Rebooting a Riverfront Revival

When the economy fell through, Jim Jackson and wife Lisa Ferrell had to put their riverfront development on hold. Now, they’re picking up the pieces

For decades after the old vestal nursery operation west of downtown North Little Rock was torn down—leaving only the nursery’s signature chimney—some 60 acres of open space along the Arkansas River had lay fallow. Little Rock attorneys Jim Jackson and Lisa Ferrell acquired the property in 2006, and by fall 2007, they had unveiled a grand plan for Rockwater Village, a project designed around the tenets of New Urbanism—a high-density, walkable neighborhood with a local commercial district—just off the popular Millennium Trail. The couple expected to start construction on the project in spring 2008.

Instead, with the economy crashing and the real estate bubble bursting, the newly arrived atmosphere of uncertainty meant putting the project on hold. They sold 13 acres of the property to a California-based developer in 2011 (that property became the Riverside at Rockwater apartment complex), but the couple held onto the rest—including the river frontage where they are now putting the finishing touches on one aspect of their original idea: Rockwater Marina, a full-service docking and fueling facility that will have 66 slips available by the soft opening over the July 4th holiday. A third of those slips have already been leased, and the couple plans to ultimately grow the operation to 136 slips over the next two or three years.

While walking hand-in-hand down the main dock of the marina, Jim and Lisa, who have been married for 15 years, talked about the delayed gratification of bringing part of their vision to fruition.

What was it like to have Rockwater Village all planned, with the energy and enthusiasm to carry it forward, only to have the economy fall out from under you?

Lisa: We viewed it as an opportunity to assess what could still be achieved.

Jim: We knew the site was a great site. It had all this potential. It’s always been, “What’s the best use for this diamond?”

Lisa: So we used the opportunity to create a fantastic entryway, the roundabout [with the historic Vestal chimney at its center], to plan Rockwater Boulevard with its architectural streetlights, and the infrastructure. We had the opportunity to develop what could be developed in preparation for what you see now—the beautiful apartments you see up there and this marina. We wanted to make sure that while there may have been a pause in the economy, we weren’t compromising our vision.

How big a demand is there for docking facilities on the river?

Lisa (laughing): The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration keeps statistics, and there are more than 20,000 registered boats in the state. And the numbers are even greater because only certain craft are registered. There’s a high demand, higher than what is being met by existing marinas. This marina is an asset not just for the North Little Rock waterfront, but for all of central Arkansas.

The riverfront at Little Rock seems to have taken longer to be redeveloped than those in other cities. What’s the appeal to taking such a step now?

Lisa: We’ve had the benefit of seeing what other communities have done well, and we’ve also had the benefit of seeing what other communities have not done well, though frankly, we’ve seen mostly beautiful riverfronts. Having other communities do it before we [did] gave us the chance to study it and get it right.

Who is your target audience?

Jim: It’s going to be quite a mix: party barges, houseboats, runabouts, ski boats—they’re all going to want to have easy access to being out on the water.

Lisa: The slip sizes are going to be 28, 40, 50, 60 and 70 feet, and we can even actually house some of the 100-foot boats as well. There are two types of target clients. One is folks who live in the central Arkansas region who are maybe tired of driving two or three hours to reach their boat; they can live in Little Rock and access their boat in five or 10 minutes, and be on the river. Then also in smaller rural communities, they may want to have the dual luxuries a marina can provide them—a downtown houseboat they can stay in, all the amenities of urban life and the recreational activities of skiing, fishing, boating and enjoying the bike trail.

Lisa: This will be a full-service marina. We’ll have pump-out—a way to dispose of waste—water, electricity. We’re working on Internet. We’ve hired our marina manager, Darry Hanson, an experienced gentleman who comes to us from Mountain Harbor [Resort on Lake Ouachita].

Jim: Did she mention we have a wine and beer permit? We’ll sell beer at the ship’s store.

Lisa: We would also love to have a partner restaurant. We think it’s an outstanding location.

Jim: That’s the first thing everybody says when they walk out here, that it’s screaming for a restaurant. But right now, we’re focused on getting this open. We’ll see what happens next.

You said there’s no concrete plans for what’s next but that you’re open to partnering with others for future development. In the long term, how would you like to see the remainder of the Vestal property turn out?

Jim: We’re extremely pleased with how Riverside at Rockwater has done. The people who live there love being down here. That’s a model—high quality, urban-style living.

Lisa: With the pedestrian and bike trail and the river, this location offers a leisure lifestyle coupled with urban amenities.

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