All grown up

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It’s early on a Wednesday morning, and the breakfast crowd has filled Stoby’s Restaurant at 805 Donaghey Ave. in Conway.

Stoby’s represents a blend of the old and the new Conway—the old because the restaurant has been around since July 1980 and many Conway natives can be found here on a regular basis; the new because a fire burned the original building to the ground in March 2016 and the modern facility that replaced it is attracting a younger crowd in addition to the regulars. The building was declared a total loss after a defective motor on a roof vent caught fire. The replacement, which opened in August, has 148 seats, more than double the previous 64 seats.

Conway is a far different city than it was when David and Patti Stobaugh opened their restaurant near the campus of the University of Central Arkansas almost four decades ago. In the 1980 census, Conway had 20,375 residents. Its population now tops 65,000.

When I was growing up at Arkadelphia, I spent a lot of time in Conway. Both towns had two colleges in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, and my family attended AIC football games, basketball games and track meets on a regular basis. I thought of Conway as being much like Arkadelphia—college towns that for decades were similar in size. In the 1960 census, Conway had 9,791 people. The Arkadelphia population was 8,069 that year. Conway’s population is more than six times as large as it was in 1960. Arkadelphia, meanwhile, has fewer than 11,000 residents.

When I speak across the state, I often ask people to name the two counties that grew the most from a percentage standpoint from the 2000 census to the 2010 census. Many will guess correctly that Benton County was Arkansas’ fastest-growing county in that decade. But they tend to remain focused on northwest Arkansas and often name Washington County as the second fastest-growing county. That’s incorrect. It was Faulkner County (Conway is the county seat and by far the largest city), which saw its population soar from 24,303 in 1960 to 113,237 in 2010. Faulkner County gained 26,000 residents from 1990-2000 and another 27,000 residents from 2000-2010.

I’m at Stoby’s at the invitation of David Grimes, a Conway native and a 1991 UCA graduate who has been on the Conway City Council since 2003. We’re visiting with UCA President Houston Davis, who represents the new Conway. Tom Courtway, a lawyer and former state legislator from Conway, provided steady leadership at UCA after becoming president in late 2011. His two predecessors had left the school under a cloud. The popular, affable Courtway retired as president at the end of 2016, and Davis was hired away from Kennesaw State University in Georgia to take his place. Davis previously served as executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the University of Georgia System.

Davis says that the dynamism of Conway was part of the draw. Conway is also home to two private four-year institutions of higher education, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College. While Conway has benefited through the years from white flight out of Little Rock, it’s not a white-flight city in the sense of Cabot or Bryant. Much of its growth has been propelled by the presence of the three institutions of higher education and a group of visionary business and civic leaders.

“In the knowledge-based economy, you’re usually going to have growth where you have universities,” Davis says. “Where you live is important. When we lived in Oklahoma [where Davis served for a time as the vice chancellor for academic affairs for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education], Conway was the halfway point on the way to visit my parents in Tennessee. We would stop here on trips, and it was clear that this city was growing and doing things the right way.”

Davis was impressed that Conway didn’t seem to have the town-and-gown separation that’s sometimes found in college towns.

“UCA has a beautiful campus, but we’re not an island,” he says. “We’re an integral part of the community. I’ve never wanted to be in an ivory tower. I’m a big believer in what I call the stewardship of place. We’re not going to shy away from applying the knowledge and services that we have on our campus to make Conway a better place to live. Place matters. Tom did a great job during his years as president in making sure the foundation was strong. On the day I arrived, it was clear that UCA was poised to take off again.”

Davis would like to see enrollment growth average 2 percent a year, with the student population growing from 11,300 to 13,000.

“About 13,000 students would be optimal for us,” he says.

When talking about Conway’s three colleges being a vital part of the community, it’s important to note the Village at Hendrix. That development adjacent to Hendrix College—which combines residential and retail components with office space—is among the best of the so-called New Urbanism projects in the country. It has played a role in Conway being able to build an environment that attracts young talented people who want to call the city home after college.

Hendrix President Bill Tsutsui describes the Village at Hendrix as “an important part of the first impression that thousands of prospective students and families who visit campus each year have of Hendrix College.”

The Village helps give Conway a big-city feel.

During a conference I attended in Hot Springs several years ago, Brad Lacy, the chief executive officer of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and the Conway Development Corp., explained that city leaders were “very deliberate in recruiting more white-collar employees to town. You have to get the coolness factor right. Young professionals want things that are different from what Conway traditionally offered.”

Lacy said Conway experienced a crisis of confidence when high-tech Acxiom Corp. decided to move its headquarters to Little Rock. Though Acxiom continued to employ far more people in Conway than in Little Rock (it has since sold the large building it constructed in Little Rock’s River Market District to Simmons Bank and moved the corporate headquarters back to Conway), the fact that Acxiom executives were working in the capital city caused Conway’s leaders to examine their priorities. Lacy went to work in 2000 and immediately discovered what he considered to be a major problem: Downtown Conway was dead at night. There was no place for company executives to entertain clients.

“You could shoot a gun down the street at 6 p.m. and not hit anyone,” Lacy said. “We were standing downtown one night and a car filled with people from out of state came by. One of the people in the car rolled down his window and screamed out, ‘Hey, nice downtown.’ He was being sarcastic. We got the message. It was another wake-up call for us.”

The Conway Downtown Partnership was formed in 2001, and the trajectory has been straight up since that time.

“We want to extend that downtown feeling farther toward Interstate 40,” Lacy said.

In addition to breakfast at Stoby’s, Grimes schedules lunch for the John Daly Steakhouse at 912 Front St. downtown. The restaurant, which opened in late September, also represents the new Conway. Named for the professional golfer from Dardanelle, it features a 5,000-square-foot dining room on the first floor along with an 800-square-foot private dining room and four 1,000-square-foot loft apartments on the second floor. It’s sleek, the type of place where one can impress out-of-state visitors without having to take them to Little Rock.

Three colleges, determined city leaders and a revived downtown are all pieces of the puzzle. Another key to Conway’s explosive growth has been the work of Conway Corp., the city-owned utility system that provides electric, water, wastewater, cable, Internet, telephone and security services for Conway residents.

On May 6, 1929, city leaders signed a charter to create Conway Corp. Seven weeks later, the new corporation signed a lease to operate Conway’s electric light plant. In February 1930, the Conway City Council turned over operations of the city’s waterworks and sewer plant to Conway Corp.

In November 1957, Conway Corp. assumed responsibility for the city’s sewage system. In 1966, corporation executives recommended to the Conway City Council that Conway Corp. also receive the cable television contract for the city. In 1997, Conway Corp. became one of the first companies in the country to offer high-speed broadband cable Internet service to customers. It began offering digital cable in 2002 and added high-definition cable service the following year. Digital telephone service came along in 2008, and free wireless hotspots were added downtown that same year.

In February 2017, Conway Corp. moved into a new three-story 30,000-square-foot headquarters and announced plans for the Arnold Innovation Center, a hub for startup companies named in honor of retiring CEO Richard Arnold.

The one-stop shopping for utility services and the reasonable rates offered by Conway Corp. have helped lure businesses and residents through the years. There’s no corporate headquarters in another city that Conway Corp. must answer to. The corporation works closely with the Conway Development Corp. and regularly reinvests in the city. For example, Conway Corp. pledged $3 million in 2015 to UCA for the Lewis Science Center.

“The company had a commitment to education when it was formed in 1929, and that has continued to this day,” says Bret Carroll, who replaced Arnold as CEO last year after having served as the company’s chief financial officer since 1998. “We make regular donations to all three colleges. I’ve yet to hear of another utility that operates quite like we do.”

He describes Conway as that rare place where “the leaders all pull in one direction.”

Grimes agrees. “The common vision is there, and it’s producing results. Growth comes with its problems. We had to get a tax passed in November for road improvements. But it’s better to deal with those types of problems than the problems that come from a lack of growth.”

Jamie Gates, executive vice president of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, says: “We completed a strategic development plan in 2010, and we haven’t moved off that at all the past seven or eight years. We’ve been able to keep people focused and move things forward.”

“We used to go to other cities to see what they were doing,” says Bart Castleberry, the former Conway fire chief who was elected mayor in 2016. “Now the leaders of other cities are coming here to see what we’re doing.”

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