly the annex to 5 Main Place); 415 Main St. (the old Mays Building and now incorporated into 417 Main); 5 Main Place at Fifth and Main, which is under lease to the state Department of Higher Education; the old Stephens Inc. headquarters between Main and Scott on Fifth; the parking lot on the west side of the 400 block of Main and a parking lot at Fifth and Scott for $12.6 million. The purchase was financed with a loan of $17.5 million from a consortium of banks. The city has also transferred $6.6 million in tax receipts to the authority and is expected to contribute another $1.4 million in the first quarter of 2017.
Later phases of the Tech Park will include construction of a building on the west side of the 400 block — a parking lot now — and another building, possibly a laboratory for biomedical research, at the northeast corner of Fourth and Main streets. The authority also hopes to buy the Channel 7 building at the southeast corner of Fourth and Main, its deck and the empty lot just south of it.
To date, new companies occupying 417 Main St. include Idatafi, a Venture Center-born company; LumoXchange, a financial tech company from Atlanta; PC Assistance of Little Rock; PFITR income security company based in St. Louis; Labscoop, an online platform for medical facilities; Redoxica, a Little Rock biotech company; Sparkible, an online marketing company; MobX, software engineers; Touchwood Technologies, mobile and cloud software development; Playbook Weight Management; Noble Impact, an education initiative; and On Site Hepatology, a system for physicians. Mary Lewis with Accelerate Arkansas; and Clay Simmons, senior manager for software at Comcast, are individual tenants.
Blue Sail operates two coffee shops in Conway, where it roasts its own beans and will offer a limited menu of breakfast and brunch items downtown.
- Brian Chilson
- BOYLE BUILDING: Owned by Chi Hotel Group.
500 BlockIn 2010, Main Street Lofts LLC, a group that included Portland, Ore., developer Scott Reed and Little Rock investor Wooten Epes, bought for $1.5 million the four vacant buildings that made up the west side of the 500 block of Main: the 100,000-square-foot Boyle Building (500 Main), the 62,688-square-foot M.M. Cohn building (510 Main), the 21,000-square-foot Arkansas Annex (514 Main) and the 41,816-square-foot Arkansas Building (524 Main).
In 2013, Reed told the Times the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra would occupy the ground floor of the former M.M. Cohn building by the end of that year. Kent Walker Cheese, Bella Vita jewelry and artists Ariston Jacks and Keith Carter were also set to lease space, Reed said. None of that came to pass.
In 2014, Main Street Lofts sold the 12-story Boyle Building to the Chi Hotel Group LLC for $4.6 million. Jacob and Jasen Chi said they planned to build an Aloft hotel there. But in August 2015, Jacob Chi said the project was on indefinite hold.
Aside from the projects mentioned below, work has stalled on the residential redevelopment on the upper floors of the Cohn, Arkansas Annex and the Arkansas Building. Little Rock's AMR Construction LLC, which pulled its workers off the job in 2015, received a $896,756 arbitration award for unpaid work on the block in 2016. Attempts by the Times to reach Reed and Jacob Chi were unsuccessful, but Reed has been in town recently telling people that he's close to new funding to get the 500 block going again.
- IN THE ANNEX: The dance workshop in The Rep's new educational space.
Arkansas Repertory Theatre Education Annex
518 Main St.
The Rep's focus on education isn't new. The company has been conducting summer acting camps, student matinees and master classes for some time, and the organization's audition-only Summer Musical Theater Intensive — founded in 2005 — thrived under the direction of Nicole Capri. It has been mentioned in the same breath as young artist camps elsewhere in the U.S. that enjoy the benefits of longer histories and cushier budgets. Thriving plants need bigger pots, though, don't they? To that end, The Rep has planted its education faculty amid the would-be revival of the 500 block of Main. The new Education Annex, just across the street from The Rep's main facility, houses a small office space, a 125-seat black box theater, and three studio classrooms outfitted with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and sprung dance floors to absorb impact. Director of Education Anna Kimmell and a staff of teaching artists have expanded The Rep's summer curriculum into year-round programming for a wider age group. The youngest student currently enrolled is 5 and the oldest is 78. "An education component of The Rep has always existed," Kimmell told us. "The question was: How do we implement it? And the real game-changer was this space."
When brothers Jay, Ross and Chris Cranford left the CJRW advertising agency in the spring of 2014, they did so with the intention to create what they called a "garden" agency, leveraging their expertise and their local relationships to compete with larger-scale agencies focused on ad volume.
- WHERE HE WORKS: McLeod's easel is set up in his gallery.
Matt McLeod Fine Art Gallery
108 W. Sixth St., Suite A
He may not have known it at the time, but when painter Matt McLeod brought the vibrant koi fish to life in "Beneath the Surface" — the 30-foot mural on the north wall of Bennett's Military Supplies at 608 Main St. in the spring of 2015, he was creating the piece he'd see from his gallery desk every day. McLeod opened his gallery in space on the south side of the remodeled Arkansas Building in November of that year, and conducts business from a sunny terrarium of a front room with high ceilings, exposed piping and a handsome wood plank floor made from lumber recovered from delivery truck beds. An adjacent hallway, which displays pencil drawings by Dominique Simmons and Harry Loucks and towering geometric sculptures by Jeff Owens and Hunter Brown, connects to neighboring Ballet Arkansas's rehearsal room and Arkansas Repertory Theatre's Education Annex. "I love it," McLeod said when we asked him about hearing Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" on repeat for most of the holiday season. "Ballet Arkansas brings such an energy to the building," the artist and gallery owner said. The block is slowly filling in vacant gaps with art, food and theater, and that excites McLeod. But because he's a Little Rock native who's been driving down Main Street most of his life, he's measured about that enthusiasm: "It's exciting for me to see Main Street come back to life, but these things take time," he said. "It's a pretty cool thing we've got, and it's an infant."
- ON THE CREATIVE CORRIDOR: Ballet Arkansas dancers rehearse at the company's new space in the 500 block of Main.
520 Main St.
After years of anticipating a move to the Creative Corridor, Ballet Arkansas moved into a 1,300-square-foot space on the ground floor of the Arkansas Building on Oct. 25, 2016. The ballet had been leasing space in West Little Rock at Shuffles Ballet II, using the studio during the daytime when Shuffles' students were in school. The new rehearsal space is fully mirrored, with a sprung floor designed especially for pointe shoes and ceilings high enough for the company's astoundingly tall principal dancers, Deanna Karlheim (5 feet, 11 inches) and Zeek Wright (6 feet, 8 inches), to perform full lifts. The 13 full-time artists on the company's roster can be seen at the barre from the sidewalks outside, something Artistic Associate Laura Babcock says sparks curiosity from passersby. "One of the first things that happened when we moved in was that a mother and daughter walked by, and the little girl's face just lit up," Babcock said. "I mean, the look on her face. I think we all felt like, 'that could have been me.' It's important for us to let people see what we're doing." The Pfeifer Brothers Department Store was the original occupant of the Arkansas Building.
- LOFTS ABOVE, DUMPLINGS BELOW: Residents of the Arkansas Democrat Lofts, six apartments in the historic building at 615 Main St., will soon be able to dine downstairs at Three Fold Noodles and Dumplings Co.
The Arkansas Democrat Lofts
615 Main St.
Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co.
613 Main St.
When crews working for Moses Tucker Real Estate removed a mid-20th century façade from the building they were restoring at 615 Main, the words Arkansas Democrat appeared, engraved in the original limestone sign above the entryway. The Charles Thompson-designed building, the home of the newspaper from 1916 to the 1930s, had been abandoned for more than two decades, and it took a couple of years and $3 million to rehab, such was its condition. (The architect for the restoration of the building was the Cromwell firm — founded by Charles Thompson.) But now, the 14,000-square-foot building houses eight loft apartments, from 800 to 1,500 square feet on the upper floor, and all leased, and the popular Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co. will move from 215 Center St. to open on the ground floor. The new space will allow Three Fold seating for 120, up from 80 now, and for an open kitchen that owner Lisa Zhang says will allow her to serve her beloved noodles, dumplings and buns as soon as they're prepared. New for the restaurant: Baozi, a Chinese pastry with sweet and savory filling, will be offered for breakfast.
- WELCOMING, WATCHING: Mayor Stodola greets the newly hired Downtown Ambassadors.
If you're walking down Main Street, you might be approached by a man in a red polo shirt with DLRP stitched over the pocket. If so, say hello: He'll be one of the two new Downtown Ambassadors hired by the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, and he's there to welcome visitors and keep an eye on issues like graffiti, trash, burned-out street lights and the like. Mayor Mark Stodola introduced Donovan James and Aaron Clark, who were hired recently as the city's first ambassadors, last week and said they'll play a role in helping visitors have a pleasurable and safe experience. The ambassadors will also check panhandlers and walk you to your destination should you feel the need for an escort. They'll work an area between Markham and Ninth streets on the north and south and Broadway and Cumberland on the west and east.
Main Streetscape revamp
The official name couldn't be more boring: the Water Quality Demonstration and Education Project. But that's what the snazzy improvements to the street and pedestrian areas on Main Street from the 100 to the 500 block are officially called. Phase I of the project, which began in late 2013 and finished in September 2015, was funded by a matching grant from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission via the Environmental Protection Agency. It includes sidewalks that bulge into the street to "calm" traffic, pervious pavement (material through which water can flow) and rain gardens. Phase II will include work along the 600 and 700 blocks and will begin this summer. It's the same idea: The project "will demonstrate the benefits of green infrastructure," Caran Curry, grants coordinator for the city, said. The second phase is expected to cost $1.072 million and will be paid for with $536,000 in federal dollars to be matched by the city.
- THE DONAGHEY: The city's first skyscraper, at 14 stories, awaits development.
700 Main St.
When constructed in 1925-26, this 14-story commercial property at Seventh and Main streets was the tallest building in Little Rock. Since 2008, however, it has sat vacant. An investor group from the Washington, D.C., area plans to convert the Donaghey Building into market-rate apartments — 155 of them — with retail space on the ground floor, along with amenities such as a fitness center, a movie theater and an outdoor patio and lawn. Residents will park next door, in the deck across Seventh Street owned by the Metrocentre Improvement District.
Matthew Musgrave, the project manager, estimated the development costs of the Donaghey Building to be around $14.5 million. Last May, the project cleared one hurdle when the Little Rock City Board approved a zoning change that allowed the development to proceed. Still, construction likely won't begin anytime soon: The developer, LRMU LP, is still negotiating with the owner of the building, Lake Hamilton Corp., as of the publication of this article.
LRMU is a project of AII Funds, an EB-5 investor group. The federal government's EB-5 visa program grants permanent residency (green card) status to foreign investors who make an investment of $500,000 or more in a commercial enterprise in the United States and create or preserve jobs in the U.S. LRMU expects to use historic tax credits to assist in financing the project.