The North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) has moved to the first floor of a sleek, modern office building at 600 Main Street in North Little Rock with two other tenants, the Arkansas Automobile Dealers Association and Taggart Architects. But 600 Main wasn’t always an empty lot, and the CVB, AADA and Taggart are now part of downtown North Little Rock’s 154-year history.
118 years ago, 600 Main was the first incarnation of the Mechanics Lumber Company – just a “small brick building and open yard,” according to a 2002 Arkansas Business article. Founded in 1902, the business would be run by three generations of the Pfiefer family with a “crazy quilt” of history, including building ammunition crates for bombs during World War II, acquiring lumber companies, a devastating fire at the company’s main distribution facility and becoming the largest architectural millwork company in Arkansas. Like much of the area east of Main Street from 5th Street to the viaduct, the lot would remain vacant after the 1990s.
In 1993, Sandra Taylor-Smith with the North Little Rock History Commission successfully applied for Argenta to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. She points to 1960s urban renewal’s demolition of historic buildings, transient residency, northward growth of the city away from downtown and the construction of Interstate 30 through neighborhoods as causes for decline. “Crime in the downtown area of North Little Rock increased dramatically in the decade from 1980 to 1990,” the form states. However, by the early 1990s the City was “taking an active role in the effort to save its historic downtown area.”
The Boosters for a Better Downtown North Little Rock was formed in 1991, the Argenta Community Development Corporation began renovating homes in 1992 and by 2007 the Argenta Downtown Council was created with downtown development well underway. From 2005 to 2015, Argenta transformed from empty storefronts to a local dining and entertainment hub including Dickey-Stephens Park, Alltel Arena (Verizon Arena and now Simmons Bank Arena), streetcars, Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, The Joint Theater, Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum, Argenta Community Theater, more restaurants, breweries and art galleries. Though 600 Main remained a vacant lot, it served as convenient downtown parking for Argenta Farmer’s Market, events and festivals, and enjoying the bustling activity of a downtown district finding new life.
The current 600 Main building was part of a more recent revitalization effort by the North Little Rock Downtown Development Board that included the new First Orion Headquarters, Argenta Plaza and the planned Power and Ice Food Hall. The First Orion Headquarters will also have two public restaurants on its first floor, Tusk & Trotter and Trash Creamery. The Power and Ice Food Hall, sandwiched between the Argenta Plaza and 600 Main Building, is tentatively slated to open in spring 2021.
At the 600 Main building, the CVB is going from 3,224 square feet to 6,500 square feet with spare offices, collaboration room, roomy kitchen area, workspace for assembling welcome bags and mailouts for large groups, and additional bathrooms.
The North Little Rock Welcome Center, located on the first floor with a separate Main Street entrance from the CVB, is 588 square feet with an informational desk, lounging area with TVs, brochures and retail items for sale. Floor-to-ceiling windows make up two walls for light and a panoramic view of Main Street. It also includes a new meeting space that can be rented for groups and access to a fourth-floor rooftop balcony with breathtaking views of downtown.
As the downtown landscape reconfigures for a new decade, the CVB sees the evolution as positive. Unlike the 1960s urban renewal movement that got rid of historic buildings, the new development downtown is filling otherwise empty space and, in some ways, paying tribute to the past. Current downtown projects include public art murals, an outdoor space renovation at the Argenta Branch of William F. Laman Library and attracting events to Argenta Plaza.