More than 125 years ago, business leaders in Conway, Arkansas, wanted to grow the local economy, so they created a strategy to attract institutions of higher learning to the central Arkansas town. Now, Conway is home to the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College, earning the nickname the “City of Colleges — as well as countless dividends from that century-old decision.
Today, Conway’s population of about 65,000 is young (with a median age of 27.3) and educated (nearly 40 percent of residents have at least a bachelor’s degree). And for many of the city’s residents, the role of sports and sports facilities continues to be important because, at its heart, Conway is a sports town.
Not only do all three colleges have their own athletic facilities, but the city and its residents realize the need for top-notch sports amenities for all ages, and those facilities continue to attract organizers who are looking to find a welcoming home for their tournaments and events.
For instance, in April, the new Conway Tennis Center opened in Laurel Park, featuring eight new outdoor hard courts, two buildings located between the courts that include a pro shop, locker rooms and indoor/outdoor covered viewing areas, as well as plenty of parking. The Conway Area Tennis Association (CATA) was a driving force in getting the venue approved and built.
“It’s a beautiful tennis facility,” says Rachel Shaw, the director of destination marketing for the Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Up until now, we hadn’t really had any tennis presence because we didn’t have a good facility. But CATA got the community excited to build a new tennis center, and now lessons, programs and events are thriving.”
Shortly after the grand opening, the inaugural Conway Regional Tennis Classic, sponsored by a local hospital, took place and was sanctioned by the U.S. Tennis Association. The facility also has hosted tournaments for juniors on its courts, which have ‘blended lines’ for youth and beginner play.
“The tennis center is owned by the city parks department, which takes great care of all our sports facilities,” Shaw notes. There also are other tennis courts in town, including eight hard courts at University of Central Arkansas and five at Hendrix College.
“The three colleges all have their own athletic facilities,” says Shaw. “We have a great working relationship with each of them and a history of partnering to use their campus facilities when an event calls for it, both for indoor and outdoor sports.”
Conway, which is located about 30 miles northwest of Little Rock, also is “big into baseball and softball, with two excellent, city-owned facilities,” says Shaw. The city’s baseball complex, Conway Station Park, and softball complex, City of Colleges Park, both were voted “Facility of the Year” by the Arkansas Recreation and Parks Association, in 2011 and 2010, respectively.
With nine lighted diamonds, Conway Station Park is one of the top baseball complexes in the state. Eight of the fields, arranged in two “pods” of four fields each, have 225-foot fences, and one field has a 350-foot fence. Each has warm-up pitching areas by the dugouts, and there is covered seating for fans and concession areas and restrooms.
City of Colleges Park is one of the top softball parks in this part of the country. Home to softball teams from Central Baptist College and St. Joseph High School, City of Colleges Park offers five lighted, manicured fields with covered seating for spectators, concessions, restrooms and a playground to help keep young fans busy when not playing or watching games. There also is a warm-up pitching area at every dugout. The city has three additional adult softball fields at the Don Owen Sports Complex.
Soccer also is big in Conway, and the place to play is Centennial Soccer Park, a 51.5-acre complex with 10 full-size fields (four lighted) and two smaller U-10 fields. The park also offers a concession stand, coach/referee room, air-conditioned restrooms and office space/party room. A number of clubs play out of the Soccer Park including the Arkansas Valley Soccer Association, Conway Rush Soccer Club, Little Rock Rush Soccer Club, Arkansas United Soccer Club and Central Baptist College.
The Indoor Game
“We’re fortunate in Conway to have both excellent outdoor and indoor sports facilities,” Shaw says. “At the top of the list for indoor venues are the Don Owen Sports Complex and the McGee Center, both owned by the city of Conway, and we also have the huge Conway Expo & Event Center. With all we have available, we see hosting indoor events and competitions as a nice opportunity for both the city and for event organizers.”
The Don Owen Sports Complex sits on 125 acres and consists of the Conway Sports Center, six tee-ball fields, three lighted adult softball fields, a dog park, restrooms and two concession areas. Indoors, there is court space for three basketball courts or six volleyball courts, walking tracks, concessions and locker rooms.
The McGee Center also has three basketball courts or space for six volleyball courts, plus two meeting rooms, one that can hold 150 people and a smaller room for 25. The McGee Center also is home to the Conway Skate Park.
“Using the facilities at both Don Owen and McGee, we’ve hosted the Arkansas Homeschool Basketball Tournament for the last few years here, along with a number of volleyball tournaments,” says Shaw.
The Don Owen Complex also houses the Faulkner Country Rodeo Arena, which consists of a large barn, small barn, large rodeo arena, corral areas, announcer stands, restrooms and a concession area. Also located just south of the Don Owen softball fields is a pavilion and nearby is a small playground.
Extensive indoor space also is available at the centrally located Conway Expo & Event Center, which is close to hotels, restaurants and shopping opportunities. The facility features a 40,000-square-foot, column-free space attached to the new Event Center, offering 6,200 square feet of partitionable meeting room space, along with a fully equipped catering kitchen.
Off the Field
When not competing, there is plenty to do for athletes and families in and around Conway. A popular attraction, says Shaw, is the Urban Air Trampoline & Adventure Park, which has virtual reality games, ropes courses, climbing walls and much more. Another favorite for visiting athletes is Jacks Ultra Sports, with offerings including low-impact paintball, 3-D laser tag, an escape room and more. The area also has plenty of fishing, boating, swimming and other water sports, in addition to hiking trails.
Downtown Conway is a historic district, and since 2000, tens of millions of dollars have been invested in the revitalization of the area, bringing new retail, offices, restaurants and residential construction.
One way to enjoy the city is by bicycle, and Conway is the first city in Arkansas to launch an on-demand public bike-share program, so residents and visitors have a convenient, affordable and healthy way to get around town. There are now six Zagster bike-share locations around town.
Conway also has dozens of hotels to suit all budgets, and most were built within the last eight years. Restaurants abound, with more than 200 in the area, offering all types of cuisine at all price points. Within the last few months, three new restaurants opened in the downtown area, and others within a new major shopping center.
The City of Colleges benefits from the arts and cultural contributions of UCA, Hendrix and Central Baptist College, with museums, galleries, theater and concerts. Several events, festivals and expos take place in Conway throughout the year, including arts festivals, food festivals and the Faulkner County Fair.
There’s no question that Conway has a lot going for it, both on and off the field — for athletes, families and sports organizers. SDM