ROGERS -- Seven years after city leaders charted a course with the Downtown Rogers Master Plan, developments like a 121-unit apartment complex are on the way to the city's downtown area.
The master plan was more of a guide than a road map, but it has been beneficial in providing a vision for growth downtown, according to Karen Wagaman, vice president of downtown development with the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce.
Gateway Planning Group of Texas was hired in 2014 to create the plan. When finalized in 2015, the comprehensive plan included streets, parks and utilities improvements paid for with a combination of city money and public and private partnerships.
A change in city zoning condensed eight zones to four, a move to make the downtown area more attractive to some business owners by halting the entry of gas stations, auto mechanics and similar businesses in the area.
Downtown has seen 224 new businesses established since the beginning of 2016, the first full year of the city initiative. That number includes some businesses that changed ownership, Wagaman said.
At least a dozen more are coming in the next six to 12 months, and six buildings are actively trying to lease right now, she said.
The area has seen a bit of a dip since the covid-19 pandemic -- only 36 new businesses set up shop during 2021 and 2022 combined after 53 did so in 2019 -- but it has experienced a definite trend of new businesses and housing becoming available, she said.
Since 2020, the downtown area has seen three businesses close and five relocate elsewhere in Rogers or Northwest Arkansas, she said.
Some of the significant moments in downtown's recent growth have been the redevelopment of Lake Atalanta and Railyard Park, the arrival of Haas Hall Academy and the Crossroads Learning Center, the renovation of Arkansas Arts Academy, the opening of The 1907 building and Ozark Beer Co., and the creation of the Butterfield Stage and the Railyard Live concert series, according to Wagaman.
Schools, creative businesses and attractions that provide experiences for visitors like cooking or art classes bring young people and families into an area of the city they may not otherwise visit, she said.
Activating underutilized properties, creating more residential units and adding job opportunities downtown have been primary goals this year for the chamber, which promotes the area through the Go Downtown Rogers brand.
Ashley Pledger, who has lived downtown for nine years, said she has enjoyed the development of a family-friendly and laid back nightlife atmosphere related to the Railyard Live shows.
Though she feels the city still needs to address its somewhat limited parking, she said, more people are visiting downtown these days to enjoy it as a destination.
"People aren't just walking for exercise now. They're strolling."
Adding residential space to downtown helps support the surrounding businesses, according to Wagaman.
"Sixth Street is seeing a real revitalization," she said. "Homes had gone into disrepair, and people are buying them up and creating beautiful homes."
The city has been allowing lot splits in the area, which has led developers to build several row homes on lots previously occupied by one or two houses, Wagaman said.
First Street Flats, which may be the downtown area's first large-scale, multifamily community, will bring 121 new apartment units to First Street, according to Rob Apple, director of strategy and communications for Specialized Real Estate Group.
The $28 million development planned for 401 N. First St., just north of the Fire Department, will include four three-story buildings with a total square footage of about 135,000. Units will be about 60% single-bedroom apartments, 20% studio apartments and 20% two-bedroom apartments.
The complex will also include a common space in a portion of the existing structure of the Ozark Cider and Vinegar Co. building. That space will include a co-working space, a coffee bar, an on-site plunge pool and storage for outdoor recreation equipment.
Specialized tries to adapt existing buildings into new developments and keep some of the neighborhood's history intact, even when it isn't the most cost-effective way of building, Apple said.
Walkability, environmental mindfulness and proximity to outdoor amenities like Lake Atalanta are also all priorities of the developers, according to Apple, who noted the company has been looking for an opportunity to be a part of downtown since the adoption of the area master plan.
"That plan created a guide to aid in the creation of a more walkable, vibrant and mixed-use downtown neighborhood. Our developments strive to connect people with neighbors and nature. First Street Flats will aim to do just that," said Jeremy Hudson, co-founder and CEO of Specialized.
A two-story building with restaurants, patios, an apartment and office space is scheduled to be completed at the corner of First and Elm streets over the next six months.
Construction at the property at 200 S. First St., soon to be known as The District, has been underway for about four months. Shawn Dible, owner of Elevate Property Management, said he hopes to have the development finished and ready for tenants by the end of the first quarter next year.
The District will have three restaurants along the building's bottom floor, a beer and wine bar called Pub on the Bricks, a Mexican restaurant called Casa Alejo and an Asian fusion concept called House 1830, according to Dible. An outdoor space between the restaurants and First Street will have park benches.
Upstairs, a two-bedroom apartment will be available for short-term rental. The apartment unit, to be called the Novel, will have a balcony and a 1920s art deco and speakeasy design theme, Dible said.
Elevate plans to use space on the top floor for its own offices as well, he said.
Dible, who grew up in Rogers and owns residential properties downtown in addition to commercial buildings that host businesses like Woof and Wander, The Five6, The Shire Gastropub, TxAR House and Magnolia Cycles, said demand for property in the area is definitely growing.
"We'd like to see this area thrive. We're thrilled to death to see all of the activity down here," he said. "I was initially hoping for a little faster growth like in downtown Bentonville, but I'm glad that it has been slower, because it allowed for better planning."
Businesses are bringing jobs and office space downtown, according to Wagaman.
Pel-Freez added 45 technical jobs this year to its downtown location on Arkansas Street. Banks like Arvest Bank have also recently brought employees back downtown, she said.
Startup company Loloft plans to offer shared office space and private micro-warehousing units to businesses on the south side of downtown. The 28,000-square-foot building at 600 S. First St. will open Nov. 30 as the company's flagship location. A 45,000-square-foot location at 2117 W. Walnut St. opened earlier this year.
"Initially, we thought that Loloft would primarily attract small e-commerce companies that are fulfilling orders in their garages, but looking to expand into a commercial warehouse space," CEO Brendan Howell said. "But we're also finding large companies wanting to use our space as last-mile delivery micro-hubs because they can quickly and cost-effectively place product near customers to achieve same-day delivery time frames."
The co-working space will have amenities like meeting rooms, phone booths and high-speed Wi-Fi.
Howell said presales for the units have been strong, with over half of the location's inventory committed to clients.
Northwest Arkansas is generally lacking leasable warehouse space, according to the Skyline Report released Tuesday by the University of Arkansas' Center for Business and Economic Research and sponsored by Arvest Bank.
The region's warehouse market has a vacancy rate of less than 1%, down from 6.6% last year, according to the report.