Dozens of commercial real estate agents are crammed into a conference room in what was once part of the Alltel complex in the Riverdale neighborhood of Little Rock. The subject is the capital of Arkansas – where things are now and where they are heading. Spectators have a vested interest in the economic performance of the state’s largest city.

As I emphasize whenever I write about Little Rock, readers across the state also have a vested interest. That’s because Arkansas will never reach its potential unless its capital city thrives. The economy of Northwest Arkansas cannot sustain an entire state on its own.

Business and civic leaders in Little Rock are doing themselves a disservice when they lament the fact that northwest Arkansas’ population growth rates far exceed those of central Arkansas. Few places in the country are growing at the pace of northwest Arkansas.

Arkansas is a state of just 3 million people, a place where more than two-thirds of counties are losing population. Northwest Arkansas and the Little Rock metro area need to be doing well. It’s not either/or. It is both/and.

It’s also unfair to compare Little Rock to Austin, TX and Nashville, TN. Austin and Nashville are the capitals of much larger states. They are also home to world-class institutions of higher learning, the University of Texas and Vanderbilt University.

Arkansas’ capital has the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, long a son-in-law of the UA system’s flagship Fayetteville campus.

A better comparison might be made with Jackson, Miss., and Montgomery, Ala., capitals of southern states that, like Little Rock, lack top-notch universities. In the 1980 census, Jackson had a population of 202,895. As of the 2020 census, the population had fallen to 152,846. Jackson’s population is now less than 150,000 as people continue to flee a city with rising crime rates and crumbling infrastructure.

Little Rock had a population of 158,461 at the 1980 census. In 2020, the population was 202,484. The two cities went in opposite directions for a period of 40 years. Jackson had about 44,000 more residents than Little Rock in 1980. In 2020, Little Rock had 50,000 more residents than Jackson.

Birmingham had a population of 340,887 at the 1960 census. By 2020 the population had fallen to 197,575. Little Rock’s population in 1960 was 107,813. Birmingham was more than three times the size of Little Rock in 1960. Now Little Rock has more people.

Growth in Little Rock tends to be slow (especially compared to surrounding counties such as Faulkner, Saline, and Lonoke), but it has been steady. I’ve told commercial realtors that I’m optimistic about the future of Little Rock based on five things:

• Little Rock is the governmental, financial and legal capital of the state. I often joke that if the people of Northwest Arkansas could fit the State Capitol dome through the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, they would have moved it by now.

Those of us who are fiscal conservatives might wish otherwise, but government will continue to grow. Along with the expansion of government will come the growth of state associations, lobbying firms, and the like. This bodes well for Little Rock.

Add to that the emergence of Little Rock as a regional banking center with Bank OZK and Simmons Bank leading the way. OZK Bank has built a spectacular headquarters in far west Little Rock. Simmons, who purchased Acxiom’s former headquarters in the River Market District, filled that building with employees faster than expected and purchased Bank OZK’s former headquarters on Chenal Parkway.

• Little Rock is the state’s health care center. With nationally recognized institutions such as the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital, patients from other states also come here for treatment.

Many more elderly residents in the coming years will mean additional medical care will be needed. This trend will benefit existing medical hubs. Much like government and banking, the health care trend plays strongly in Little Rock’s favour.

• The Little Rock area (including Maumelle and North Little Rock) becomes a logistics and distribution hub. When Amazon built huge facilities at the Port of Little Rock and across the Arkansas River in North Little Rock, it sent a strong message to other companies. Now Lowe’s and Dollar General will build distribution warehouses near Amazon’s North Little Rock facility. Tractor Supply will build a similar facility in Maumelle.

The complexes built or planned by these four companies — Amazon, Lowe’s, Dollar General and Tractor Supply — represent thousands of jobs that did not exist two years ago. Expect to hear announcements for additional fulfillment centers over the next two years.

• Little Rock has expanded its role as the home of the fintech industry through summits and accelerator programs sponsored by the Venture Center, headquartered downtown at Little Rock Technology Park. The Venture Center’s work will likely lead to one or more major fintech employers deciding to move to Little Rock over the next decade. This is in addition to the growth of high-tech companies such as Apptegy in the Riverdale neighborhood and First Orion in North Little Rock.

• Little Rock and North Little Rock are regional retail, dining and entertainment destinations. There may be no better concert promoter in the country than Michael Marion at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock. It’s often said that Little Rock is a much better foodie destination than most cities its size. Retail has suffered during the pandemic, but Little Rock is fortunate to have several visionary developers who in recent months have announced plans to revitalize Breckenridge Village and Riverdale malls. Look for more announcements along these lines, as Little Rock is once again considered “hot” by national retailers and catering companies.

If Little Rock’s management makes the right moves in five key areas (which will be the focus of Wednesday’s column), the above trends could make the next decade a golden era for the city.

Consider the fact that Bank OZK and Simmons aren’t alone in turning Little Rock into a regional banking hub. Go to the intersection of Chenal and Rahling and see the facilities that First Community Bank and Southern Bancorp are building. I’m not saying that Little Rock will become Charlotte, NC, as a national banking center. But no one could have seen this kind of financial sector growth happening a few decades ago. It’s amazing to watch.

Consider the fact that UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Baptist Health, CHI St. Vincent, and CARTI aren’t the only growth engines in the healthcare industry. If Lyon College’s plan to open dental and veterinary schools comes to fruition (and I believe it will), these schools will bring more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff to downtown every day. once they are at full capacity.

This, in turn, should lead to a downtown residential boom as currently empty structures such as the Donaghey and Boyle buildings on Main Street are converted into apartments.

Consider the fact that in addition to becoming a distribution center, Little Rock is successful in manufacturing. Trex will bring more than 500 jobs to the Port of Little Rock through its composite decking manufacturing facility. The port is also set to have a so-called nearly 1,000-acre supersite that economic development officials say will be the best site of its kind in the South for something like an assembly plant. automobiles.

Put these pieces together and you’ll see why these commercial realtors were smiling as I spoke. People in Jackson and Birmingham may look west and wish they had a similar view.

Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.