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I'm having lunch at Little Rock's Lost Forty Brewing with John Bacon, the chief executive officer of eStem Public Charter Schools. EStem has been in the news lately because of growing pains at its new high school on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. But it's not the high school that's on my mind this day. I'm instead thinking about the almost 112,000-square-foot warehouse a few blocks from Lost Forty that eStem is transforming into a second campus for students from kindergarten through the ninth grade. That school eventually will serve 1,300 students.

Bacon is talking about the school's first location in the former Arkansas Gazette building at Third and Louisiana streets in downtown Little Rock. It was July 2008 when the first classes were held there. The current downtown Little Rock renaissance had yet to take off.

"That area was dead," Bacon says. "I was worried that people who worked downtown would complain about the extra traffic. Instead what we heard were compliments about how much they enjoyed hearing the sound of kids playing outside."

I walk around downtown Little Rock a lot, and I've often had the same thought. The sound of children playing in what once was a parking lot makes this feel like a real neighborhood rather than a place where workers park their cars at 8 a.m. and don't come out again until almost 5 p.m. when it's time to drive home to Cabot or Bryant. Restaurants, craft breweries and loft apartments are being added to make downtown a true 24-hour neighborhood. Yet it's the sound of those children that I love most.

In Wednesday's column I chronicled the attempt to transform an aging industrial area near the Clinton Presidential Center into a hip neighborhood known as East Village. As Bacon talked about his plans, I couldn't help but think that the thing that will make this feel like a neighborhood isn't the loft apartments that Cromwell Architects Engineers will build above its new headquarters in what once was a paint factory. It isn't Cathead's Diner, the collaboration between Donnie Ferneau and Kelli Marks that's set to open later this year and is receiving a tremendous amount of buzz. It's going to be those sounds of children playing.

The transformation of the neighborhood has been slow in coming. The Clinton Presidential Center was dedicated on a rainy day in November 2004. In March 2006, Heifer International dedicated its headquarters adjacent to the presidential park. In June 2009, Heifer added the Murphy Keller Education Center, a facility with interactive exhibits designed to educate visitors about self-sufficiency initiatives in countries around the world.

Sarah Donaghy writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: "The 94,000-square-foot 'green' building was constructed with Heifer's commitment to care for the earth in mind and includes many environmentally sound features, such as a 25,000-gallon water tower that collects water from the roof to be used for toilets and to operate the building's radiant heating system, bamboo flooring and recycled and recyclable carpeting, and insulation made of Arkansas soybeans and recycled jersey cotton. The building was designed to use half the energy of a comparable office building. Its innovative parking lot collects water for a constructed wetlands surrounding the office building.

"The headquarters building is situated on 33 acres of filled swamp land that had been contaminated through years of industrial and rail use. Before construction began, Heifer facilitated Arkansas' largest brownfield reclamation by removing 75,000 tons of contaminated soil. Heifer also recycled 97 percent of the masonry from buildings that were torn down in clearing the site. Some of the masonry was crushed into gravel for use as fill, and some was cleaned by staff and volunteers for use as decorative pavers."

Little Rock leaders excitedly touted the area as a future nonprofit corridor that would attract similar facilities. In 2004, Skip Rutherford, now dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, described a planned Heifer Global Village as "a Third World version of Epcot Center." It was estimated that the Global Village would attract 250,000 visitors a year. Nothing along those lines materialized. It also was announced that Lions World Services for the Blind would build a 167,000-square-foot campus on East Sixth Street. Financial difficulties kept that facility from being constructed.

Now instead of a nonprofit corridor, we'll have a neighborhood with a public charter school, loft apartments, offices, restaurants and craft breweries. Parts of the dream seem to be coming true. It's just taking a different form than originally planned, and it's taking longer.

The Cromwell firm explains its efforts this way: "The success of a neighborhood like East Village is dependent on diversity throughout its community. We want to embrace the spirit of that old industrial part of Little Rock and retain the history and quality of what was built there from the late 1800s into the mid-1900s. We want to foster creativity and interaction between neighbors and local businesses in order to help this area grow. We want to create jobs and see people living nearby taking advantage of new opportunities. This is definitely not just about a building. ... This is about bringing new life and commerce to one of the unique areas of our city while embracing the authenticity and grit that comes with it."

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

Editorial on 02/03/2018

Print Headline: The sound of children

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