By Joe David Rice
On average, some 60,000 vehicles pass through Conway every day on Interstate 40. If you’re one of those drivers and haven’t taken a local exit in recent years, it’s time to do so. You’ll find that this centrally-located town isn’t the sleepy little burg it was a couple of decades ago, but is now among Arkansas’ most vibrant and dynamic cities.
This Faulkner County seat of roughly 20,000 residents in 1980 now boasts nearly 70,000 citizens – with more added daily. As a result, it’s among the country’s top 20 percent of fastest-growing cities with populations of 50,000+. While there’s no getting around the fact that Conway’s proximity to Little Rock has contributed to its growth, it’d be a mistake to characterize Conway as a bedroom community for the state’s capital city.
With three colleges, a historic downtown, a growing restaurant scene, a slew of cultural offerings, an excellent assortment of recreational options and an expanding mix of industries, Conway is doing quite well on its own, thank you.
All three schools contribute to Conway’s quality of life. Having nearly 1,000 college
faculty members in town is indeed a plus, and so are the wide-ranging cultural opportunities.
Take those three institutions of higher education, for instance. Although claiming the smallest enrollment of the lot (750 students), Central Baptist College points with pride at being named one of the best regional colleges in America by U.S. News & World Report. Hendrix College, a regular recipient of high reviews from national ranking organizations, hosts over 1,400 students in a liberal arts curriculum. Its alumni include renowned opera conductor Sarah Caldwell, actor Mary Steenburgen and three former members of Congress. With over 12,000 students spread among its six colleges, the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) is among the largest post-secondary schools in the state. Included among its alumni are author Dee Brown, singer-songwriter Jimmy Driftwood and NBA All-Star Scottie Pippin.
The Travelocity folks recently went to considerable lengths to identify America’s
“Most Giving Cities” – and Conway came in at number two in the entire country.
________________________________________All three schools contribute to Conway’s quality of life. Having nearly 1,000 college faculty members in town is indeed a plus, and so are the wide-ranging cultural opportunities. Both Hendrix and UCA have first-rate drama programs. In addition, celebrity appearances in town have included concerts with such headliners as the late Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn, Gladys Knight Lucinda Williams and The Temptations. Upcoming shows at UCA’s Reynolds Performance Hall include The Ten Tenors, Celtic Angels Christmas, Kinky Boots, Travis Tritt and Steel Magnolias. The Baum Gallery on the UCA campus is an educational art museum serving all of Central Arkansas, bringing in selected national and international touring exhibitions in addition to sponsoring juried shows showcasing the work of students. Not to be overlooked is the Conway Symphony Orchestra, which will celebrate its 35th season next year. On December 8, it will present “A Classic Christmas” with a collection of holiday favorites along with highlights from The Nutcracker (featuring dancers from the Arkansas Festival Ballet). Also, the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, the state’s only professional Shakespeare company, presents an annual summer festival with accomplished performers from around the country.
Read also>> Arkansas Holiday Tradition in Conway
Outdoor options abound, too. During wet-weather months, in-the-know canoeists enjoy the bluffs, rapids and solitude of Cadron Creek, a paddler’s paradise just half an hour north of town. For nearly 70 years now, fishermen (and women) have been catching bass, bream, catfish and crappie on Lake Conway, a 6,700-acre reservoir constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission a short distance south of town. Although rumors of a Lake Conway Monster have circulated for decades, no one’s yet been able to capture a photograph of the alleged beast (and since the lake’s average depth is only six feet, one would assume it couldn’t be a very large brute). Outdoor enthusiasts also gravitate to Toad Suck Park, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility on the Arkansas River a few miles west of town named in honor of an historic ferry. With its campground, picnic area, launch ramps, pavilion and playground, it’s been a popular family destination for generations.
Toad Suck is one of the more interesting and colorful identities in the Arkansas vernacular – with several theories attempting to clarify its origin. In any event, the name has been appropriated by Toad Suck Daze, an annual festival in downtown Conway now attracting around 160,000 guests every May. Music, food, arts and crafts and – naturally – the signature toad races are among the top draws.
And speaking of downtown Conway, a strong private/public sector partnership has chalked up impressive gains. When Acxiom pulled its corporate headquarters from the city about 20 years ago, it also delivered a wake-up call to Conway’s leadership. One of the first priorities was to concentrate on the central business district. “It was a group effort,” says Kim Williams, executive director of the Conway Downtown Partnership. “Everybody worked together every day to create a strong, beautiful downtown.” Residents and visitors alike enjoy the great variety of retail shops, the food trucks and the landscaping and street-scaping improvements. The city now offers a fleet of Zagster rental bicycles available at 10 stations. And on November 24th, Conway will light the tallest Christmas tree in the state.
But the real key to downtown’s revitalization has been the confidence and hard work of local investors. One of them is Mike Coats, an old-school entrepreneur (he drives a 1987 pickup), and owner of Mike’s Place. A native of Fordyce, Coats managed several major eateries in Central Arkansas before opening his own restaurant on Front Street in 2005. Featuring steaks, seafood and wood-fired pizza, Mike’s Place is a 10,000-square-foot establishment based on quality ingredients and exceptional hospitality. Coats credits his dedicated colleagues for the restaurant’s success, noting many of them have been with him eight to 10 years. “I hire bright people,” he says. “The average ACT score for the team in my kitchen is 28.” Getting a state liquor license was also a major step forward, Coats says, calling it a “Renaissance moment.” Faulkner County is officially “dry” but “damp” is probably a more accurate description.
Half a mile or so from the town’s historic district is one of the most interesting urban developments in all of Arkansas: The Village at Hendrix. Designed by the Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) firm, it’s a 129-acre pedestrian-friendly “livable community” within the city. DPZ is the master planning outfit that designed Seaside, the internationally-recognized community in Florida, among many other projects. Now entering its second decade, The Village at Hendrix includes 70 single-family homes, student housing, apartments, a park and boardwalk, and a dozen or so businesses. If you’re like me and appreciate traditional front porches, set aside an hour and walk through this fine neighborhood, and admire the wonderful assortment of these attractive and inviting outdoor living spaces.
Here’s one more reason Conway ranks among my favorite Arkansas cities: the generosity of its citizens. The Travelocity folks recently went to considerable lengths to identify America’s “Most Giving Cities” – and Conway came in at number two in the entire country. That, my friends, is one heck of a testimonial.
For those curious about the city’s name, there are a couple of explanations to consider. One is that it recognizes the Conway family, one of Arkansas’s most prominent political clans in its early days. James Conway was the state’s first governor and his brother, Henry W. Conway (for whom Conway County was named) was the territorial delegate to Congress prior to his death following a duel in 1827. There’s also some speculation that the community was named after the first steam locomotive (the “Conway”) arriving in Conway in 1870.
And, of course, there’s the curious relationship between Conway and Harold Lloyd Jenkins. The young Jenkins, an up-and-coming country music performer, decided he needed a more memorable stage name. Legend has it that he found two possibilities that resonated with him from a road map: Conway, Arkansas, and Twitty, Texas. He became Conway Twitty and went on to record 55 number-one hits.
As for the future of Conway, Mayor Bart Castleberry is unabashedly enthusiastic, citing the good chemistry between the major groups in the city. A master plumber with a college degree, Castleberry brings a basic nuts-and-bolts style to City Hall. He’s a strong advocate for municipal transparency, noting that Conway was the first city in Arkansas to post an “Open Checkbook” on the Internet. Castleberry understands the value of quality of life and is particularly interested in parks and recreation. (Check out his recent dedication of a splash park on the web.) At his wife’s suggestion, kids across town will be involved in the planning of future recreational developments. As I leave his office, Castleberry shakes my hand, gives me a big grin and says, “I’m having the time of my life.”