Anyone frequenting the West Village district along Rodney Parham Road in west Little Rock most likely remembers the old Kmart eyesore. A building unused but still serving as a focal point for the strip. Until something newer and better came along, passersby didn’t realize how much the appearance of a building affected an entire community.
Something newer and better came along. Seemingly overnight, the Kmart store took on a whole new look when it was transformed into the Premier Medical Plaza. From the parking lot to the external facade to the new office spaces inside, the building received more than a facelift, and in turn, the surrounding area has taken notes on the power of revitalization.
Plans for the $35 million, 100,000-square-foot project were announced in 2018 by the newly formed Premier Gastroenterology, which had lofty goals for the property and the area. James Swann of WER Architects/Planners, the project architect of the building, recalled thinking the project would be impossible to complete in the time they were given.
“[Premier Gastro] contacted us and said they wanted this project design completed in six months, and I remember thinking that wasn’t possible. We did it, though,” Swann said with a laugh. “They were splitting off from their previous group, and they were looking for a new place where they could make their own and become Premier Gastro. When the process started, it was kind of a panic mode of, ‘Where do we want to do this?’”
The plaza itself took about a year to construct. Premier teamed up with Newmark Moses Tucker Partners as the lead developer, property management firm and broker for the project.
“They found this building, the old Kmart store, and they thought it was just a great location. The building would give the chance to show that they were committed to the community and wanted to take this boarded-up building and make it something great,” Swann explained. He said the project is one of the most unique he’s worked on and called its impact on the surrounding area “something to admire.”
Chris Moses, lead broker on the project, said Premier liked the neighborhood because of the opportunity to have a specialized medical presence in the area, which had been lacking.
“They also identified that the demographics warranted their presence, and there were linkages to the major highway systems, creating easy access for not just Little Rock residents, but Central Arkansas residents as a whole,” he said.
The renovations were completed in record time, and Premier Gastro was able to move in and start serving the community. It didn’t take long to attract tenants.
“The owners had quite a bit of vision to take a blighted shopping center and transform it into the state-of-the-art, mixed-use medical center that it is today,” Moses added.
The project created a snowball effect of positive change. Other abandoned or outdated buildings in the area have started their own revitalization projects.
“It has been a catalyst of transformation for the West Village district,” Moses said. “Job growth has been created through the construction and the expansion of the practice has brought in additional employees. Any time there’s a new development of this nature and an abandoned building is given a purpose, crime is reduced.”
In addition to sprucing up the area and helping raise neighborhood property values, the addition of Natural State Laboratories, which provides COVID-19 testing at the plaza site, has benefited the community.
Natural State Labs was built in late 2020 to meet the evolving demands of the pandemic. Converted from an abandoned shopping center, the lab is being utilized 24/7 as a testing center to draw patient samples and extract RNA from the virus for analysis.
Due to the specific temperature, humidity and power requirements of the lab, the mechanical and electrical systems were designed with a multitude of redundancies and safety measures to ensure stable system operation. Bernhard, WER Architects and Tycor Construction worked together to design and construct the lab in less than four months from project inception to owner occupancy. Bernhard designed the MEPF systems in less than five days and assisted in expediting the HVAC equipment procurement process.
“With COVID-19 being such a high-importance issue for our communities, the lab was designed, constructed, and equipment procured in a fraction of the time it would have traditionally taken,” said Phil Watson, PE, director of engineering design at Bernhard. “I commend our Bernhard team — NSL’s lab director, Casey Honeycutt; WER; Tycor Construction; Powers of Arkansas; and Northwest Controls — for working day and night to join the fight against this evolving virus. The success of this project wouldn’t have been possible without this incredible team effort.”
Honeycutt, Natural State’s executive director, said the company was looking for space to build a state-of-the-art molecular testing laboratory.
“As we evaluated choices in Central Arkansas, Premier Medical Plaza was the one that fit the bill for us,” he said. The design and build of Natural State took roughly eight months.
Natural State Lab’s role in COVID testing isn’t quite complete, however. While most Americans considered the pandemic as coming to a close, the last few weeks of July told a different story. The Delta variant of COVID is rapidly spreading, and state officials are forced to reconsider plans to “return to normal.” Health workers got a brief breath of relief, but Natural State Labs’ testing numbers show that the fight is far from over.
“At one point, we had more than 3,000 tests per day,” Honeycutt said. “The number of tests we were doing a month ago was around 600 to 700 per day, and it’s unfortunate that in such a short amount of time, we’re north of 3,000 per day. So, the volume is definitely picking up with our drive-thru. Again, two months ago, we were looking at 25 or 30 cases per day coming through the drive-thru, and that’s just somebody that believes they’ve been exposed or they’re symptomatic. Our drive-thru has tested, on average, around 180 positive cases per day.”
Natural State serves many long-term care facilities, as well as hospital systems and medical practices. It dropped from nine to three drive-thrus in the state but now plans to reopen two of them.
“We’re thankful for our long-standing partnership with [Premier Gastro] and them letting us set up a testing facility here,” Honeycutt said. “That was one of the other big pluses, because in the marketing and community outreach we had done, most people related this location with Natural State Laboratories, so it was really just a good fit for us to open lab operations at the plaza.”
Somewhere down the road, COVID will become a distant memory. When the number of cases is once again under control and health workers can once again breathe, what is to become of testing labs?
“We have built a laboratory that is a state-of-the-art molecular testing laboratory that allows us to use the same equipment to test for many pathogens that we use for COVID,” Honeycutt said. “This application is widely used in long-term care facilities, hospitals and physician offices, and it’s good for pathogen testing for urinary tract infections, respiratory passages and soft tissue infection. [The lab] has a wider application that gives us many uses, and we’re currently transitioning some of our business operations to support, in addition to COVID testing, other tests that we can use in the medical community.”