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Going to new heights.

Some Retailers Leave, Others Stay: An Update On Business In Little Rock's Older Neighborhoods

It's a cold, wet Saturday.

It's also the busiest shopping weekend of the year, the weekend following Thanksgiving.

But shoppers don't seem daunted by the weather or each other.

Park Plaza and University Mall aren't the only places in Little Rock attracting customers.

There's a strip in the 5000 block of Kavanaugh Boulevard that also is crowded.

The "tamale man" sells hot tamales from a trailer parked near a Metropolitan National Bank branch each Saturday. He is joined on this day by a vendor selling Christmas wreaths. Customers stop between trips to Terry's Finer Foods Inc., the Design Center and Smith's Country Club Drug Store.

Welcome to the Heights.

"It's like a small town up here on the hill," says Richard Saxton, who has owned the drugstore since 1953.

This "small town" is the oldest surviving retail area in Little Rock. Stores have closed downtown, but many Heights retailers have held on.

The drugstore began in another Heights location in 1927.

More recent tenants to the Heights and Hillcrest have had difficulty attracting the volume they believe is available in the city's new shopping mecca, west Little Rock.

"The city seems to be growing in this direction," says Suzette Jones, whose Kavanaugh Clothing relocated to Bowman Road in west Little Rock in March. "We wanted to be where the action is."

But is west Little Rock where the action is?

"There could be more traffic" there than in the Heights, admits Teresa Elkins, marketing director for the Heights Merchants & Professional Association.

Yet Elkins says west Little Rock merely attracts more lookers.

"In the Heights, they know what they're going for," she says.

The Heights and Hillcrest feature a mix of specialty stores.

"I'm real high on this area," says Rita Mitchell, who owns Elle Inc. in the Heights.

The store has only been open five years, but Mitchell grew up in the neighborhood.

"I've seen it reinvent itself at least a million times," she says.

Mitchell remembers when she was a child and three well-known stores closed at about the same time.

"We thought the world was over," she says. "But just as surely as the world turns ..."

Mitchell's revenues are up 28 percent from the same month a year ago.

A few other Heights retailers tell similar success stories. Those who don't are now in west Little Rock.

Making The Most

"Our Heights store is by far our most important and fastest-growing store," says Howard Hurst, president of the Little Rock floral and gift chain Tipton & Hurst.

Hurst has four other locations, including a shop on busy Bowman Road. But 70 percent of his business comes from the 14,000-SF Heights location. Just 6 percent comes from the 1,500-SF Bowman Curve location.

Hurst's Heights store is at the intersection of Cantrell Road and Grant Street. One advantage, according to Hurst, is that the Heights is centrally located between North Little Rock and west Little Rock. The Heights draws customers from several areas.

Hurst can see why affluent west Little Rock attracts retailers, but he says it may not be as good as it looks.

"It's just like when Rodney Parham |Road~ opened," Hurst says. "Suddenly, there were a bunch of people who decided it was the new place to be."

Including Hurst.

His store didn't last on west Little Rock's Rodney Parham Road because it was too close to the Heights store. Hurst says the Bowman Curve location is far enough away that it doesn't pull business from his flagship location.

Still, there are retailers abandoning the Heights and Hillcrest.

Mindy Stewart recently moved Powder & Smoke to Pavilion in the Park on Cantrell Road even though the business increased its revenues in each of the seven years it was at 1916 Fillmore St.

"The area is just not what it used to be," Stewart says of the Heights. "My customer base was moving out west."

Since the end of July, her revenues have increased by double digits. Stewart believes a location on Kavanaugh Boulevard or a popular side street such as R Street would have helped the store. Lacking such a high-profile location, the modern Pavilion in the Park seemed to be the answer.

"It's the old country club area," Stewart says of the Heights. "But I think it is going to do a lot of changing."

Some experts believe the Heights and Hillcrest should think about changing.

Urban planner Jim Moses, a partner in the Little Rock architectural and planning firm Allison Moses Redden, says older shopping areas should focus on physical improvements such as lighting and landscaping.

"More than anything, there needs to be some thought given to identifying an anchor or specialty niche," he says.

Moses helped develop Bowman Curve, the west Little Rock retailing hot spot.

"The feeling was there was more retail activity ... in west Little Rock," he says. "|Retailers~ needed to be where the traffic is."

Although the trend in Little Rock is to go west, Moses doesn't think older retail areas will disappear. He believes the Heights and Hillcrest are in a transition period.

"There are more businesses that are doing well in our area than not doing well," Elkins says.

Mitchell agrees.

The Elle owner calls the Heights "big time, gold plated, old money."

The Right Moves

Choosing which area is best for a particular retail establishment can be like a game. But this isn't Monopoly money.

Rod Lorenzen once owned The Paperback Writer Bookstore at Grant Street and Kavanaugh Boulevard. The store did well in the Heights. Lorenzen sold the business about four years ago to Kari Whisenhunt, who renamed it Wordsworth Books & Co. and moved the store to 5920 R St., where she has doubled her revenues.

Lorenzen, meanwhile, opened another bookstore. Although he considered the Heights, he chose Colony West, a west Little Rock shopping center.

"I felt this area had more visibility," Lorenzen says. "In our kind of business, that's what you need -- good visibility, high traffic."

He calls the Heights and Hillcrest "nice areas for the people who live there."

Then, Lorenzen adds, "They don't really draw traffic from |other neighborhoods~."

Lorenzen is not the only former Heights tenant who faced a visibility problem.

Shoe Revue, Someplace Special and Waldenberger Luggage & Gift Shop recently moved out of the area.

A retail strip on lower Kavanaugh Boulevard in Hillcrest has its problems as well. When the Hillcrest Gift & Variety store closed three years ago, the location became a post office. A recently closed TCBY Enterprises Inc. location will be used as office space.

There are some specialty stores, however, that thrive. Designer boutiques and other niche stores are the kinds of businesses customers seek out, no matter where they are located.

"It does take a unique shop," says Margaret Zakrzewski, who owns The Lamp House at 5608 R St.

Zakrzewski has worked at the 23-year-old business eight years and has owned it a year. Each year, sales have increased. In the past year, they've risen 10 percent.

The term is a cliche, but customers still want "personal service." And the owners and managers of specialty shops in the Heights and Hillcrest say they can give it.

Park Plaza and University Mall, just around the corner from the Heights, may have helped retailers there by bringing more traffic to the neighborhood. Following Park Plaza's renovation, Mitchell's business at Elle increased 17 percent.

Remaining retailers feel that once people see what the older neighborhoods have to offer, they won't leave.

Joe Sabb, who is retiring and closing Sabb's New & Antique Rugs at 5600 Kavanaugh Blvd., says since he opened in 1975, his revenues have increased 10 to 20 percent per year.

He admits retailing is suffering citywide. Sabb looks "for a lot of stores after the first of the year to lock up because the risk-reward ratio is not as good as it used to be."

But Joe Sabb has another prediction.

"The Heights is going to be here forever," he says.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:bright prospects for the retail industry in Little Rock, Arkansas
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 16, 1991
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