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Central Landing still at will of voters

Posted: August 5, 2014 - 9:16pm
Jim Wilson, CEO of Wilson and Associates, the company that would develop the Central Landing shopping center, speaks at a preview event for Central Landing and Lewis Crossing, another retail development planned for Conway. JOE LAMB PHOTO
Jim Wilson, CEO of Wilson and Associates, the company that would develop the Central Landing shopping center, speaks at a preview event for Central Landing and Lewis Crossing, another retail development planned for Conway. JOE LAMB PHOTO

Conway will be getting a Dillard’s store at the planned Central Landing shopping center, but only if a majority of voters in a September 9 special election approve a bond rededication.

Developer Jim Wilson, CEO of Wilson and Associates, made the announcement that the “anchor” store at Central Landing will be Dillard’s, as had been speculated, at a preview event Tuesday night at the Centennial Valley Country Club. A press release to this effect from Dillard’s is expected on Wednesday, Wilson said.

It was a preview of both Central Landing and Lewis Crossing, another shopping center with Sam’s Club as its anchor and an Academy Sports store among the other shops to be built south of Dave Ward Drive off I-40 (the former Lewis Livestock Auction property).

Brad Lacy, CEO of both the Conway Chamber of Commerce and the Conway Development Corporation, spoke briefly on the history of the city’s plans for the 150 acres that has for about 75 years been its airport. In 2009 and 2010, Lacy said, the chamber’s Conway 2025 project gathered input from 1,400 residents.

One finding in Conway 2025 was arrived at easily: Plans for a new airport in the Lollie Bottoms left the property at the new airport ripe for redevelopment as an asset to the Oak Street commercial corridor, and would be a good place for roads giving motorists another main east-west corridor to and over I-40. By federal regulations related to new airport funding, the “old” airport property has to be sold and developed to its “highest and best use” and the proceeds from the sale re-invested in the new airport.

As envisioned, Lacy said, Central Landing would be a place to work, shop “or potentially send your kids to school,” referencing some talk that the property would be a good place for a new public school and the city’s request for proposal document’s requirement that any development at the property be mixed-use.

The city’s contract with Wilson and Associates obligates it to build about $18 million worth of roads to better access the property as a condition to Wilson’s buying and developing the property.

“The FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, set this site up so you can’t get into it,” Wilson said. “We plan to get everybody into it.” 

A rededication of an existing 1/8 cent city sales tax would tie up this tax’s revenue until 2044 rather than 2021, but would generate enough money to build the $18 million in roads for Central Landing as well as roads associated with the Lewis Crossing and some roads in the long-planned Southern Loop road project.

After the preview, chamber executive vice president Jamie Gates was taking questions from the public, including some about the wisdom of having the city pay $18 million for roads that will generally best serve only Wilson and Associates’ Central Landing. These arguments come at a time when several years of "flat" retail sales tax have left the city with a general fund, from which things like police and fire salaries are paid, that has been stretched thin.

“Was the city chasing the developer, or was the developer chasing the city,” one man asked. Wilson was “chasing” the city, Gates said, and the man asked if there wasn’t some leverage to get the developer to pay for the roads, as happens in many economic development projects.

The argument for the bond rededication that Gates and others in the chamber and City Hall have been making has a few elements. The city has recognized Oak Street’s congestion problem for some time, and the fix that has been discussed with the Arkansas Highway Department will either be another major east/west corridor or widening Oak Street to seven lanes.

A road on the order of the four-lane street planned to go from Harkrider Street, through the airport property, and over I-40 to the Conway Commons shopping center would be built anyway, Mayor Tab Townsell said after the preview event, but without the bond rededication it would have to be paid for over the course of several years using five-year municipal loans that don’t require voter approval, and Wilson and Associates wouldn’t build Central Landing.

Also, Gates told people in the Q&A session, the city’s building the roads was part of the request for proposal process, and the city would have obligated to build the roads for any developer. Wilson and Associates happened to be the highest bidder, and it has been projected that Central Landing can generate about $2 million in additional retail sales tax annually. Combined with the jobs that would be created in the new shops and restaurants, the math works out in Conway’s favor in the long-run, Gates said. 

Finally, as Wilson said in his speech, Central Landing is meant to tap a 400,000-person trade area that extends from Conway west along the I-40 corridor — and dollars that would otherwise keep riding I-40 to comparable stores in Little Rock. 

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