by Ryan Nix
Location, graduate retention spurring Conway growth
Graduate retention is an important issue for many college towns, but it presents an existential challenge for Conway, Arkansas’ own “City of Colleges.”
In 2018, more than 14,200 students graduated from the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College, and the city is focused on providing opportunities for these newly-minted young professionals. It’s in a good position to do so.
“Unlike a lot of college towns, much of our city’s economy is independent of the educational industry,” says Jamie Gates, executive vice president of the Conway Chamber of Commerce. “With that independent economy, we have a better opportunity to keep those graduates than a lot of more major college towns.”
Gates says the best method to prevent brain drain is to make the transition from college to career as easy as possible.
“Conway stands out for our continued growth and having a very well-educated population,” he says. “What the chamber is doing is creating a business environment that will attract and retain all those young, ambitious graduates from our local colleges.”
Conway’s location is a large contributing factor to facilitating this college-career transition. The downtown areas of Conway and Little Rock are less than 30 minutes apart by car, giving residents an abundance of job opportunities compared to more isolated cities as well as providing a quieter, calmer and often times more inexpensive alternative for those who would otherwise live in Little Rock.
While nearly a third of Conway’s population commutes to Pulaski County each day for work, several thousand are driving the opposite direction into Conway every morning for their jobs. These push-and-pull factors have helped Conway’s population more than double over the past three decades from around 29,000 residents in 1990 to more than 66,000 today. That makes Conway the second-largest city in the greater Little Rock metropolitan area.
Maintaining the balance of economic opportunity with idyllic living is one of the Conway Downtown Partnership’s main goals. Since 2001, the organization has promoted downtown aesthetics, development, economics and residency. Like many towns around Arkansas and across the nation, Conway’s downtown area experienced a downturn during the 1980s and ’90s. But thanks in large part to the efforts of the Conway Downtown Partnership (CDP), it has experienced a renaissance. “We’ve been responsible for securing funding for downtown renovation and expansion,” says Kim Williams, executive director of the Conway Downtown Partnership. In fact, since its inception, the CDP has managed to secure more than $5 million in downtown infrastructure improvements. Additionally in the past decade, more than 100,000 square feet of office and retail space has been renovated, due in large part to the grant programs championed by the CDP. Now boasting more than 300 businesses creating 2,500 jobs, Conway’s downtown is thriving and growing.
Beyond the marketplace, Conway’s downtown area has grown to include several cultural and nightlife offerings. The Red Curtain Theatre has emerged as Conway’s community theatre and makes its home in the historic downtown area. Red Curtain presents eight shows a year with offerings for local youth and adults as well as a series of workshops, classes and its own Broadway Dance Academy, which caters to both recreational and pre-professional dance students ages 3 through adult in a wide variety of genres.
And CDP Director Kim Williams has made nightlife a focal point of the group’s vision for downtown. “About 10 years ago we realized we needed more entertainment downtown, more things to do after 5 p.m.,” she says. In pursuit of that goal, the group has been working to attract businesses like Rebel Kettle, one of Little Rock’s home-grown breweries, into expanding into Conway. With hopes to open by the end of this year or in early spring of 2020, Rebel Kettle Conway will be the city’s first brewery, as well as a new local hotspot.
Beyond entertainment offerings, Williams also hopes to attract more people downtown to live. “Just this last year, we finished a 21-unit, multi-family apartment building downtown,” she says. “It’s been a great proof-of-concept. While we may build another in the future, right now, we’ve switched focus to mixed-use buildings with businesses on the ground floor and lofts above.”
This residential focus is on track to more than triple the available housing downtown. Before the new apartments and planned second-floor walkups, Conway’s downtown had only nine loft apartments.
“What we’re really trying to do is create living spaces for young professionals that are cool and trendy but also affordable. We’re also catering to a new trend, where we see older couples with grown children decide to downsize and move into the city center. We’re just really excited about our downtown’s future potential,” Williams adds.
However, no discussion of downtown Conway is complete without mentioning Toad Suck Daze, Conway’s annual community arts and music festival. Still going strong after nearly 40 years, Toad Suck Daze attracts more than 150,000 festival-goers every May to take in the sights, sounds, tastes and toad races the festival promotes. Much of the festival’s proceeds go to funding scholarships and education initiatives in Faulkner County, a total of $1.7 million dollars throughout its existence.
The city partnered in 2017 with Zagster Bikes, a bike-sharing program, and also invested heavily in walking and riding trails with plans to connect the downtown area to Conway Regional Medical Center, UCA, Hendrix and other residential areas. These micro-mobility trails are a product of the Conway 2025 plan, created by the Conway Chamber of Commerce in 2009.
“It set out a series of goals for our city in a variety of areas, and we thought it would be best if the chamber took the lead on it,” says Gates. “We’ve actually been retooling it for a few months now, considering all of the population and economic changes our city has gone through over the past decade. We’ve listened to the public and have retained worthy goals from the 2025 proposal, while adding some new objectives.”
Gates adds that Conway seeks out what makes other cities great places to live and replicates that formula in Faulkner County.
“Our secret sauce for quality growth is that we’re aggressive with our benchmarking. We look for communities around the nation for aspirational benchmarks, cities a little farther down their chosen path that we share qualities with. We go to these places, find out what makes them great and take that knowledge home to Conway.”
However, with growth comes a variety of infrastructure challenges. Many residents and visitors associate those growing pains with the city’s traffic roundabouts.
“Statistics show that they’re safer and faster than stoplights, and I think they’re more aesthetically pleasing, so we’ve been putting them in all over town,” says Bobby Kelly, the City of Conway communications coordinator.
Conway installed its 27th roundabout earlier this year. “What we want is to make our citizens’ lives better, and we try to help them get to work on time and get home early. Our goal is to give the people of Conway five minutes of their lives back every day,” Kelly says.
Conway’s also invested heavily in the walkability of its streets. The city’s Complete Streets policy requires every new street built to feature sidewalks and bike paths, a very forward-thinking strategy for urban planning.
“It’s more expensive, but it’s the right thing to do for our people and our businesses,” Kelly says. We believe that public investment spurs private investment, which brings in more people, jobs and growth. It’s a cycle.”
The city also has been extensively rebuilding and expanding its levee system after this year’s record floods.
“The Arkansas River flooding makes or breaks our town and has the possibility of disrupting the lives of our people and our small businesses,” Kelly notes. “We want to keep our town safe and growing, so for that reason we’ve been hard at work on the Lollie Levee and all of our flood prevention systems.”
Conway’s cycle of growth shows no signs of stopping.
“This is just a really neat, exciting time to be in Conway,” Williams says. “We’re really looking forward to what our future holds.”