Developer conference in Conway marries business, development, and real estate

May 21-27, 2018

By Alyx VanNess


The University of Central Arkansas Center for Community and Economic Development will host a Small Developer Conference on Thursday, May 31 at McCastlain Hall on the UCA campus. In partnership with the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, Conway Development Corporation, Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau, First Security Bank, Metroplan and the UCA Division of Outreach and Community Engagement, the one-day conference offers what CCED is calling a big picture approach to small-scale, incremental development with a community focused lens.


Center for Community and Economic Development


In 2006, the University of Central Arkansas created the Center for Community and Economic Development.


“UCA saw an opportunity to provide follow-up support in the community for the local leaders that had attended the Community Development Institute,” says Amy Whitehead, Director of the CCED. “Many of these individuals needed assistance implementing the principles they had learned at the institute, and UCA was prepared to provide the expertise and support.”


The Community Development Institute—now in its 32nd year—equips not only local community leaders, but economic development professionals, with applied training to improve the economic and social well-being of communities across Arkansas and the mid-south during its week-long conference. This year’s conference will take place July 30 thru August 3 and will draw close to 150 participants.


Although CDI continues to be recognized by the national Community Development Council as high-quality training and a model for other community development institutes around the country, the founders envisioned a more comprehensive approach. The CCED was born.


CCED has since become a force in communities across Arkansas, providing resources to community and economic developers, elected officials, city planners, small business owners, and non-profit leaders. Through funding from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the organization offers training sessions throughout the year that address such topics as economic and community development, regionalism, marketing/branding, and diversity.


The Center also works directly with elected officials and community members by compiling comprehensive sets of demographic, retail, and economic data, creating assessment tools to help leaders better understand the needs of their communities, developing customized business retention and expansion toolkits, and providing leaders with a behind-the-scenes look into communities similar to their own through the Benchmarking Tour.


“This is the first time for UCA to host something so specifically focused on small developers and physical development though,” says Whitehead.


Matthew Petty, Faculty Member of Incremental Development Alliance and guest speaker at the Small Developer Conference, says Incremental Development Alliance directly reached out to Whitehead and the CCED.


“I reached out to Amy because I’ve been referred to her over and over again when I’m talking to cities about their dreams,” Petty explains. “Amy is probably worked with more individual cities than almost anybody else in the state. The work she’s doing is very impactful; whenever she goes to some of these cities, they feel hope again.”


Petty knew that Whitehead’s impact in surrounding communities and her role as a member of Metroplan’s Regional Planning Advisory Council made the CCED the perfect host for Incremental Development Alliance’s next workshop.


The link between small developers and strong community


Whitehead understands the impact that a strong community has on successful, small-scale development.


“I am always talking to community leaders about how they can’t put all of their effort into recruiting more jobs from the outside,” Whitehead says. “Because those jobs may or may not come.”


She points out that successful small-scale developers are often already imbedded in their communities as residents identifying community needs. Although these individuals may not have the economic capital or experience in the development process, “they will be driving investment and growth in a way that is sustainable.”


What Arkansas community leaders are noticing is dilapidated downtowns and ever-increasing city sprawl.


Tab Townsell, Executive Director of Metroplan and former Mayor of Conway, attributes city sprawl in Arkansas to the American Dream.


“Everybody wants their green acres, that American Dream,” he says. “They want their single lot home, the swing set in the backyard, the fence for Fido. It’s one lot big. They never think about the regional implications of that.”


This type of development pattern is creating infrastructure that simply isn’t economically sustainable for communities in Arkansas. Pointing to the completion of the six lane highway connecting Conway to Little Rock, Townsell argues that if the state continues to develop using its current model, it will quickly outgrow those six lanes.


There is “a realization that we’ve got to do more to deal with land development and land usage if we’re going to impact the way we have to build roads,” he says. “If we keep building curvilinear, single-loop subdivisions…then we’re going to continue to build…all of our cities at a bigger cost.”


Whitehead mirrors the sentiment. She says the American Dream and the city sprawl it encourages has created isolationist development patterns in Arkansas, with communities that are not walkable for its residents.


“There is growing recognition that sprawl reduces walkability, can lead to social isolation, increases our reliance on the automobile and fossil fuels, and drives up infrastructure costs,” she says. “From a taxpayer perspective, sprawl is very costly.”


Cities are looking to incremental, infill development to address these concerns to create communities that are walkable and enjoyable. Petty says these smaller projects encourage neighborhood resiliency and strengthen the local economy.


Conway is one city that has taken measures using the infill development approach. Shelley Mehl, Associate Vice President of UCA’s Outreach and Community Engagement program, says a few homes have been built on empty lots around town, including three on Caldwell Avenue in the past five years.


The city has also lowered the minimum lot size from 7,500 square feet to 6,000 square feet, while also increasing maximum lot coverage to 40 percent.


“Both should help with building on smaller parcels of land open in Conway,” Mehl explains.


In moving forward sustainably, Petty looks to previous development patterns in small towns and cities across Arkansas.


“All of these old downtowns and all of these old neighborhoods, they have this one thing in common and that’s that they’re filled with small-scale, infill projects. That’s how they were built to begin with, and they were built that way because it’s more economically productive,” he says. “If we’re going to revitalize these places, we’ve got to respect what’s already there. It’s a part of Arkansas’ DNA, but we’ve forgotten.”


Small Developer Conference snapshot


Guest speakers at the Small Developer Conference include faculty members from the Incremental Development Alliance, a non-profit organization that works with community leaders as they take their first steps toward small-scale real estate development.


The Alliance has a laundry list of success stories in small to mid-size communities across the United States, with over three dozen workshops held for small-scale developers.


In 2016, Bentonville was one of the first stops for the organization.


“That was one of our very early workshops, and we’ve completely revised and updated the curriculum twice since then,” says Petty. “We’re covering the same topics, but we think we’ve gotten better at it.”


Petty describes himself as “half participant, half producer” at that first workshop. His was one of the projects to come out of the conference, celebrating its open house earlier this month. The project on 495 West Prairie Street is a three-story, mixed-use apartment building in Fayetteville’s Mill District. Close to downtown, the building hosts The Prairie St. Bar and Tap, Mamaka Bowls, and nine apartments.


The Small Developer Conference will offer small real estate developers, community advocates, and local leaders training on small scale real estate development, with workshop topics including financing development projects, building types, selecting a development site, real estate acquisition, asking for money, and putting together a project Pro forma.


“We will cover everything from skills assessments and how to build a team in the morning, to how to close property at the end of the day,” says Petty.


 While the conference is primarily delivered through lecture, the Alliance gives participants the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned through a simulation where they will plan a theoretical development and analyze its financial performance.


Whitehead believes that the variety of workshops offered during the conference will be relevant for every stakeholder involved in the small-scale development process. She explains that “anyone touching the development process…will need to understand the challenges that these developers are facing and serve as a resource for them throughout the development process.”


Townsell envisions workshop attendees as local citizens that already have a day job, but are looking to start their own small business.


“This conference will give them the tools to get back in and redevelop and reinvigorate [and to] breathe life into these older areas…so that we cannot just inhabit these older areas, but actually build on them.”   




Like the upcoming Small Developer Conference, the Community Development Institute aims to make a difference in the well-being of communities across Arkansas and the mid-south during its week-long conference. In its 32nd year, the institute equips local community leaders and economic development professionals with applied training to improve the economic and social well-being of their communities. ( Photos by Kristen Spickard, UCA Outreach Marketing Coordinator)