Robert Birch, director of development for North Little Rock Mayor Terry Hartwick, is Dogtown to the bone. North Little Rock born and raised, he’s served since 2018 under two city executives — Mayors Joe Smith and Hartwick — providing a key link between the two growth-minded administrations. As such, he’s enjoyed a ringside seat as NLR steadily moved up in economic weight class, going toe-to-toe with its larger neighbor city to the south, delivering new development, enhanced amenities and palpably fresh energy.
Now, Birch and other North Little Rock officials are once again setting the pace for economic development in Central Arkansas in what might seem an unlikely location. The Galloway district, a yawning stretch of ground on the city’s eastern front, is fast coming into its own among manufacturers, warehousing interests and even residential development.
“The east end of North Little Rock is becoming a great opportunity area,” Birch said. “It started years ago with Caterpillar and Ben E. Keith both moving out there. Caterpillar has since expanded. We’ve had some other businesses that have opened up and moved out there. You look at the bookends of Highway 391, you have Galloway at one end that pretty soon will be home to close to 3,000 jobs.”
Once best known for a defunct golf course (Stone Links) and the area’s largest honky-tonk haven for passing-through truckers (the late, great Jimmy Doyle’s Country Club), Galloway has reinvented itself seemingly overnight, under cover of darkness. In December, Dollar General announced building a 1 million-square-foot distribution center in the neighborhood, creating 300 jobs. Rumors swirl about other big warehouse names, including Lowe’s, moving in as well. On June 7, national real-estate development firm CRG announced that it was developing a 1.2 million-square-foot project on 115 acres at Highway 70 and Interstate 40 — otherwise known as the Galloway exit — for a “national Fortune 500 home-improvement company.”
And to top it all off, houses and multifamily units by the thousands are growing up out of the ground to help lure the necessary workers to the area, along with a portion of the golf course reimagined with disc golf and walking trails. Which means the influx of retail is all but a foregone conclusion for the not-so-distant future.
All of which has many scratching their heads as to how the area could have stayed dormant for so long, only to come alive during the most challenging supply chain environment since the days of steamboat and oxcart. For Birch, the appeal of the district for warehousing companies starts with three simple, if unsexy elements — location, location, location.
“The one thing about North Little Rock is, we sit at the corner of I-30 and I-40, and you can get anywhere in the country from there,” he said. “We sit at a perfect spot to allow for distribution facilities such as this. We also sit well because we have access to the river, we have access to air, and we have a very strong rail access. You put all those things together and we are a transportation community.
“North Little Rock was started as a train city. You go back and look at the history of Iron Mountain Train Works, all of that was here, and that’s what North Little Rock was. By leaning into that history and those capabilities, we still are.”
Of course, merely having ground around you doesn’t win the development race alone. The city has invested considerable time and resources to bring as many parcels into play as possible, efforts that are now paying off.
“The city continues to make significant investment in that area,” Birch said. “We’ve bought the corner of Highway 165 and Highway 70 to put in a much-needed health clinic there in partnership with Baptist Health and the state health department. We’re investing money that we’ve taken from some of the other properties we’ve sold around the city, buildings that aren’t being used, land that all we’re doing is constantly cutting grass on.
“We’ve sold a lot of that property, close to $1.8 million worth, and we’re investing that right back into that Rose City and East Broadway area. When a city makes an investment as we have done, it’s to see that community investment come back. Public investment spurs private investment.”
North Little Rock-based realtor McKimmey Associates has been an early taker on the promise of Galloway, said Brooks McRae, executive broker. He said the area’s newfound popularity stems from several commercial planets aligning.
“The availability of abundant, level, flat land that doesn’t have flood plains or wetlands and has utilities to it and is priced somewhat reasonably, that’s really what’s been the catalyst for the growth over there,” he said.
But more than that, McRae said, is the level of service after the sale an incoming company gets from the city and the Chamber of Commerce that sets North Little Rock apart from other contenders.
“[Those entities] assist new companies at a very high level in obtaining their zoning, helping them get the utilities, which is a huge piece of it, and they help coordinate with those utility providers on a confidential basis,” he said.
“They don’t tell the brokerage community that they’re dealing with Dollar General; instead, they’re quietly assisting that company in getting their building permits, their zoning, their utilities, even contributing toward some of those costs when they can. If there’s road widening or extension of sewer or something that they can do to help entice growth, they are very good about doing that.”
Derrell Hartwick, president and CEO of the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and son of the mayor, said one thing his organization does particularly well in these deals is act like a corporate welcome wagon, advocating for the new entity and helping it settle into its new home as quickly as possible.
“We’re very unique in that we are a city chamber first, we take care of our city, but we also assist in Central Arkansas, at the regional level, effectively,” he said. “And we’re also a state chamber as well, with events that are all over the state. We fit all three categories, which not all chambers do.
“At each level, I would also say we are one of the best relationship-driven chambers I’ve ever been a part of or seen. If you ask anybody in the chambers of commerce around here about what North Little Rock does best, they’ll tell you we build relationships. Our new slogan is, ‘Our Community is Your Business,’ and that’s what we mean. It’s about getting everyone integrated and invested.”
Birch said city leadership reflects this thinking as well, then turns it up to full speed. The swiftness with which new development goes from an idea to reality is another of North Little Rock’s distinguishing characteristics.
“Mayor Hartwick goes full speed ahead at all times and that doesn’t always happen in government,” he said. “When somebody comes up and says, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this development,’ he’s like, ‘All right, get it done. Let me know what you need from us.’ If you don’t move at his speed all the time, you’d better learn to move faster.”
More than just about any community in Arkansas, North Little Rock is a city defined by its neighborhoods. To a native like Birch, it’s gratifying to be in a role to help in the many diverse communities that makes the city what it is.
“As a lifelong North Little Rock person, it’s fun to see what’s going on because I grew up going to all areas of the city,” he said. “I played basketball over at Sherman Park, played baseball out at Rose City and at Burns Park. It’s neat to start seeing some of these areas that haven’t always gotten the love, so to say, get their fair share and seeing what they can do with it.
“When I was growing up, for instance, you didn’t go downtown. Downtown North Little Rock was a ghost town. But the city didn’t make Argenta, that’s a big misconception. That was a group of people that had the idea of moving down there and seeing what it could be and then they started doing it. The biggest thing out of all this is, it takes the entire community getting involved, and that’s what continues to happen here.”