The Industrialization of Conway: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

After the success of recruiting International Shoe Company to Conway, business leaders sought to recruit more industry to the growing city. Over the next three decades, the Faulkner County Industrial Development Corporation (FCIDC), the Conway Development Corporation (CDC) and the Chamber of Commerce would bring in more large industries and even create the first Industrial Park.

One of the lessons learned when recruiting International Shoe was that it was easier to negotiate with potential industries if there was already land available. Negotiating with individual landowners could be unpredictable. So in 1956, a group of about fifteen businesses contributed $44,000 to the FCIDC to buy land for industrial development. The group then purchased 31.38

acres in south Conway. The land was west of the railroad with Robins Street bordering on the north. Thomas G. Wilson, president of First State Bank, was president of FCIDC.

Meanwhile in 1958, FCIDC and the Chamber of Commerce announced that Baldwin Piano, the number one producer of pianos, would be bringing a branch plant to Conway. The Howard spinet operation would set up temporarily in the old Ward School Bus plant on Harkrider but would eventually build a plant. Ward Bus had recently opened up its new plant south of Conway along Highway 65. The company was enticed to come to Conway, largely by Thomas G. Wilson, because of the availability of personnel available for training. FCIDC had also secured a site for the future plant between Tyler and Hairston streets along the railroad extending to the west.

In 1959, FCIDC announced that it had found a tenant for the land south of Robins Street. Universal Match would build a new, modern $2.2 million plant for the production of various refrigeration products.

It would be named Customade Products Division and would employ 250 to 300 men. The city and county would provide utilities and pave Robins Street.

The city would also provide part of the financing along with the CDC, a new corporation formed in 1959 by 77 Conway businesses, individuals and organizations. This development corporation would also be led by Thomas G. Wilson. Wilson was said to have played a large part in landing this factory as well. The 200,000 square-foot plant was built by the FCIDC which then donated the land and the building to the CDC which took over the lease.

CDC then helped FCIDC purchase 60 acres west of the railroad between Tyler and Harrison for the future Baldwin Piano plant. Later, when Baldwin instead purchased property and built a plant in south Conway, the CDC sold 50 acres of the land and donated the other 10 acres to the city for a park.

The cash was then used as a down payment on a 178-acre tract on the east side of town for an industrial park.

The Industrial Park would be dedicated in September, 1963. The CDC served as developer and administrator for the new park. The first tenant was Prince-Gardner, which manufactured billfolds, key cases and purses. It employed 131 people but, unfortunately, soon closed for economic reasons. Eighty acres was soon added to the park and railroad spurs were installed. A new cloverleaf I-40 exit later gave the park easy interstate access.

Rather than name the streets in the Industrial Park after notable persons, the CDC instead chose business-related names. Industrial Boulevard was the main road, running east to west across the south end of the park. Commerce Road ran east to west in the northern part of the park. Three north-south roads, Enterprise, Equity and Exchange avenues, connected the two.

Kimberly Clark opened its Conway Mills plant in the Industrial Park in 1968. FMC Automotive Service Equipment Division located in the park in 1972. Aeromotors, a company that served the home, farm, irrigation and light industrial water system markets with submersible and jet water pumps, established a plant there in 1974. Forty industries were located in the park by the mid-1970s, employing 4,358 people and bringing the park to near capacity.

The efforts of Conway business leaders in the 1950s and 1960s helped Conway continue to grow economically as cotton farming declined.

Industrialization provided jobs and kept many from having to leave to find work. As a result of these efforts, Conway would survive the economic turbulence of the 1970s and emerge relatively unscathed.

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