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Making of a Mecca: local leaders are exploring the possibility of a city arena/entertainment center.

Making Of A Mecca

Despite the failure of two major projects aimed at revitalizing downtown Little Rock, a group of innovators has been meeting for the past six months putting together ideas for a major central city arena/entertainment center that could run as high as $50 million. The group says its ideas are still in the formative stages. Perhaps because of the well-publicized foreclosure this May of the $12.5 million MainStreet Mall, they are doing their planning quietly, oh so quietly.

"Any talk is absolutely premature," says Jim Moses, a developer and chairman of a 30-member task force looking at proposals for a downtown arena and entertainment center. "It's a real hope, but it's an idea that's half-baked (at this point)."

However, one important city official says the group is close to placing propositions on the table. "I think they're not too far from making a recommendation," says Mayor F.G. "Buddy" Villines. "That's about all I know."

Past excitement for a sports arena has been fueled by dreams of basketball greatness in central Arkansas, but the current project runs along the same conceptual lines of Memphis' gargantuan $200 million pyramid-shaped athletic/entertainment center. That audacious project has generated reams of positive publicity and has the business community buzzing at the prospects for new revenue sources.

For Little Rock to finance a similar undertaking is daunting in the face of the MainStreet Mall's collapse and Metrocentre Mall's failure. And support for a major project may be hard, if not impossible, to obtain as vocal naysayers pronounce downtown Little Rock's cultural/entertainment soul dead and buried.

Moses is chairman of the Downtown Partnership task force which has met regularly since January to formulate plans. Among its 30 members are business and community leaders such as attorney Mark Grobmeyer and restaurateur Mark Abernathy. The effort has support outside the task force - Healthsouth Rehabilitation Center of Little Rock mounted a petition drive from November through March to gauge public support of a center. However, Healthsouth marketing director David Porter is hesitant to say much about the survey other than he was pleased with the results and that Healthsouth supports an arena.

Although Moses, a partner in the Allison Moses Redden architectural and development firm, is reluctant to speak of downtown projects now, he wrote a commentary in Arkansas Business in January which outlined his early thinking on the subject.

"What is missing is a strong, vibrant and exciting center city....the public and private sector leaders of our community must commit to the time and money to establish a tightly knit, exciting urban city," Moses said. He called for a $25 million multi-purpose arena east of Main Street adjacent to Interstate 30, a $10 million exhibit hall on the riverfront and a "dining and entertainment mecca" on Main Street.

City officials say Little Rock is one of the only cities of its size in America without a major arena - 15,000 seats or more - for sports, concerts and other events. Barton Coliseum, originally built as an outdoor rodeo arena, has seen better days and its gloomy interior is unacceptable for many events. More attractive Robinson Auditorium is too small for major attractions.

While an arena/center isn't per se a money-maker, Villines says it could pump up real estate and commercial interests around it, do wonders for the city's image and bring life to downtown. For example, the Memphis pyramid project is expected to bring in an estimated $43.4 million annually in hotel revenues alone. More than $2 million in commercial real estate has already changed hands in the district just east of the Memphis project.

The mayor contends an activity center downtown would give the central city "an aura of livability" that could at least coincide with, if not spark, increased residential activity near downtown.

Efforts have been made before to bring life to downtown, but the major ones - Metrocentre Mall and MainStreet Mall - have been scrapped in the past few months. Metrocentre Mall came to life in 1978 in an effort to resuscitate declining retail business. Parts of Little Rock's primary downtown thoroughfares, Main Street and Capitol Avenue, were made into sidewalks for a pedestrian mall. Twelve years later, the malling is an acknowledged dismal failure and a $1.35 million effort is underway to reopen Main Street to vehicular traffic.

Trojan Horse

High-flying and hip MainStreet Mall opened in 1987 as a sharp-looking $12.5 million collection of commercial shops on the Metrocentre strip. Yet nearly three years later, Leader Federal Bank for Savings of Memphis foreclosed on the project's mortgage in May. Today, the shopping center is a ghostly remnant of its former self, with its two major restaurants abandoned and a half of the 100,000 rentable SF empty at foreclosure.

Villines contends Metrocentre's failure was among several of the downtown pedestrian malls - the rage of the 19702 - that flopped. As for MainStreet, "It may have been ahead of its time." He says downtown is still the banking and government center of the city and state and needs to be the entertainment and cultural center, the type of activity a major center could bring.

While some may think Little Rock leaders proposing a $50 million center are a bit crazy, if that's the case, the folks in Memphis have flipped their lids. City and county governments in Memphis committed to build a 20,000-seat multimillion dollar arena, but a private promoter is turning the Great American Pyramid - scheduled to open May 1991 - into an entertainment center with restaurants, theaters, museums, shops and other sites. Already the Pyramid has power - 116 events, from religious gatherings to tractor pulls, are scheduled for the first year.

Initally, athletics got the ball rolling in Memphis, and may be the impetus here. The success of the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team and increased focus on the University of Arkansas Little Rock program have renewed talk of a Little Rock arena for basketball games.

The argument also goes that an arena would help UALR's program and the Trojans could help pay for it by playing home games there. "I think if you start talking about Arkansas, UALR and Arkansas State competing on a national level and giving central Arkansas an access, you're going to have to have a better facility," Villines says.

Jack Turner, Downtown Partnership's executive vice president, says he has heard the basketball arena idea bouncing around recently now that the Razorbacks are considering moving from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference and a schedule with Kentucky, Louisiana State, Georgia, Florida and Alabama universities. However, Barry Travis, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, says speculation was thick about an arena during the basketball tournament, but that he hasn't heard much lately. "It died down after basketball season," Travis says. "Maybe that's because it's now baseball season. You don't play baseball in an arena."

But don't expect the arena to be the primary focus of the center. Moses' initial thinking will probably prevail and ensure that the complex is a broad-based entertainment/cultural facility, not just a sports facility. The big question, of course, is who wants to pay for it.

Villines says he thinks the City Board of Directors will support a major project "if packaged right." Such a package, he notes, "is going to involve some private partnerships."

Plans of big time athletic events, a string of entertainment events, bustling cultural venues and new life downtown are what Little Rock leaders are dancing in their heads. But, as Moses phrases it, "Unfortunately there's no reality." At least not yet.

Clay Hathorn is a free-lance writer living in Little Rock.
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Title Annotation:Little Rock
Author:Hathorn, Clay
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 16, 1990
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