Capital city catalysts

I share a lot of news stories to social media and usually can tell within minutes when something has struck a nerve. The “likes” and “shares” quickly pile up.

Two stories that came out within days of each other last month had that effect. The first was news that a partnership that includes restaurant guru Jim Keet will buy the Breckenridge Village shopping center in Little Rock with plans to spend millions of dollars to revitalize it. The second was the purchase of Heifer International’s campus in downtown Little Rock as the home of new veterinary and dental schools.

People in Little Rock suffer from trying to compare growth there to what’s happening in northwest Arkansas. Of course the capital city can’t match that rate of growth. Few places in America can.

As I’ve often pointed out, we’re a state of just three million people and should be rooting for each other. What’s happening in northwest Arkansas is wonderful for the entire state and a big reason state government will end the fiscal year with a surplus of almost $1.5 billion that can be reinvested in rural areas.

Meanwhile, growth in the Little Rock metro area should be applauded by residents of northwest Arkansas, especially at a time when rural counties are losing population (53 of the state’s 75 counties lost population between 2010 and 2020). For Arkansas to succeed, both northwest and central Arkansas must do well. Large parts of east and south Arkansas are bleeding population, and there’s no end in sight to that trend.

The reaction to the two stories last month showed that people statewide like seeing good news come from Little Rock, especially when it signals infill development as opposed to a steady march toward the Perry County line along Arkansas 10. These infill projects should go a long way toward revitalizing the neighborhoods around them.

The new ownership group of Breckenridge Village includes the Keet family (Jim Keet’s sons are heavily involved in the family restaurant empire) and the Kelley Group, a commercial real estate firm. The Kelley Group, which will manage the property, issued a news release stating that the project will entail a “multimillion-dollar renovation that will make Breckenridge one of the most unique and desirable destinations in the state.”

Keet says the partners intend “to bring back the glory days of Breckenridge and revitalize it with a diverse combination of restaurants and retail spaces. At least four restaurants with various cuisines will be a part of the new plan.”

Additional independent restaurant owners already are considering Breckenridge for second locations. I can see seven or eight restaurants clustered there eventually. The Keet family already operates Petit & Keet, Cypress Social, Waldo’s Chicken & Beer and Taziki’s in central Arkansas.

Engineering and design work are ongoing. There will be new entrances, extensive landscaping and a courtyard with amphitheater-style seating.

Hank Kelley of the Kelley Group calls the Keet family “experienced restaurateurs who understand the food and entertainment business.”

The Rodney Parham Road corridor already received a boost when $35 million was spent transforming a former Kmart into a medical complex. Plans for the 100,000-square-foot project were announced in 2018. In March, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees gave the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences permission to lease 32,000 square feet of space at the complex for urology, outpatient surgeries and other services.

In downtown, a private company named OneHealth will purchase the Heifer International campus. OneHealth has partnered with Lyon College to start the state’s first dental and veterinary schools. Heifer will remain on the campus, leasing space from OneHealth. Lyon will occupy the first two floors of the building while Heifer will occupy the third and fourth floors.

Lyon officials hope to begin classes in 2024 or 2025. The hundreds of students and faculty members the two schools will bring downtown should inspire developers to renovate empty structures such as the Boyle and Donaghey buildings on Main Street into apartments. New residents, in turn, will lead to additional downtown restaurants, bars and service providers such as cleaners.

Just as is the case with students at the UA’s Clinton School of Public Service, the River Market District will serve as their student center.

OneHealth assists health-care providers with capital, finding office space and technology. Merritt Dake, its founding partner, previously was chief executive officer of Rock Dental Brands. Dake calls the two proposed schools “a great economic engine for the city of Little Rock and the state of Arkansas.”

“This is an opportunity to get more energy and more excitement back into the space, and that will also benefit local businesses,” says Chris Coxon, Heifer’s vice president of communications. “You’re going to be looking at a lot more foot traffic coming in here.”

Arkansas is one of just 14 states to not have a dental school, and one of 23 states to not have a veterinary school. The timing seems right for Lyon to make its move. Rural Arkansas has a desperate need for more dentists and veterinarians.

“Our institutions of higher learning throughout the state routinely prepare capable and dedicated people who must seek their training elsewhere,” says Melissa Taverner, Lyon’s president. “Although some return home to practice, many young professionals choose to remain where they train.”


Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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