There's an old saying in the chamber business that goes, "Chambers do what people think just happens."
For 125 years, the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce has worked behind the scenes to help the Conway economy succeed and grow. Watch the video below to see how the Chamber has helped shape Conway into the thriving city it has become today.
Special thanks to the Faulkner County Historical Society for providing access to many of the photos that appear in this video.
History is a funny thing. When you look back on it, days slip into oblivion. Years. Decades.
Entire ages pass quietly before our eyes, carrying off memories to be tucked away in dusty boxes and forgotten corners.
But here’s the extraordinary part: History is also alive. It reaches beyond itself into every part of our community, shaping ideas, education, economy.
Our history begins in 1891. Where it ends is up to you.
Conway was a young cotton town with a population of 1207. The Conway Board of Trade was established by Captain W.W. Martin to help recruit Hendrix College. This new business organization raised $50,000 for the effort, and Hendrix moved to Conway.
The Board of Trade successfully recruited Central College (now known as Central Baptist College) two years later, and Conway tilled new ground – as a place of learning. The Conway Board of Trade would eventually be renamed the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce.
At the turn of the century, the business community, led by future governor George Donaghey, recruited Arkansas State Normal School (now known as the University of Central Arkansas) to Conway, setting the stage for decades of future growth. Education was thriving. And so were the people.
Soon, it was time to improve services for this growing community. The Chamber helped establish a municipal sewer system, a major undertaking that improved the overall quality of life.
After World War I, the Chamber continued to invest in education, initiating a $30,000 SOS campaign to save the Conway Public School System, and contributing another $30,000 for a new dorm at Central College.
Seeing a need for a modern hotel, the Chamber initiated a successful campaign to issue stock to build the Revilo Hotel – better known as a Bachelor Hotel.
By 1929, Conway found itself in the throes of the Great Depression – a crisis that hit Arkansas early and hard. The City was faced with losing Hendrix College. The Chamber, led by chairman Jo Frauenthal, pledged $150,000 to the Methodist Church to keep Hendrix College in Conway.
In order to raise the needed funds, Conway Corporation was formed to manage the city’s Municipal Electric Power Plant, pledging future revenue to finance bonds and ultimately save Hendrix. Extra revenue assisted Central College, Arkansas State Normal School, Conway Public Schools, and St. Joseph Parochial Schools. The business community’s commitment to education solidified again, in the midst of America’s most difficult economic situation.
In 1933, at the urging of Arkansas businessman Harvey Couch, the Chamber issued stock to establish First National Bank. It represented Conway’s tenacity and hard-won hope for a more stable, post-Depression economy.
The Chamber was committed to supporting that economy, even running the Toad Suck Ferry for a number of years to ensure that Perry County residents would trade in Conway.
To continue post-war economic diversification, the Chamber partnered with Conway Corporation, raising $110,000 to build a facility for International Shoe – the first large industry in the city after World War II.
A year later, the Chamber raised money for the construction of Lake Conway.
Then, in 1954, the Conway Chamber of Commerce and Conway Corporation joined forces again, raising $100,000 to build a manufacturing facility for Virco. Conway was establishing its own industrial economy.
A modern economy brought more people. Those people demanded modern services. In 1955, the Chamber petitioned the City Council to inaugurate citywide garbage pickup, a move that helped keep Conway fresh, clean, and healthy.
In the late 50s, the Chamber purchased 404 acres of land for the Arkansas Children’s Colony (now known as the Conway Human Development Center) to serve mentally disabled children and, later, children afflicted with German measles. At $113,000, it was the largest real estate purchase in recent times.
Shortly after, in 1959, the Chamber reached out to area businesses. They responded with $32,000 in gifts, and the Chamber used those funds to form Conway Development Corporation – the city’s first nonprofit economic development organization and the Chamber’s new partner in the modern-day world of economic development.
This momentum carried Conway into the early 60s, when the Chamber and Conway Development Corporation broke ground on the Conway Industrial Park, the first master-planned, fully served industrial park of any small city in Arkansas. It was a time of progress and accomplishment.
The 60s were also a time of connection. In 1964, the Chamber successfully lobbied for construction of Toad Suck Bridge.
A few years later, the Chamber and Conway Development Corporation successfully recruited manufacturing giant Kimberly-Clark to Conway, followed by the formation of Demographics Inc. – now known as Acxiom. Both businesses purchased sites in the Conway Industrial Park.
Conway’s central location and industrial amenities continued to attract new opportunities. The 1970s saw more success as the Conway Industrial Park filled. In 1972, FMC Corporation, now known as Snap-on Equipment, purchased a site in the park.
It was time for the Chamber to have a permanent home. Chairman Bill F. Johnson spearheaded a building project in 1977 to move the Chamber of Commerce to a $100,000 building at Main and Parkway on a site provided by the city.
Progress continued through the 80s. In 1989, Tokusen USA Inc. announced a new plant in Conway.
All of this hard work was recognized in 1993 when the Conway Chamber received its first accreditation by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. At that time, only four chambers of commerce in Arkansas were accredited.
Five years later, the Chamber broke ground on a new building on the former site of Hiegel Lumber.
The year 2000 ushered in a new age of innovation for a new economy. In 2001, Conway Development Corporation purchased 186 acres for a technology park called The Meadows. In 2008, Hewlett-Packard claimed 26 of those acres and brought hundreds of new jobs.
In 2002, the Conway Development Corporation purchased an additional 550 acres for the new Conway Airport, shifting progress from land to sky.
In 2010, the Chamber led more than 1,400 area residents through the Conway2025 community-wide visioning process.
And in 2013, the Chamber’s own vision was celebrated far beyond our city when the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce was named Chamber of the Year by the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives at its annual conference.
In 2014, a new municipal airport with a 5,500-foot runway and expanded hangars opens at a site at Lollie Bottoms.
To Be Continued...
It’s all part of a long, rich history that has moved Conway forward. The decisions the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce has made over the last 125 years are still making a difference today – not just in echoes, but in actions.
So what happens next? History will continue to unfold, and those good works from the past will play out before us. We could be content with that. We could be along for the ride. Or we could start making history – again.
We could go full steam ahead, investing in a brilliant future that will still be taking shape five years from now. Twenty-five years. A HUNDRED and twenty five years.
Let’s build new places to laugh and play, ways to move, and opportunities that move us. Let’s build a future – and leave a legacy. Because Conway doesn’t wind down. We wind up.