Redevelopment to transform Bloomington-Normal into a diverse economy that thrives on business and visitors could take decades, but community leaders say their trip to Arkansas last month confirmed some local initiatives are on track.
Conway, Arkansas, is similar to Bloomington-Normal because of its three colleges and universities and an educated workforce. The community, which is touted as the fast-growing city in Arkansas, has a population of 63,555 and a median income of $47,504.
"In looking at what they have done, we have many, many, many of those amenities in our community and we are on the verge of pulling it all together," said Tim Tilton, owner of the downtown Bloomington Monroe Center building and Fox & Hounds Hair Studio and Day Spa.
"The collaborative workspace was getting support in terms of drawing from students and the universities," said Nathan Hinch, a Bloomington-Normal attorney who is also on the McLean County Chamber of Commerce board. "That program was very impressive and much further along than ours is."
The center also offers coding academies for all ages. The idea is to create a pipeline for the tech industry Conway hopes to grow. Economic development leaders launched a funding campaign to support seven "generation-defining" projects aimed at improving the quality of life in Conway.
Those efforts are focused on ultimately keeping college grads from leaving for cities such as Austin, Atlanta or Silicon Valley. The quality of life projects include adding splash pads throughout the community along with adding public art to roundabouts and restoring an historic theater among other initiatives.
The Conway Parks and Recreation Department has a 12-field soccer complex and a new, nine-field baseball complex. A new tennis facility is scheduled to be built. There are also sports complexes at the two universities and a college. Conway issued bonds for construction with payments coming from taxes on hotel stays and prepared food.
Vicki Tilton said Conway went all in by creating a division in its Parks and Recreation department to manage tournaments and community use.
"They (the fields) bring in a great amount of economic flow. It's not about how much money they spend while they're out on that field. It's about how much money is spent in hotels, restaurants, shopping and enjoying the community while they're there," said Tilton.
Tim Tilton said Conway leaders made a deliberate decision to concentrate fields in one area to promote tournaments and sports tourism.
"They allow the community at large to use all the sports fields through the week, and when it comes to the weekend they become these tournament drivers, and they said that it works very, very well and they use it as an introduction to their educational facilities and colleges."
Conway leaders sell the community's educated workforce and quality of life but also offered state and local incentives to lure a Hewlett-Packard call center in 2010.
State and local cash payments totaled more than $12 million and the Conway Development Corporation, similar to McLean County's Economic Development Council, took the risky step of constructing a building to HP's specifications to add up to 1,200 jobs. By 2013, the company said it had to lay off 500 employees however Conway's economic development leaders said they have been able to rent the unused space.
The community doesn't have a convention and visitors bureau, but it does have a similar entity that also uses hotel and food taxes for advertising and promotion. The Chamber of Commerce, Development Corporation and the Advertising and Promotion Bureau are housed in one location and share staff.
Josh Barnett of the McLean County Board, who is also a development director for the Advocate BroMenn Foundation, said he was impressed by the common vision and close partnership between elected officials and the business leaders in the community in both Conway and Little Rock, Arkansas, which the group also visited.
Vicki Tilton acknowledged there have been disagreements but they seem to be managed without dissension displayed publicly.
"When it comes down to it, they make decisions based on the good of the community and what will move things forward economically," she said. "You know everybody thinks they spend a lot of taxpayers' dollars but they didn't necessarily. A lot of these were public-private. There was a lot of cooperation by different groups to fund (the projects) in very unique and creative ways."
For example, the innovation center announcement was met with an immediate $1 million contribution from the Conway Chamber Board Chairman Johnny Adams. Conway's website indicates the city has added 8,000 new companies and 1,000 new jobs in the past decade.
Hinch agrees those figures are impressive but points out, "I’m sure it took time to build that level of trust and the business community was right there with the city willing to take risks."
Little Rock, Arkansas, was also a destination, although it bears fewer similarities to Bloomington-Normal than Conway. Barnett said that city invested in what was once a dilapidated downtown by creating affordable housing for artists to live and work in a section called the artists corridor.
In 2003, it landed tech company Acxiom with the opening of its $25 million, 12-story world headquarters. It also invested in its downtown by redeveloping the south shore of the Arkansas River from abandoned warehouses into a 10-block area now called the River Market District. The project is anchored by a warehouse that was converted into a $12 million library.
Tim Tilton said both cities treated their downtowns as the heartbeat of their communities and the investments have paid off.
"Their strength is the quality of life of their communities and jobs follow quality of life issues," he said.
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