I share a lot of news on social media and can usually tell within minutes when something has struck a chord. Likes and shares are piling up fast.

Two stories that came out within days of each other last month had that effect. The first was the news that a partnership including restaurant guru Jim Keet will buy the Breckenridge Village shopping center in Little Rock with the intention of spending millions of dollars to revitalize it. The second was the purchase of the Heifer International campus in downtown Little Rock as the headquarters for new veterinary and dental schools.

The people of Little Rock are hurting trying to compare the growth there to what is happening in northwest Arkansas. Of course, the capital cannot achieve this growth rate. Few places in America can.

As I have often pointed out, we are only a state of three million people and we should support each other. What is happening in Northwest Arkansas is wonderful for the entire state and is one of the main reasons the state government will end the fiscal year with a surplus of nearly 1, $5 billion that can be reinvested in rural areas.

Meanwhile, the growth of the Little Rock metro area should be applauded by residents of northwest Arkansas, especially at a time when rural counties are losing population (53 of the state’s 75 counties lost population between 2010 and 2020). For Arkansas to succeed, Northwest and Central Arkansas must do well. Large parts of eastern and southern Arkansas are bleeding population, and there is no end in sight to this trend.

The reaction to last month’s two stories showed that people across the state love to see good news coming from Little Rock, especially when it signals infill development as opposed to a steady march to the Perry County line on along Arkansas 10. These infill projects should go a long way to revitalizing the neighborhoods around them.

Breckenridge Village’s new ownership group includes the Keet family (Jim Keet’s sons are heavily involved in the family’s restaurant empire) and the Kelley Group, a commercial real estate company. The Kelley Group, which will manage the property, issued a press release stating that the project will result in a “multi-million dollar renovation that will make Breckenridge one of the most unique and desirable destinations in the state.”

Keet says the partners intend to “bring back Breckenridge’s glory days and revitalize it with a diverse mix of restaurants and retail space. At least four restaurants with different cuisines will be part of the new plan” .

Other independent restaurateurs are already considering Breckenridge for second locations. I can see seven or eight restaurants clustered there eventually. The Keet family already operates Petit & Keet, Cypress Social, Waldo’s Chicken & Beer and Taziki’s in central Arkansas.

Engineering and design work is in progress. There will be new entrances, extensive landscaping and a courtyard with amphitheater-style seating.

Hank Kelley of The Kelley Group calls the Keet family “experienced restaurateurs who understand the food and entertainment business”.

The Rodney Parham Road corridor already received a boost when $35 million was spent to turn a former Kmart into a medical complex. Plans for the 100,000 square foot project were announced in 2018. In March, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees authorized the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to lease 32,000 square feet of space at the complex for urology, ambulatory surgeries and other services.

Downtown, a private company named OneHealth will buy the Heifer International campus. OneHealth has partnered with Lyon College to start the state’s first dental and veterinary schools. Heifer will remain on campus, leasing space from OneHealth. Lyon will occupy the first two floors of the building while Heifer will occupy the third and fourth floors.

Lyon officials hope to start classes in 2024 or 2025. The hundreds of students and faculty the two schools will bring to the city center should inspire developers to renovate empty structures such as the Boyle and Donaghey buildings on Main Street into flats. . The new residents, in turn, will lead to restaurants, bars and additional service providers downtown, such as cleaners.

As is the case with students at the UA Clinton School of Public Service, the River Market District will serve as the student center.

OneHealth helps healthcare providers find capital, office space and technology. Merritt Dake, its founding partner, was previously managing director of Rock Dental Brands. Dake calls the two proposed schools “a great economic engine for the city of Little Rock and the state of Arkansas.”

“This is an opportunity to bring more energy and excitement back into the space, and it will also benefit local businesses,” said Chris Coxon, Heifer’s vice president of communications. “You’re going to see a lot more foot traffic here.”

Arkansas is one of 14 states without a dental school and one of 23 states without a veterinary school. The time seems right for Lyon to take action. Rural Arkansas desperately needs more dentists and veterinarians.

“Our institutions of higher education throughout the state routinely prepare capable and dedicated individuals who must seek their training elsewhere,” said Melissa Taverner, president of Lyon. “Although some go home to practice, many young professionals choose to stay where they train.”


Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.