The slowdown starts at the Interstate 30 to I-40 West split, when traffic cautiously hugs retaining walls and pillars holding the John F. Kennedy Boulevard overpass. Cars, trucks and tractor-trailers stop-and-go as merging motorists test zero-to-60 mph performance while eluding cross-over traffic attempting the Levy exit.
Until recently, west-bound drivers faced double-jeopardy after crossing the Levy Bridge . Signs screamed — “Slow! Slow! Slow!” — at drivers who found themselves immediately on top of others trying to enter the expressway from a dead stop. F-bombs and other profanities sometimes rise just above the squeal of tires leaving rubber on the asphalt.
Some people change the time of their daily commute in hopes of bypassing the stress. Some change the route, while others completely avoid the area. As a result, extended interstate construction often claims a typical business or two. But MacArthur Drive business owners seem atypical.
“We’re kind of a destination store where people are going to seek it out and go to it,” says Mike Byrum, owner of Fermentables Home Brew and Winemakers Supply, located just off MacArthur Drive at 3915 Crutcher St. “It’s been inconvenient for people, I’m sure, but it’s somewhere they’ve got to go.”
Prepare to Stop
Discount superstores can be found almost anywhere in North Little Rock , but not on the old Conway Highway . On the nearly two-mile stretch between the MacArthur Drive on-ramp and the Camp Robinson entrance, businesses survive by catering to distinct clienteles. This eclectic stretch includes shops for tattoos, hobbies, wigs, clothes, donuts, trophies, music, hardware, motorcycle sales and service (and a specialty chopper shop), memorabilia and adult novelties, as well as a daytime and nighttime diner, a bakery outlet, a Mexican restaurant, a few night clubs and gas stations, a couple of liquor stores and a local grocery.
Fermentables sells home beer and wine-making supplies, cheese-making supplies, and also indoor gardening, hydroponic and organic fertilizers. Byrum notes that small businesses face bigger challenges than interstate construction, e.g. advertising costs, lack of quantity discounts. Yet he does not discount an impact.
“It’s definitely a hassle,” Byrum says, “but if you’ve been out through Benton , it used to be a pain to go out through all that construction. Now that it’s done, it’s really nice out there. I’ve been just trying to keep a positive attitude about it all the time. It’ll be a lot better when they’re done.”
Once construction finishes, drivers will have an option of taking the current Levy exit or a reconfigured exit that now matches up with Doyle Venable and MacArthur Drives. Scott Diffee owns The Parlor, located at 4108 MacArthur Drive , where he moved in 2001 after giving tattoos across from Pop-a-Top on University Drive inLittle Rock . He predicts business will double once the exit is finished.
“It’s just tapping the freeway,” he says. “People will be able to come right off that freeway. There’s several little bars, little knick-knack places, good places to eat, good record store, and a great tattoo shop down here. It’s a cool strip and it’s not been overpopulated yet.”
Instead of increasing advertising to generate more traffic during construction, Diffee downsized his Yellow Pages advertisement to the free listing, which basically provides an address. He notes good tattoos generate word-of-mouth advertising and new customers, while bad tattoos hurt business.
Arkansas Record-CD Exchange owner Bill Eginton touts his business while co-hosting the “Beat the Experts” radio trivia show on KARN news talk 92. He also underwrites Deb Moser’s blues show on KABF 88.3, and even has a commercial on Retro Television Network 42. But he relies on personal service to keep customers returning.
“I base my business on whoever walks through that door,” he says. “What they want, I get for them.”
Located at 4212 MacArthur Drive and online at ARCD.com, Arkansas Record-CD Exchange sells LPs, 45s, tapes, CDs, DVDs, neon signs, posters, memorabilia, electric trains, Hot Wheels, Star Wars and Star Trek collectibles. Eginton opened the store Oct. 12, 1984 , moved when the store burned down May 14, 1987 , and returned Dec. 1, 1988 , when the shopping center rebuilt.
Eginton would have made a good case study when John Cusack prepared for “High Fidelity.” He directs customers through more than a million items in his store, ranging from $2 records “for the kids that don’t know the music so they can take a chance” to collectible re-issues from bands including AC/DC, Black Flag, Black Sabbath and the Dead Kennedys.
“Business is coming back now that records are making a big comeback,” Eginton says. “Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Circuit Citydon’t have records. I specialize in things other people don’t have. I have all the things that other people do have as well.”
Next to a computer and a stack of CDs waiting for pricing, newspaper clippings hang with grim tales of music stores closures. Eginton says his commitment to customer service saves his business despite Internet downloads, chain stores that sell new releases cheaper than he can buy them, rising advertising costs and other problems that loom larger than interstate construction.
“It’s not the roads; if people want something, they’re going to come. I like to offer a good service. I’m very thankful to still be here and blessed. I keep working at it every day and I enjoy coming to work every day,” Eginton says. “I’m getting older. The kids look, ‘How does grandpa know anything about music?’ but old gramps is trying to keep up with it a little bit.”
A resident of Levy for nearly 40 years, Richard Maxwell hears the complaints about I-40 construction, including close calls between tractor-trailer rigs and automobiles. He knows people who drive all back roads to his business rather than face the interstate. But he realizes as drivers attempt to by-pass incidents that slow the interstate to a crawl, they also find his business, Abby Road North.
Abby Road North sells tobacco, unique gifts, posters, stickers, incense, aroma burners, lava lamps, knives, swords, body jewelry, discs for disc golf, tapestries, rock’n’roll and tye-dyed T-shirts, hookahs, water pipes, hand pipes, adult novelties, DVDs, lingerie and detoxify products. The business moved from the Pike Avenueand Camp Robinson split, basically underneath the Levy Bridge construction, to 5304 MacArthur Drive in December 2006.
“The move hurt us,” Maxwell says. “Moving always hurts. Every day we get people in here, ‘I thought you closed down,’ and all we did was move approximately a mile and a quarter. We’re actually picking up new customers because we’re in a different location. We’ve got a whole different batch of people driving by on MacArthur.”
Maxwell says he expects easier access will cause traffic to increase once the construction finishes. But he says the construction does not affect his business as much as rising gas prices and electricity costs in North Little Rock.
“When you have a choice of buying gifts and novelties or paying your electric bill, normally you’re going to pay your electric bill,” he says. “There’s a couple that won’t.”
June’s departure marked the end of the nasty freeway entrance from MacArthur Drive onto I-40 West just past the newly completed Levy Bridge . The on-ramp now places drivers on the newly opened portion of west-bound lane, while the screaming signs moved further down the road to mark the merger where two lanes widen to three just prior to the Burns Park exit.
Once the I-40 construction finishes, more than 70,000 daily drivers can breathe easier as the area increases from four to six lanes, according to Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesperson Glenn Bolick. While the project has already featured the widening of the JFK overpass, the destruction of the old Levy Bridge and the construction of the new bridge, it’s not finished yet.
“We’re at the stage where everybody thinks it is done and ought to be open,” he says, “but it still needs guardrails, striping, things to make it safe. It gets to a stage where it looks like you can drive on it, but 70,000 cars and trucks cannot drive on it because it’s not completed.”
Bolick expects the project from the 40-30 interchange west to I-430 to be completely finished by October. After all of the inconvenience, Bolick says he’s certain business owners will be glad to see the end of the construction.
While they may appreciate free-flowing traffic in the future, MacArthur Drive ’s businesses aren’t exactly hurting in the present. Many are sending potential customers past the Levy exit to the Burns Park exit or suggest that they drive down Pike Avenue to skip the interstate all together. Meanwhile, they wait and watch the project progress.
“I mean they’re doing their best, the road guys,” Eginton says. “We can see where some of our tax money is going.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of the Little Rock Free Press. See the pdf proofs.