Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

Spring in the Spa City

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

On the morning of Tuesday, March 15, Hot Springs business leaders gathered at the Embassy Suites Hotel adjacent to the city’s convention center to hear from Mike Preston, the young, highly articulate executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Preston, who was hired by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and moved to Arkansas from Florida last year, gets it.

He understands that economic development in the information age is no longer about industrial recruitment.

It’s about recruiting people — smart, creative, talented people. They’re people who can live wherever they wish and often choose a city based on things such as the ability to reside in a walkable downtown, the quality of restaurants, the assortment of live entertainment at night, the number of bicycle and hiking trails, etc.

For decades, Hot Springs failed to play to its strengths. I know it has been a theme of this blog for several years, but I’ll say it again: Hot Springs’ business and civic leaders allowed a downtown that should be a national treasure to deteriorate. I watched those beautiful old buildings decline and wanted to cry. It was almost criminal what happened.

Preston told those at the breakfast meeting of the Hot Springs Metro Partnership that cities must play to their strengths and then let the world know when things are going well.

Eric Jackson, the veteran general manager at Oaklawn Park, took that message to heart.

Early on the Sunday morning after Preston’s speech, Jackson looked back on what had been a remarkable previous 10 days for Spa City tourism and sent a sunrise missive to key leaders in the city.

He wrote: “Our community recently wrapped up a series of events that resulted in an overall tourism and hospitality product unlike anything in the South. In a relatively short period of time, Hot Springs hosted the state high school basketball championships, several large conventions, the nationally acclaimed St. Patrick’s Day parade, live entertainment ranging from bagpipes to the blues, group tours and the Rebel Stakes day at Oaklawn, which essentially has become like a second Arkansas Derby day. Good luck trying to get a hotel room or a restaurant reservation. You couldn’t turn around downtown or at Oaklawn without running into celebrities or top names in industry and government.”

An estimated crowd of 35,000 people showed up on Saturday, March 19, to watch the Rebel, the race that began drawing the nation’s attention last year to eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

This year’s Rebel came just two days after a throng that some people estimated to be near 30,000 packed downtown Hot Springs for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on Bridge Street. This was the 13th year for the parade, a creation of the multitalented Steve Arrison, who heads the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau. The parade has garnered national media attention for Hot Springs and becomes bigger each year.

During the three days after the parade, more than 50,000 racing fans showed up at Oaklawn. Jackson pointed out that at Oaklawn there were:

— Attractions ranging from petting zoos to live entertainment on the open infield.

— Backstretch tours and the increasingly popular Dawn at Oaklawn program for those wanting to learn more about thoroughbred racing.

— A choice of several dozen concession areas and 10 places to sit down and get something to eat or drink.

— Wagering on live races, imported races, electronic games, poker and Instant Racing.

— Uplinks transmitting Oaklawn’s races by satellite to more than 1,000 locations in North America.

— National media coverage.

— More than $2 million in purses, including the country’s top race for three-year-olds that weekend.

— Four areas featuring live musical entertainment.

— Almost 1,500 horses being trained, fed and groomed.

“On top of all that, you have the Mid-America Science Museum, golf, fishing, restaurants, shopping and everything else in this resort community,” Jackson wrote. “It really was amazing. For about a week, our community was the epicenter for hospitality, tourism, entertainment and sports in the South. And, quite frankly, everyone from the shop owners to our police made it look effortless.”

The previous week, large crowds had migrated to the Hot Springs Convention Center for three days to watch the 14 high school basketball championship games. I attended the Saturday games. When I left the arena to walk over to The Porterhouse for dinner, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic on Central Avenue downtown.

Add the fact that the tulips are in full bloom at Garvan Woodland Gardens on Lake Hamilton, drawing throngs of visitors from multiple states.

Verna Garvan spent more than three decades creating the gardens on family property. Her story is an interesting one. She was born Verna Cook in January 1911 in Groveton, Texas.

“Verna and her sister Dorothy were raised to be proper ladies, but Verna often accompanied her father to work and absorbed his business acumen,” Judy Byrd Brittenum writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1916, her father moved the family to Malvern to manage the Wisconsin & Arkansas Lumber Co., an enterprise producing oak and pine flooring. Malvern Brick & Tile was also purchased by Verna’s father, who later served as a board member of what’s now the Malvern National Bank. His land and business investments were transferred upon his death to his wife and daughters but administered by Verna. At the end of her life, she was purported to have the largest holding of timber rights in Arkansas, as she always retained the mineral and timber rights from company land sales.

“Cook grew up in Malvern but attended Holton-Arms, a prestigious Washington, D.C., girls’ school, for her secondary education. When her father died in an auto accident on Aug. 12, 1934, she was engaged to marry Alonzo Bernard Alexander of Spartanburg, S.C. Her mother and sister wished to take no active role in the family business, and after her marriage on Oct. 1, 1934, she proposed that she and her husband manage the the holdings. They moved to South Carolina.”

She was a long way from the family businesses back in Arkansas, but those businesses survived the Great Depression. The brick company supplied thousands of bricks for the massive Army and Navy Hospital at Hot Springs, for instance. A son who had been born with cystic fibrosis died in 1954 in his teens, and Verna’s first marriage ended in 1956. She moved back to Arkansas and met Patrick Garvan Jr., who was visiting a friend in Hot Springs. Garvan was from a prominent New York family. They were married in June 1960 and were planning to build a home on the 210 acres along Lake Hamilton that now house Garvan Woodland Gardens. Patrick Garvan died in 1975, and the home was never built.

“Disappointed in her personal life, she sought to ensure that her garden would remain viable after her death,” Brittenum writes.

Verna’s father had purchased the 210 acres that became the gardens in order to harvest its hardwood timber for his flooring mill. The land became much more valuable when Harvey Couch of Arkansas Power & Light Co. built Carpenter Dam on the Ouachita River, creating Lake Hamilton. Garvan sold Malvern Brick & Tile to Acme Brick in the 1970s, giving her more time to develop the gardens.

The late Marla Crider wrote: “Gardening became Garvan’s passion. As she continued to develop the grounds after her husband’s death, she decided the garden should be shared with the public. She enlisted the help of longtime Malvern Brick & Tile employee Warren Bankson to assist with her vision of a public facility. Together they constructed infrastructure and planted thousands of native and exotic trees, shrubs and plants. She named her landscaped creation the Twentieth Century Gardens.

“Realizing that she and Bankson were not equipped to create a true botanical garden on the scale she had hoped, Garvan signed a trust agreement with the University of Arkansas on Nov. 11, 1985, committing the School of Architecture and its landscape architecture program to operate Twentieth Century Gardens in perpetuity as a service to the people of Arkansas with the understanding that she would maintain control until her death. As stated in the agreement, her motivation for bequeathing the property to the university was to serve as a tribute to natural preservation in the 20th century.”

Garvan hired famous architect Fay Jones and business partner Maurice Jennings of Fayetteville to design an open-air pavilion, which was under construction when Garvan was diagnosed with cancer. Garvan died on Oct. 1, 1993.

The aforementioned Judy Brittenum, who taught landscape architecture at the University of Arkansas, had been appointed by the school in 1990 to work with Garvan to document all the plants in the gardens. David Knowles, an engineering professor, did a detailed survey of all 210 acres. Bob Byers was hired in 1994 as the garden curator and resident landscape architect. Bankson served as garden superintendent.

In 1996, a Cleveland-based landscape architecture and consulting firm was hired to create a 25-year master plan for the gardens. The plan was completed three years later, and a rock and stream garden known as the Garden of the Pine Wind was constructed in 2000. It later was ranked by the Journal of Japanese Gardening as No. 15 on a list of 300 Japanese–style gardens in North America.

The university changed the name from Twentieth Century Gardens to Garvan Woodland Gardens in 2000. A welcome center was built, and the gardens opened to the public on April 7, 2002.

John Ed and Isabel Burton Anthony later were the major benefactors of the Anthony Chapel, which opened in September 2006. Maurice Jennings and David McKee of Fayetteville designed the chapel and the 57-foot Anthony Family Carillon.

Like the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Garvan Woodland Gardens draws more national publicity with each passing year.

Hot Springs’ revitalization efforts received another boost last year when the Mid-America Science Museum reopened following an extensive renovation. In 2011, the museum was awarded a $7.8 million capital grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Museum officials spent the next several years working with construction consultants, architects and exhibit developers. The museum had to raise $1.6 million to match the grant. A sizable donation from the Oaklawn Foundation in 2013 allowed the museum to reach its fundraising goal.

The museum closed in August 2014 so renovations could begin and reopened in March 2015.

It was Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the 1960s who first had the idea of an interactive science museum for Arkansas. Rockefeller hired a well-known museum consultant and sponsored a symposium of state leaders to discuss the idea. Hot Springs was identified as the best place for the project.

After taking office in 1971, Gov. Dale Bumpers supported the effort to build the museum. The Legislature established the Arkansas Museum and Cultural Commission during the 1971 session, and Rockefeller was appointed chairman. Temporary offices were opened in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs in 1974.

“Construction began on March 11, 1977, on the 65,000-square-foot facility, built on 21 wooded acres in Mid-America Park, a commercial development that includes what’s now National Park College, the museum, industrial and commercial entities,” Richard Mathias writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The multimillion-dollar facility is divided into two wings, which are connected by a glass-enclosed bridge that spans the outside stream. The museum opened to the public on Jan. 20, 1979.

“Sunday, April 22, 1979, was proclaimed Mid-America Day by the major of Hot Springs as the museum was dedicated by Gov. Bill Clinton in a grand opening ceremony. It also received the Henry Award from the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 1982, honoring contributions to the state’s tourism industry. In 1981, the Hot Springs City Council appropriated, through the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, one cent of the hospitality sales tax to support the museum after Gov. Frank White abolished the museum commission and the appropriations for its operations.”

In November 2001, the museum became the first Arkansas facility to be designated an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. That was the year that the facility was deeded from the state to the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. Efforts began in 2004 to become a private, nonprofit entity governed by a board.

Reopened and looking like new, the Mid-America Science Museum now takes its place alongside Oaklawn, Garvan Woodland Gardens, Magic Springs and even Hot Springs National Park as an important Spa City attraction.

So far, it has been a spring to remember in Hot Springs.

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Mr. Downtown Little Rock

Monday, March 14th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in Talk Business & Politics magazine.

Jimmy Moses grew up steeped in the history of Little Rock, especially its downtown.

His great-grandfather, Herman Kahn, moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn and his sons, Sidney L. Kahn Sr. and Alfred G. Kahn, were involved in banking and real estate development.

Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood in Little Rock.

Herman Kahn’s best-known development was the Marion Hotel, which was among the most famous businesses in Arkansas for much of the 20th century.

Construction on the Marion began in 1905. It was the tallest structure in the state from when it opened in 1907 until 1911. The hotel closed in early 1980 and was demolished to make way for the Excelsior Hotel (which later became the Peabody and then the Marriott) and the Statehouse Convention Center.

The 500-room Marion had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The hotel was named after Herman Kahn’s wife, Marion Cohn Kahn.

The Marion billed itself as the “Meeting Place of Arkansas,” and the state’s top organizations held their conventions there. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a mounted alligator gar. Visitors to the Marion through the years included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Helen Keller and Will Rogers.

Within walking distance of the Marion, Moses’ family operated the music and electronics store Moses Melody Shop on Main Street. The business was established shortly after World War I by Moses’ grandfather, Grover Cleveland “Cleve” Moses, and operated for almost six decades until falling victim to downtown’s decline in the late 1960s.

During the 1960s, the store had what was known as the Color TV Lounge where customers could watch color television. There were soundproof glass booths for listening to records, and there were live Saturday radio broadcasts by radio station KALO that featured local bands. Jimmy Moses worked in the store as a boy.

Moses describes downtown Little Rock as “being in my DNA.”

He remembers the days when customers would come into Moses Melody Shop in droves. Down the street, the Marion Hotel lobby was filled at all hours. Downtown Little Rock was the place to be.

By the time Moses left for college at Washington and Lee University in the mountains of southwest Virginia, the capital city’s core had begun its long, slow decline.

Moses sits by a window in the Little Rock Club on the 30th floor of the Regions Center in downtown Little Rock and looks out on the city that has been central to his career. He’s now in his 60s and thinking about his legacy. He says he wants to be remembered as someone who helped transform Arkansas’ largest city back into a place where people “want to live” rather than fleeing to the suburbs in Saline, Faulkner and Lonoke counties.

“Little Rock is at a crossroads,” Moses says as he gazes down on the capital city. “We’ve done a lot of good things to set the stage for growth, but I’m not sure that our leadership has fully embraced the concept that we can be great.”

Those who compare the relatively slow growth of Little Rock to Austin or Nashville can become depressed when thinking about the city. But those are state capitals of far larger states that also are the homes of world-class universities and bustling music scenes. They have amenities that Little Rock will never have.

Little Rock looks far better, though, when compared to Southern cities such as Birmingham, Ala., and Jackson, Miss.

In 1950, Birmingham had a population of 326,037, more than triple the size of Little Rock at the time. Birmingham was the same size as Atlanta (331,314) in 1950. By 2010, Birmingham’s population had fallen to 212,237. While Birmingham was losing population, Little Rock was growing from 102,213 residents in 1950 to 193,524 residents in 2010. With a population that’s expected to surpass 200,000 during the next year, Little Rock is now the same size as Birmingham rather than a third its size.

Jackson, meanwhile, had a population of 202,895 in 1980, far larger than Little Rock’s population of 159,151 at the time. The current population of Jackson is about 170,000. The cities appear to be headed in opposite directions. In Mississippi, for example, Bass Pro Shops and an outlet mall chose to locate in the suburb of Pearl. In Arkansas, Bass Pro and an outlet mall chose Little Rock rather than a city in the suburbs.

Moses points out that public projects continue to complement private investments in downtown Little Rock. In addition to construction of a new Broadway Bridge, work is proceeding on the $68 million renovation of the Robinson Center. The city has committed $20 million to the Little Rock Technology Park downtown, and voters recently approved a bond issue of $35 million for upgrades to the Arkansas Arts Center, the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History and MacArthur Park. The bonds will be paid back over 30 years with collections from an increased hotel tax.

During the past year, other parts of town have seen the opening of a $23 million transmission operations center for Entergy Corp., a new Southern region operations center for the regional energy transmission organization Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator, a $52 million facility in southwest Little Rock for Federal Express and a major expansion of Dassault Falcon Jet adjacent to the city’s airport.

Dr. Dean Kumpuris, a longtime member of the Little Rock Board of Directors, says: “We’re headed in the right direction. The strongest thing we have going for us is a group of people willing to roll up their sleeves, identify the problems and then attack those problems.”

Kumpuris describes the decision to place the technology park downtown as “an absolute winner for everybody.”

Jimmy Moses and business partner Rett Tucker remain atop the list of those “willing to roll up their sleeves, identify the problems and then attack those problems.”

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee, Moses earned a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Florida. He was working for the planning firm Hodges Vines Fox & Associates in 1981 when Little Rock turned to the firm for suggestions on what to do with a downtown that had been gutted by so-called urban renewal. Most residents and many businesses had moved out.

In Moses’ words, downtown “barely had a heartbeat.”

It would be years before his vision began to be achieved, but Moses was an early proponent of attracting full-time residents back downtown.

In July 1982, Moses joined forces with Rick Redden and John Allison to launch Allison Moses Redden Architecture, Interiors and Planning. Allison Moses Redden later became AMR Architects Inc. when Moses and Allison began new firms. Moses teamed up with fellow Little Rock native and Washington and Lee graduate Tucker to form what’s now Moses Tucker Real Estate.

Moses Tucker’s efforts to bring residents downtown included development of the Arkansas Capital Commerce Center in 2002, the First Security Center in 2004, 300 Third Street in 2007 and the River Market Tower in 2009. The company has worked with hotel developer John McKibbon to bring four new hotels to the River Market District.

Moses Tucker later expanded its efforts to Main Street to transform the 1912 Blass Building into the Mann on Main. The popular Italian restaurant Bruno’s Little Italy was reborn in the complex.

Farther south on Main Street, Moses Tucker has joined forces with Cromwell Architects Engineers to bring life back to the building that housed the Arkansas Democrat from 1916 until the early 1930s. The building, designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson, later housed a furniture store and the Lido Cafeteria. The top floors have been vacant for more than 25 years.

In the River Market District, the company partnered with the Central Arkansas Library System to develop the Arcade Building, which is home to the upscale restaurant Cache, the Ron Robinson Theater and other offices and businesses.

On East Capitol, Moses Tucker tore down the former Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. headquarters and replaced it with the MacArthur Commons apartment complex. In November, the 59-unit, three-story building was sold for $10.5 million to MacArthur Commons LLC, led by David R. Thompson. The project, which was completed in September, was already 97 percent occupied at the time of the sale.

During the summer, Moses Tucker broke ground on the 36-unit Legion Village apartment complex on nearby Rock Street with additional plans to renovate the former M.M. Eberts American Legion Post building and an adjoining structure.

In October, Moses Tucker announced that it had teamed up with the Cromwell firm to develop a 3.5-acre area east of Interstate 30, near the Heifer International headquarters. Cromwell plans to transform a 50,000-square-foot warehouse into a mixed-use development and add 20,000 square feet to the building. About a third of the facility will house Cromwell’s Little Rock offices. Moses Tucker will handle the management and leasing of the complex. For now, the area, which already includes Lost Forty Brewing and Rock Town Distillery, is being billed as East Village.

“Forty years ago, when we built our building at Markham and Spring streets, the area was in need of a major redevelopment effort,” says Dan Fowler, Cromwell’s director of finance and business development. “Our building, along with investments in the Camelot Hotel, Excelsior, Stephens Building and Capital Hotel, created a vibrant district within the core of our city. We hope to do the same east of I-30.”

Cromwell CEO Charley Penix says that the addition of restaurants and apartments to the area could lead to “the new River Market.”

Moses also envisions an area that mixes retail, restaurants and residents, leading to activity 24 hours a day.

“In northwest Arkansas, you have had the Walton family and the Tyson family provide direction and vision,” Moses says. “We don’t have one dominant family here. But we do have a chance to be a great city. What we have to realize is that we’re not finished. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Moses also has turned his attention to the neighborhood where he’s having lunch on this day, which is now being called the Financial Quarter.

Almost 5,000 people work in the high-rise Simmons Tower, Regions Center, Union Plaza, Bank of America Plaza and Stephens Building. A large number of those workers drive into downtown Little Rock five mornings a week, walk from parking garages into their buildings and don’t come out again until walking back to their cars at the end of the day for the drive to places such as Bryant, Conway and Lonoke.

Moses Tucker took a first step with almost $1 million in improvements to the first and second floors of the Regions Center, which it manages.

A volunteer design cooperative known as studioMAIN has worked for more than a year on a plan to revitalize the Financial Quarter, which is bordered by Sixth Street on the south, the Arkansas River on the north, Main Street on the east and Broadway on the west.

Both Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker describe the neighborhood as “tired” and in need of renovation.

Once lively bank lobbies are now empty as more people do their banking online.

The first phase of a three-part plan for the Financial Quarter will include a so-called pop-up event designed to show what the neighborhood could be, better branding and the addition of street furniture, painted crosswalks, hanging banners and landscaping.

The second phase will involve the redesign of existing plazas and bank lobbies in an effort to draw people out of their offices for dining and shopping opportunities.

The third phase will include plans for building out the Financial Quarter, including the replacement of surface parking lots with high-rise housing projects and adjoining parking decks.

During a meeting of stakeholders last year, Moses recalled how desolate the River Market District once was and told those in attendance that the River Market area started with far fewer assets than the Financial Quarter.

Asked to list three top objectives for Little Rock during the next decade, Moses says:

— “Transforming the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. It needs to be to this city what Vanderbilt University is to Nashville. There’s no reason that UALR can’t be nationally recognized. To be a great city, Little Rock needs a great institution of higher education. Hiring the right person to succeed Joel Anderson as chancellor is critical to the future of this city. We must have someone who understands the role of an urban university and can build on what Joel has done.”

— “Continuing redevelopment of the city’s core. We’re creating a sense of place down here, and it’s important that we don’t lose momentum. Seeing what’s going on downtown has given people a sense of pride in the city. It’s time to accelerate that process.”

— “Building the brand of Little Rock. We need people across the country to recognize Little Rock as a city that’s on the right path. For instance, I like the fact that UALR is now simply branding its athletic teams as Little Rock. UALR has no meaning to people outside of Arkansas. Little Rock, however, means something.”

Moses is convinced that UALR needs a significant presence downtown. He thinks the university should find a way to partner with the Little Rock Technology Park, which is trying to develop a research-technology corridor along Main Street.

“If I were the new chancellor, the first directive I would issue would be that UALR must have a satellite campus downtown and that it must be aligned with the tech park,” Moses says. “Even if the project takes 20 years to complete, it’s important that we do it. We already have the law school, the Clinton School of Public Service and the Arkansas Studies Institute downtown. If we could somehow add more UALR departments to the mix, we could have a real intellectual powerhouse that would attract more young, talented people to live downtown. There are certain things that we simply have to do if we’re going to be great as a city, and this is one of them.”

Moses realizes that a new generation is taking on leadership roles in Little Rock. His son Chris was named the president of Moses Tucker in 2013. Chris Moses graduated from Little Rock Central High School and then received a bachelor’s degree in real estate finance from Arizona State University in 2001. After working for Moses Tucker in Little Rock and for firms in Orange County, Calif., and Atlanta, Chris Moses received his master’s degree in real estate development from Clemson University in 2011. He returned to Moses Tucker after earning the advanced degree.

Despite having his son as president of the company, Jimmy Moses has no plans to slow down.

He told an interviewer in 2014: “I’d like to keep doing this for another 25 years.”

Two years after making that comment, he’s busier than ever.

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The 1836 Club

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

The best thing for me when three business partners purchased the historic Packet House on Cantrell Road was that the large wooden RPM sign that misspelled the name of this Little Rock landmark finally came down.

Each morning as I would drive by that sign on the way to work, the old editor in me wanted to scream.

Others with a strong sense of Arkansas history told me that they felt the same way.

Mark Camp is an investment banker who worked as a trader for Crews & Associates of Little Rock until 2014.

Rod Damon is a Little Rock-based mortgage trader for the Bank of Oklahoma.

Jeremy Hutchinson is a state senator, attorney and business investor.

Over drinks at the bar of one of their favorite steakhouses — Arthur’s in west Little Rock — they would discuss how Little Rock needed a private dining club that served dinner. The Little Rock Club on the top floor of the Regions Building downtown serves lunch five days a week, but dinner is only offered about twice a month.

“Every city of significant size has something like this,” Camp says. “I began searching online for a location. At first, they were asking too much for the Packet House for us to make it work. When they lowered the price, we got involved. They spent $1.3 million on renovations back in 2012 so we won’t have to do much beyond some new flooring, painting, new art for the walls and leather furniture.”

The 1836 Club was born.

It’s a nod to history since 1836 was the year Arkansas became a state.

Few structures are more historic in the capital city than the Packet House, one of the 15 oldest buildings in Pulaski County.

“We could go in there and serve dinner tonight if we wanted to,” Hutchinson says. “It has a great kitchen, among the best in the state.”

And it’s about to have a great chef since the three partners hired Donnie Ferneau, who will shut down his Good Food on Main Street in North Little Rock to devote full time to the 1836 Club.

Ferneau will serve meals on the first floor, which will include a private dining room known as the Governor’s Room. The main dining area will be known as the Caucus Room.

The second floor will be the home of the Pilots’ Lounge, which will include large television screens for watching sporting events, pool tables and card tables. Fine cigars will be available upstairs in the Humidor Lounge.

Charter applications are still being accepted with an opening planned for later this spring. The partners make clear that this is not just a club for male Republicans. Both men and women — and people of all political persuasions — are being encouraged to join.

So how did the partners end up with a well-known chef such as Ferneau?

“He heard that we were going to do this and reached out to us,” Camp says. “He will let us worry about the business end of things, so now he will be able to do what he really likes to do — create, cook and cater.”

Hutchinson admits: “I never thought we would have a chance to get him.”

Icing on the cake, to use the cliché.

The house, built in 1869, has 12,000 square feet of space. A proposed menu in the private club application includes seared scallops, seared duck breast with jalapeno corncakes, braised short ribs and the like.

The house was built by Alexander McDonald, who was born in 1832 in Pennsylvania. McDonald was a driven man with a shrewd business sense. He headed west to the Kansas Territory in 1857 to seek his fortune. He and his brother ran a sawmill and later became bankers.

McDonald was living in Fort Scott, Kan., with his wife and two daughters when the Civil War began. He helped organize Union forces in the area but later resigned so he could make money as a supplier for Union troops. It was that effort that brought him to Fort Smith in the fall of 1863. He not only supplied the Union troops there but organized a bank.

Steven Teske picks up the story from there for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Under the reign of McDonald and his partner, Perry Fuller, corruption at the fort was rampant, to the extent that Gen. James G. Blunt was widely regarded as subservient to the company directors. McDonald arrived in Little Rock not long after it had been taken by Union forces and, before the end of the war, McDonald had organized the Merchants National Bank in Little Rock, of which he was president. McDonald worked actively to rebuild the industry and economy of Little Rock and of the state of Arkansas after the Civil War. In addition to his banking efforts, he was also vice president of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad and president of the Arkansas Bridge Co., which was organized to construct a bridge across the Arkansas River at Little Rock. This was one of at least three competing companies seeking both private investments and government funding. Their efforts in 1869-70 led indirectly to the construction of the Baring Cross Bridge in 1873.

“Later, McDonald also served as president of the Little Rock & Fort Towson Railroad. At one point, he was considered the richest man in Arkansas. … McDonald also served in the state’s constitutional convention of 1868. Following this convention, the newly assembled state Legislature named him, along with Benjamin Franklin Rice, to represent Arkansas in the U.S. Senate. McDonald and Rice were sworn in as senators on June 22, 1868, but McDonald’s term was to end at the conclusion of 1871. During his short term, McDonald’s greatest contribution was probably his support for the impeached President Andrew Johnson. Not only did McDonald vote against conviction, but he spoke to persuade other senators to do the same, allowing Johnson to complete his term.

“Although McDonald hoped to be re-elected by the Legislature to a full term in the Senate, politics back in Little Rock intervened. McDonald was associated with the Brindletail faction of the Republican Party, which was resisting the efforts of Gov. Powell Clayton to dominate state politics. When Clayton announced his intention to run for McDonald’s Senate seat, the Brindletails chose to cooperate, hoping to replace Clayton with Lt. Gov. James Johnson, one of their allies in state government. The resulting confusion ended with Clayton as senator, Ozra Hadley as acting governor, Johnson as secretary of state and McDonald outside of the government. Discouraged by his failure to continue in politics, McDonald sold his large house and eventually relocated to the New York area around 1874.

“McDonald continued to pursue his interest in railroads, and he was commissioned by President Chester Arthur in 1885 to examine the finances of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1900, McDonald was living in the New York area house of his daughter, Tacie Harper. McDonald died on Dec. 13, 1903, at his daughter’s house and was subsequently buried at Highland Cemetery in Lock Haven, Pa.”

The houses erected by McDonald and others during the Reconstruction period on the north side of Cantrell — then known as Lincoln Avenue — were built by men who had been Union supporters during the war. Because of that, the area became known as Carpetbaggers’ Row and Robbers’ Row.

The home McDonald built later was owned by William Wait, a president of Merchants National Bank, and Ann McHenry Reider, who moved in with her two daughters and their husbands. The husbands were twins, Tom and Robert Newton. The house would serve as the Newton family home for several decades.

In the 1940s, the name was changed to the Packet House as a nod to the packet boats that once plied the Arkansas River.

The house later was converted into apartments and fell into a period of decline.

The Packet House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, rehabilitated and used for offices and a restaurant. It later became vacant and began deteriorating again, to the point that it was placed on the Historic Preservation of Arkansas’ (now Preserve Arkansas) list of the most endangered structures in the state in 2011.

The HPAA wrote that year: “The house, which is zoned for commercial use, has been vacant and for sale for several years. Recently, a prospective developer seeking to purchase the house applied for a permit to use the Packet House as a restaurant. This is a positive turn for the Packet House. However, years of vacancy have taken their toll on the house and the future of the building remains uncertain.”

The house was purchased, more than $1 million was spent and chef Wes Ellis opened his Packet House Grill in 2012.

By the spring of 2014, Ellis was out, and it was announced that James Beard Award nominee Lee Richardson would take over as executive chef and owner. Foodies across Arkansas (including yours truly) rejoiced that the New Orleans native would be returning to a Little Rock restaurant kitchen.

Richardson said at the time: “For more than six years, I’ve driven by the Packet House almost daily, and I’ve always felt like it fit my vision for the ultimate in fine dining in Little Rock. I came to Little Rock and took over a well-known and well-respected restaurant at Ashley’s, and that’s exactly what I’m excited to be doing at the Packet House.”

Unfortunately for central Arkansas diners, the deal fell through.

The Packet House Grill closed and the building was put up for sale. And we spent almost two years having to look at that misspelled for-sale sign.

 

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Bumpers: A senator remembered

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

He never saw me walk into the back of the room.

It was a Thursday afternoon in the late 1980s, and U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers from Arkansas was addressing a group of small business owners at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat at the time. It must have been a slow news day (which was rare on the Washington beat) because this wasn’t a major speech by any means. And I wasn’t trying to hide my presence. It’s just that I walked in late, and the senator didn’t see me.

Bumpers was one of the best orators to ever come our way. He knew how to play to an audience.

He would pace.

He would wave his arms.

The former Methodist Sunday school teacher from Charleston would have been an effective evangelist had he chosen to follow that path.

Bumpers said this to his audience: “I know you will find this hard to believe coming from the senior senator from Arkansas, but Wal-Mart has been responsible for killing more small businesses that anything that ever came along.”

I was taking notes.

The staff member accompanying Bumpers was Bill Massey, a Malvern native who later was appointed by President Clinton to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Massey’s head turned as he walked from the room at the end of the speech. He had seen me with my notebook.

Bumpers and Massey were headed to National Airport to catch a flight home to Arkansas.

I worked out of where I lived in those days — the basement of a townhouse on Capitol Hill — and walked back there to file my story.

Imagine that: An elected official from Arkansas criticizing Wal-Mart. The newspaper war between the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette had heated up. The Gazette correspondent wasn’t at the speech, and I had no doubt that my story would play on the front page of the Democrat the next morning since it was exclusive.

I had two phones on my desk — a business phone and a personal phone. The business phone rang as soon as I sat down, and I knew who it was.

Arkansas Democrat Washington bureau,” I answered.

“Rex, it’s Bill. The senator would like to speak to you,” Massey said.

“I bet he would,” I replied, a bit sarcastically.

The next thing I heard was the familiar voice of Dale Leon Bumpers.

“Rex, you know good and well that I never would have said what I did to those folks had I known you were in the room,” he said.

I replied: “I know that senator. But I was in the room. It was an open event, and you were on the record.”

He said: “Well, all I can do is ask you as a personal favor not to put that in tomorrow’s paper. If you do, I’ll live with the consequences since I said it.”

I had to make a decision.

I wonder to this day if I made the right one.

Here’s what I told him: “Senator, I’ve not yet mentioned this to my editor. We’re the only ones who know about this. If I don’t write it, I’m giving up a front-page story. The only way I can justify doing that in my mind is if I were to get two or three front-page stories in the future that the Gazette doesn’t get.”

Bumpers replied: “You have my word on it.”

I never wrote the story that day.

During the next few months, Bumpers’ office leaked me several stories that received front-page play.

It’s important to understand that Dale Bumpers had no reason to like the Arkansas Democrat, which had consistently been critical of him on its editorial page. But he was true to his word.

In that era before cell phones and the Internet, we did what I call shoe-leather reporting. I was in all six offices of the Arkansas congressional delegation on a daily basis, checking to see if there were news stories I needed to write. My favorite days were those in which one of our state’s two senators — Dale Bumpers or David Pryor — would invite me into their offices and simply tell off-the-record stories. I loved Arkansas history and politics (still do) and could listen to them for hours.

This will sound strange coming from a fellow who would go on to work for a Republican governor and a Republican president, but I likely became too close to the two Democratic senators from Arkansas. When I left Washington after four years on the beat, it was time for a new reporter who could be more objective when it came to Bumpers and Pryor. I still felt I could ask the tough questions when I needed to do so, but my fondness for both men had grown through the years.

One of the best compliments I ever received came one day while sitting in Bumpers’ office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He said to me: “There are only about two reporters I’ve ever been around with whom I felt I could be myself. You’re one of them.”

This former Marine knew he could tell me the latest joke or inside story. Off the record meant off the record.

Dale Bumpers came close several times to seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. I still wonder what would have happened had he run.

The first time was in 1976. Bumpers was in his second year in the Senate. Who knows? Dale Bumpers rather than Jimmy Carter might have been the young president from the South had the Arkansan chosen to run that year.

The last time was the 1988 election cycle. It was early 1987, and Bumpers was giving every indication that he would run.

I vividly remember taking the train from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in New York with Bumpers’ press secretary, Matt James, to cover what was being billed as a major foreign policy address at Columbia University. Earlier that day, Bumpers had met with potential donors in New York and received millions of dollars in commitments.

Before we took a late-night train back to Washington, I filed two stories — one about the meeting with donors and one on the foreign policy speech. The announcement that he would run for president seemed like a mere formality at that point.

John Robert Starr, the Democrat’s mercurial managing editor, told me that I would cover the Bumpers presidential campaign on a daily basis. At my current age of 56, I can’t think of anything much worse than spending the winter in Iowa and New Hampshire. At age 27, however, I couldn’t wait to be one of the “boys on the bus.”

Everything changed on a Friday night that spring.

James had a leading role in a community theater presentation on Capitol Hill. He was about to leave the office for opening night when Bumpers walked by his desk, handed him a sheet of paper and said, “Get this out to the media.”

It was a short statement, explaining why he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

I missed the story that night, but at least I had a good excuse.

Starr was in nearby Reston, Va., for a conference at the American Press Institute. He loved Mexican food and had called me earlier in the day.

“I know you have a favorite Mexican place you could take me for dinner,” he said. “Pick me up at 6 p.m. and we’ll go eat.”

As noted, this was the era before cell phones. No one back at the newsroom in Little Rock could find me. Meredith Oakley wound up doing the story from Little Rock since the Washington correspondent was out eating Mexican food with the boss.

After our dinner, I met some friends who were bank examiners from Arkansas. They were in town for training and had rented a hotel suite. I fell asleep on their couch while watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

I didn’t return to my place on Capitol Hill until the next morning. My answering machine was filled with messages from editors back in Little Rock. Whatever had happened that Friday, it was too late for me to do anything about it.

I had picked up my Washington Post outside but failed to open it. I got into the shower. As I got out, the phone was ringing. It was Don Johnson, the Sunday editor.

“Are you planning a follow-up story?” he asked.

“A follow-up story on what?” I replied.

When he told me what had happened the night before, I panicked.

I immediately called the Bumpers home (I always thought the senator lived on the best street possible for a politician — Honesty Way in Bethesda, Md.), and Betty Bumpers answered.

Here’s how the conversation went:

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson from the Arkansas Democrat. Is the senator home?

“No, he left about an hour ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“I think he might have gone to the office.”

“Do you know when he will return?”

“No, he didn’t say.”

“Please let him know I’m looking for him if he comes home.”

Since she thought he might be at the office, I sprinted the 12 blocks from my place to the Dirksen Senate Office Building. In those days, the photo IDs that congressional correspondents wore around our necks gave us access to the buildings at any hour. I went to the private door that led into Bumpers’ office and knocked.

No answer.

In desperation, I got down on the floor and peered through the crack at the bottom of the door to see if I could see anyone.

Then, I sprinted back to my place and again called the Bumpers’ home.

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson again. I went to the office, and the senator wasn’t there. Has he come home yet?

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you have any idea when he might?”

“No, I don’t.”

As a last resort, I said this: “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions.”

Betty Bumpers had no reason to talk with me on the record that day. Yet she did. She told of how the senator had been restless for weeks and was no longer sleeping well. She told me that she would have supported his decision regardless, but she finally had put her foot down and said: “Dale, you need to go ahead and make a decision one way or another.”

I hung up the phone and wrote the story. The Democrat ran it on the front page the next morning.

On Monday, Starr called, praising me for having an angle the Gazette hadn’t thought of.

If only he had known the full story.

By the fall of 1992, I had returned to Little Rock and was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (the Gazette had ceased publication in October 1991). With the Clinton presidential race dominating our coverage, I decided to give the Senate race between Bumpers and Mike Huckabee some attention. I would spend two days on the road with each of the two candidates (who could have dreamed that I would wind up working almost a decade with Huckabee in the governor’s office?) and write long stories on each campaign for the Sunday edition.

My two-day trip with Bumpers ended with an evening event in Camden. We were flying back to Little Rock from Ouachita County on a small plane late that night when I asked my final on-the-record question.

“Senator, something you used against J. William Fulbright when you beat him in 1974 was the accusation that he was out of touch with Arkansas; that he had become a part of the East Coast establishment. Let me ask you: Had you rather be at a fish fry in Camden or at a dinner party at Pamela Harriman’s townhouse in Georgetown?”

Harriman, who died in 1997, was an English-born socialite whose first husband was the son of Winston Churchill. Her third husband, beginning in 1971, was the well-known American diplomat, politician and businessman Averell Harriman. She became an American citizen the year she married Harriman (1971) and also became a key fundraiser for the Democratic Party. The dinner parties she threw at her Georgetown townhouse were the stuff of legend. Bill Clinton appointed her as the U.S. ambassador to France in 1993 and she held the title until her death in 1997. Clinton dispatched Air Force One to bring her body back to the United States and spoke at her funeral.

Bumpers looked at me when I asked the question and smiled his famous smile: “Oh hell, Rex, you know how I have to answer that.”

The thing is, he was at home at the toniest events in Washington and the most down-home events in Arkansas that you can imagine.

I can’t count the number of times I saw him speak to a civic club in Arkansas when the members would start the meeting mad about his vote on some issue. After about 20 minutes, those club members would be laughing and smiling. He had them eating out of the palm of his hand.

The Bumpers charisma isn’t easy to put into words. You had to experience it.

It was my great fortune to cover him as a newspaper reporter for several years, experiencing the magic on a daily basis.

We’ll never see another one quite like him.

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Pine Bluff’s turning point

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

The headline on the front page of the Arkansas section of Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette cried out: “Collapsed-building cleanup in downtown PB on slow track.”

Sometimes it seems as if the news coming out of Pine Bluff is always bad news.

“Contrary to earlier reports by Pine Bluff leaders, it will be well into 2016 before Main Street reopens between Fourth and Fifth avenues downtown,” John Worthen wrote. “The street was blocked off in February after the former Band Museum building and a former VFW post collapsed. The roadway partially reopened in the spring but was closed again in July after city engineers determined that two other nearby vacant buildings were in the early stages of collapse. The buildings were vacant, and no one was injured.”

Yes, parts of downtown Pine Bluff are falling in.

Even the Pine Bluff entry for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture has been updated to note: “Pine Bluff’s decaying downtown captured the spotlight after several buildings collapsed along the Main Street corridor, starting in 2014. On Feb. 20, 2014, the former J.C. Penney building, more than a century old, partially collapsed and had to be demolished. By March 2015, four buildings (including the former home of the Band Museum at Fifth and Main) had collapsed wholly or partially, and in July 2015, the city closed off part of Main Street out of concern that the Kahn Building might also collapse. Many buildings in the downtown area stand empty and in need of repair. One of the most prominent of these derelict buildings is the Hotel Pines on Main Street, which was among the finest hotels in Arkansas when it opened in 1913.”

Then there are the crime stories.

And the stores about schools in academic distress.

And the stories about infighting on the city council.

And on and on.

There are plenty of positive things happening in Pine Bluff. You just rarely hear about them, and it’s going to take far more than a marketing campaign to change that.

The leadership of Pine Bluff has had enough.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the city’s leading citizens gathered in a Simmons First National Bank conference room and announced the launch of an effort to turn things around.

I’m proud to now work for Simmons, and I’m proud to be able to play a small role in this effort.

All Arkansans should be rooting for Pine Bluff. As I explained when I spoke at lunch Tuesday in North Little Rock to the staff of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Pine Bluff is the most important city in southeast Arkansas, the regional center of that quadrant of our state. As goes Pine Bluff, so goes southeast Arkansas.

“I was born in Pine Bluff 59 years ago at Davis Hospital, which was located on what’s now a vacant lot,” said George Makris, the Simmons chairman and CEO. “At that time, the area around the hospital was a vibrant hub of Pine Bluff. Things change. … After years of ignoring change, Pine Bluff must recognize the changes that have occurred and begin to manage them for the future of the city and its citizens.

“Simmons is the only publicly traded company with its headquarters in Pine Bluff. Simmons was founded here in 1903. We’re proud of our historical partnership with Pine Bluff. We think it has served both entities well. We’ve been lucky during the past few years to grow our company. We now have more than 2,000 associates in four states, and we expect that growth to continue. Pine Bluff will have to compete for jobs we create, not only with the cities in Arkansas where we have a presence, but with other dynamic cities like Nashville, Knoxville, Springfield, Wichita, St. Louis and Kansas City.

“We indicated a few weeks ago our willingness to establish pools of funds and programs designed to help the redevelopment of Pine Bluff and therefore its competitive position. We’re still committed to doing so and are confident others will join in that effort. However, those funds need to be targeted to enable a plan for redevelopment, not just indiscriminately disbursed throughout the city.”

George Makris is nothing if not a realist.

“We have a lot to overcome,” he said. “We have three school districts within the city of Pine Bluff. Only one has a permanent superintendent, and all three struggle financially and academically. We must address public education in Pine Bluff, including consolidation of the three Pine Bluff districts.

“Many businesses have relocated, leaving vast unoccupied areas, including much of downtown. We must redefine many areas in Pine Bluff, some of which may necessitate demolition to repurpose the area. The good news is that areas surrounding Pine Bluff have done well so the region is stable. But Pine Bluff is the center of commerce. Pine Bluff has excellent infrastructure, which we cannot take advantage of without addressing these other issues.

“Tough decisions will be required. Elected officials will need to be committed and willing to stay on course as they allocate resources. There will be pain before gain. We can do it. The question is will we do it. I don’t know the answer to that question. But I’m hopeful that a great plan will be developed and that we as a community will have the discipline to implement the plan.”

Consolidating school districts.

Tearing down buildings.

Makris is addressing the tough issues that have been ignored for too long.

The Go Forward Pine Bluff effort is being funded by the bank through a donation to the Simmons First Foundation.

The year 2016 will be used to come up with recommendations. The Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, led by Jim Youngquist, will assist with that process.

The recommendations hopefully will be implemented in 2017-18.

“It’s time for a comprehensive strategic plan that will guide this city into the next decade,” said Mary Pringos, the chairman of the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force and a member of the Simmons First Foundation board. “For the plan to be successful, all sectors of the community must be involved in the planning process. What we don’t want is a report that will sit on a shelf and gather dust. The objective is to produce a plan that the community buys into, one that establishes clear, measurable goals and has concrete steps for achieving those goals.”

Tommy May, the Arkansas icon who long was the Simmons Bank chairman and now heads the Simmons First Foundation, said the planning group will measure its success in four ways.

“The first will be our ability to recruit a fully inclusive planning team that has the capacity and the desire to spend many hours during the next 12 months making recommendations that likely will result in significant change,” he said. “Second will be our ability to embrace the successes that came from the 20/20 effort and then focus our full attention on the difficult tasks that must be done to attract and retain jobs and families in Pine Bluff. Third will be our ability to pass the torch from the planning group to the appropriate organizations that will implement the plan in 2017 and 2018. Finally will be our ability to identify resources that will fund the execution of the plan.”

In addition to Pringos and May, task force members will be Irene Holcomb, George Stepps, Byron Tate, Dr. Laurence Alexander, the Rev. Glenn Barnes, Chuck Morgan, Lou Ann Nisbett and Catherine Smart.

Under the task force will be four steering committees.

Nick Makris will lead the economic development steering committee.

Scott Pittillo will lead the education steering committee.

Rosalind Mouser will lead the infrastructure and government steering committee.

Dr. Kaleybra Morehead will lead the quality of life steering committee.

“By growing the tax base, we will ensure that we can better fund city services and put an end to population loss,” Pringos said. “We’re at a turning point in this city, and development of the plan will get us moving in the right direction. We hope to be able to point to visible results. The bottom line is that the city must decide where it wants to go and then start down that path. The plan will be our road map for the future. Our ultimate goal is to make Pine Bluff a city that people want to call home.”

It once was a natural spot for a town to thrive, this place called Pine Bluff. The Arkansas River provided a transportation route connecting the interior of Arkansas to the Mississippi River and thus to cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis.

On one side of the city were vast Southern pine forests that could fuel a lucrative timber industry.

On the other side of the city were lowlands filled with bottomland hardwoods. Those hardwoods were harvested, the land was drained and the rich soil proved ideal for growing cotton.

“In the autumn of 1819, Joseph Bonne, making his way upstream from Arkansas Post, built a crude cabin for his Quapaw wife and family on a high bluff covered with pine trees on the river’s south bank,” Russell Bearden wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A few years later, James Scull, also from Arkansas Post, arrived and set up an encampment on the north bank across from the future site of Pine Bluff. The encampment soon became a tavern and small inn. On March 3, 1819, President James Monroe named Robert Crittenden territorial secretary. Crittenden quickly set about exploiting the remaining Quapaw in southeast Arkansas to relinquish their last tracks of land.”

With the Quapaw gone and steamboats beginning to ply the Arkansas, the area started attracting settlers such as French-born Antoine Barraque, for whom a Pine Bluff street is named. Jefferson County was established in 1829, and Pine Bluff became the county seat in 1832.

The railroad arrived in the 1880s, connecting Pine Bluff to Little Rock. The town grew from 460 residents in 1850 to 9,952 residents in 1890, making it the third-largest city in the state. The Cotton Belt located its main engine maintenance shops in Pine Bluff in 1894. The railroad was the largest industrial employer in the county until the Pine Bluff Arsenal was built during World War II.

Between the railroad operations, the cotton industry, the timber industry and the arsenal (the arsenal alone employed almost 10,000 people during World War II), Pine Bluff boomed. The population almost tripled from 21,290 in 1940 to 57,389 in 1970. International Paper Co. decided to locate a large paper mail at Pine Bluff in 1957. By 1962, the mill employed 1,400 people.

Of the Pine Bluff Arsenal, Bearden wrote: “Construction costs were estimated at about $60 million. At the height of the war, the plant expanded from making magnesium and thermite incendiary munitions to a chemical warfare manufacturing facility as well, producing lethal gases and chemical compounds installed in artillery shells and specifically designed bombs. Fifteen civilian workers died in work-related accidents. The facility grew with its expanded mission. More than 900 buildings and production facilities would consume 3.3 million square feet of space, 43 miles of roads and 14 miles of track for diesel-electric locomotives pulling boxcars and flat cars of munitions. In February 1942, the arsenal also became one of the nation’s storage depots for its expanding chemical stockpile munitions. These binary projectiles (lethal agents mixed after discharge of the projectile) were isolated in igloos near the northwest section of the facility.”

President Nixon banned the production and use of biological weapons in 1969. Part of the complex was renamed the National Center for Toxicological Research and is now a branch of the federal Food & Drug Administration. On-site incineration of toxic nerve agents began in 2005 and was completed in 2010. The arsenal’s mission changed to making smoke, incendiary and pyrotechnic devices.

In a story for Talk Business & Politics on the Go Forward Pine Bluff effort, Wesley Brown described Pine Bluff as “the former jewel of south Arkansas.”

Now, a large number of Pine Bluff residents have stepped forward to polish that jewel.

As George Makris noted, there’s infrastructure in place.

There’s Interstate 530, which recently has undergone millions of dollars of improvements between Pine Bluff and Little Rock.

There’s the Port of Pine Bluff and an adjoining industrial district.

There still are major railroad operations in the city.

There are two institutions of higher education, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College.

There’s a strong manufacturing base.

“The county has almost 30 manufacturers, including Evergreen Packaging and Tyson Foods,” Steve Brawner wrote for Talk Business & Politics. “Evergreen’s Pine Bluff and East Coast locations produce paper products, including most of the old-fashioned gable-top milk cartons used by consumers today. Tyson’s third-largest complex is in the area. Another company, Kiswire, makes steel tire cord. It recently was acquired by a South Korean company and is expanding with state and local incentives. Southwind Milling recently built a $35 million rice mill operation in the Harbor Industrial District next to the Arkansas River. Highland Pellets has acquired more than 150 acres to make wood pellets that it will export to the United Kingdom.”

Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth has made code enforcement a priority. Asked by Brawner about the situation downtown, she said: “Once this 400 block is cleaned up, we’re going to have a fantastic area for somebody to come in and buy and be able to start revitalizing our downtown area. But you had to get it started, and that was the toughest part.”

Prior to the Go Forward Pine Bluff announcement, Brawner wrote: “Makris has seen the city grow, reach its height and then shrink. He said Simmons would like to expand locally. He agrees with Hollingsworth’s concept of starting small. Long-term the community must decide what it wants to become and where it wants to go. Simmons Bank officials have started a philosophical discussion with city and community leaders about Pine Bluff’s direction. At some point, that discussion will need to be more serious and organized.”

Well, it’s now serious and organized.

An entire state will watch to see if Pine Bluff’s government, civic and business leaders can put aside personal interests and pull together to turn around an important Arkansas city.

 

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Back downtown in the Spa

Friday, October 16th, 2015

I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about downtown Hot Springs on this blog the past few years.

As noted in those pieces, I believe that the stretch of Central Avenue north from Grand to Whittington/Park is the most iconic stretch of street in our state.

I was embarrassed as an Arkansan that we had allowed what should be one of the great downtowns in America to deteriorate.

Finally, it seems there’s some momentum in the Spa City.

Several hundred people gathered on the top floor of the Exchange Street Parking Plaza on a warm Thursday night earlier this month for the release of a long-awaited downtown development plan.

Just two days earlier, it was reported that Harrison Construction Co. took out a building permit valued at almost $5.7 million for work on the Thompson Building, which is across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. The five-story building, constructed in 1913, is being transformed into a 62-room boutique hotel by Bob Kempkes, Anthony Taylor and Robert Zunick. It will supply downtown with badly needed upscale hotel rooms.

The day after the release of the downtown development plan, it was reported that Tennessee-based real estate investor Gary Gibbs (the same guy developing the Delta Resort & Conference Center in southeast Arkansas) closed on the purchase of the Austin Convention Hotel & Spa, a facility connected to the Hot Springs Convention Center that needs lots of improvements.

It all signifies that there’s momentum in polishing what should be the jewel of Arkansas.

The report by economic development consulting firm Thomas P. Miller & Associates of Indianapolis calls for:

— Focusing on infrastructure improvements to upgrade aesthetics, walkability and livability downtown.

— Enhancing and adding amenities and mixed-used developments that are designed to meet the needs and expectations of visitors, residents and business owners.

— Embracing a more experimental, nimble and responsive approach to old policies and ways of doing business.

— Improving the physical and social connectivity between the businesses and residents of the central business district and surrounding neighborhoods.

— Promoting collaboration for downtown initiatives among key stakeholder groups and engaging millennials in the decision-making process.

— Nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.

— Targeting business recruitment, retention and expansion to key industry sectors.

— Empowering local action in accelerating broadband access, adoption and application.

— Using downtown as a laboratory for work-based learning and skills training for the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts and area secondary and post-secondary students.

— Creating a niche of retailers and allied amenities to serve as a trailhead for adventure tourists.

A major part of the economic development study dealt with the redevelopment of the Majestic Hotel site.

“Perhaps no other issue stimulated as much discussion and input in every public forum, focus group and one-on-one interview as what should happen with the site currently occupied by the remains of the Majestic Hotel,” the consultants wrote. “For many, the memories of the former glory of this downtown gathering place were a touch point for seeing the site revitalized to play a new, significant role in downtown’s future. For others, especially the younger or newer members of the community, the memory of the 2014 fire and its resulting rubble prompted a call to action for a swift redevelopment of the site.

“Hot Springs has a unique opportunity to leverage the redevelopment of this site to make a contribution to the physical, social and economic welfare of downtown for decades to come. Due to its size, location and prominence, the future of this site will set the tone for redevelopment activities throughout downtown, serve as a catalyst for additional public and private invesments, and present an opportunity to build on the impact of the tourism sector, which is of importance to the economic prosperity of downtown Hot Springs.

“Smart redevelopment of the site is critical to achieving all three of the plan’s goals. The physical impact on the quality of place downtown and its adjoining neighborhoods is obvious. However, what may be less obvious is the importance of ensuring that the redevelopment enhances the sense of community in Hot Springs, enriches connections to neighborhoods and drives economic development through cultural, retail attraction and other amenities that will create employment, spawn innovation and generate revenue.”

An average of 14,000 motorists a day pass the site.

The consultants note: “From a visual standpoint, this site serves as both the northern terminus of the central business district and a gateway into downtown. The remains of the former hotel (even in its current condition) are the focal point for both motorists and pedestrians traveling north along Central Avenue. This site is located adjacent to one of downtown’s most significant assets, the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, a destination high school for gifted students from across the state. To the northeast, the shuttered Velda Rose Hotel & Spa was recently placed on the market, and across Park Avenue there are two large surface parking lots. Opposite the Majestic site and the high school campus are several businesses, including a new coffee shop that symbolizes the youthful energy permeating downtown.

“To the south of Central Avenue, there are numerous eateries, nightspots and other attractions frequented by visitors, including galleries, museums and an aquarium. Several redevelopers have announced plans for upper-floor conversions of vacant spaces into boutique hotels and housing in the immediate area. The historic significance of the hotel itself cannot be understated. As the first brick building in Hot Springs and one of the first buildings in Arkansas to feature an elevator, the older portions of the hotel and its additions featured spectacular architecture, art and therapeutic thermal waters that helped attract the famous and infamous to Hot Springs throughout the last century. Understanding the site’s role in history is an important consideration for the reuse of this location.”

During public meetings, dozens of potential uses for the site were suggested. The consultants came to the conclusion that the site could best be used for a performing arts center, outdoor amphitheater and public bathing facility.

They wrote: “Hot Springs lacks a quality indoor performance venue with the modern amenities required to attract traveling Broadway shows, large-scale music performances and other acts that would pump entertainment dollars into the local economy and provide an evening market for downtown eateries and nightlife. The venue should include a large theater/performance hall as well as one or more small theatrical performance venues for use by community theater troupes and local schools.

“Funding for this venue will likely require investment by a variety of sources, including federal, state and local public funds; foundation support; and private contributions. A feasibility study and finance plan should be commissioned to assess the necessary financial support required to get such a project off the ground.”

The outdoor amphitheater would complement the indoor performance space. It could be the home of everything from community theater productions to movies under the stars.

Of the proposed public bathing facility, the consultants wrote: “The addition of such a facility on the grounds of a performing arts center would attract day and evening visitors year-round. Concepts for similar facilities have been developed in the past for other nearby locations; however, the redevelopment of the Majestic site presents an opportunity for residents and visitors alike to experience firsthand what led the native tribes to name this area the Valley of the Vapors. The facility could be developed and managed by the city, the space could be leased to a developer who would build and manage the attraction or the city could possibly even explore a partnership arrangement with the National Park Service.”

The consultants also said Hot Springs should consider some type of sign downtown that would become as iconic as the Public Market sign in Seattle or the star in Roanoke.

Among the more interesting proposals in the report is a call for the removal of about 70 parking spots along Central Avenue. Those spaces would be replaced by bike paths and have the added benefit of making the shops and restaurants more visible to motorists on Central Avenue.

The consultants wrote: “One of Hot Springs’ greatest assets is its compact downtown district. A national park nestled within the central business district, four distinct urban neighborhoods, a prestigious high school, the convention center, the trailhead for the Hot Springs Creek Greenway Trail and a number of hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions all call downtown Hot Springs home. Like most downtowns, Hot Springs has a variety of architectural styles representing different periods in the city’s history. Unlike many downtowns, though, the architecture in Hot Springs is especially interesting due to the unusual collection of bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, an art deco high-rise structure that was once the tallest building in the state and several large structures such as the Arkansas Career Training Institute and the Arlington Hotel, which dominate the view from several vantage points along the downtown streets. These architectural wonders can only be effectively appreciated by pedestrians or cyclists moving at a slower pace with unencumbered views.”

In an attempt to revitalize the largely empty upper floors of downtown buildings, the consultants recommended that Hot Springs create property development incentives, a landlord registration process and a marketing strategy for professional office space.

So much potential.

So much still to be done.

But so much progress in getting the people of Hot Springs to focus on downtown.

The February 2014 fire that destroyed the oldest portion of the building that once housed the Majestic galvanized public opinion around the need to do something.

It also opened the eyes of people across the state to the fact that the historic buildings in downtown Hot Springs are national treasures that are in danger of being lost due to years of neglect.

“Determining what is feasible before choosing a path of redevelopment for the Majestic site will be a signal to all area residents and visitors that progress is occurring in Hot Springs,” the consultants concluded. “Those who have never visited Hot Springs will see the former site as a blight full of potential and question why the potential hasn’t been seized, while residents see the site as a constant reminder of the city’s descent from its heyday. Development on the site — or even temporary signs describing its impending development, be it for a performing arts center, a modern public thermal bath or any number of options — will be the lynchpin showing that downtown Hot Springs is on its way back.”

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Whither Little Rock

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The social media morons were out in force last Saturday and Sunday.

Blaming a stadium for a college football team’s loss rather than a lack of preparation and a lack of execution is a new one on me.

But, yes, let’s blame War Memorial Stadium, not the coaching staff or the players at the University of Arkansas for that Citadelesque loss to Toledo (or was it Akron? All those MAC teams look alike to me).

On the morning of the game, the state’s largest newspaper (I happen to write a weekly column for that newspaper) had a large headline on the front of the sports section that read “Countdown to zero” with an altered illustration of a half-empty War Memorial Stadium.

It was as if the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wanted to make the chance that the University of Arkansas will cease playing football games in Little Rock when the current contract expires at the end of 2018 a self-fulfilling prophecy.

No more Hog games in the capital city: That seems to have become the conventional wisdom, driven in part, I suspect, by the fact that the Razorbacks are now 1-5 in Little Rock since 2012 (and ignoring the fact that Arkansas has had a poor to mediocre football program since 2012).

I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. The situation is, in fact, far more complex and fluid than the social media morons would have you believe.

I was a senior staffer in the governor’s office at the time of the original Great Stadium Debate (simply known as the GSD for you message board trolls) and was deeply involved in this issue. Just as was the case back then, the decision in 2018 will not be made by the athletic director in Fayetteville. It will be made by the members of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees since Razorback games in Little Rock are such a part of the cultural fabric of this state. It’s bigger than football.

Just last week, it was reported that even though the University of Arkansas has the largest freshman class in its history, the number of students from Arkansas is down.

The Democrat-Gazette reported: “Growth largely has been based on an influx of out-of-state students. This year’s freshman class of 4,916 students continues the trend with 51 percent arriving from outside Arkansas. The size of the freshman class increased by about 7.5 percent compared with last year’s 4,571. UA spokesman Laura Jacobs said the university counted 15,237 students from the state. This is a decrease from the 15,329 Arkansans counted in the university’s 11th day enrollment report from fall 2014.”

Imagine that. The majority of students in the freshman class at the state’s flagship university are from outside of Arkansas. And that’s in a state that badly needs more of its high school residents obtaining college degrees (former Gov. Mike Beebe set a goal of doubling the number of college graduates in Arkansas by 2025).

If this trend continues, members of the board will have to take a strong look at whether the university still appeals to young people in places like east Arkansas and south Arkansas. Many Arkansans already are referring to the school as the University of DFW at Fayetteville due to the influx of Texans. Playing Razorback football games in Little Rock traditionally has been a part of the university’s strategy to connect with families who live far from the northwest Arkansas campus.

No one argues that the athletic department makes more money by playing games in Fayetteville. The numbers speak for themselves. Athletic directors must be concerned with things like that. Members of the board, however, are appointed to 10-year terms by the governor to look at the big picture. And the big picture is starting to play in favor of keeping at least one game a year at War Memorial Stadium as an outreach to families in other parts of Arkansas.

There are a number of misconceptions spread by the social media morons.

Let’s address a few of them:

  1. I read over and over that “no one does this anymore,” meaning the idea of giving up a game on campus to play somewhere else. Huh? We’ll just look at schools in this part of the country. Oklahoma and Texas still play each other every year at the old Cotton Bowl in Dallas because it’s a tradition. Georgia and Florida still play each other each year in Jacksonville, Fla., because it’s a tradition. Could there be a stronger tradition than the Razorbacks playing at least once conference game a year in Little Rock for 78 consecutive seasons prior to this year? Texas A&M will play games in both Houston and Arlington, Texas, this season. Auburn opened its season in Atlanta. Alabama opened its season in Arlington. North Carolina and South Carolina opened their seasons in Charlotte. Tennessee opened its season in Nashville. Missouri tried to play last Saturday’s game against Arkansas State in St. Louis. The Tigers played Illinois in St. Louis in 2002-03 and from 2007-10. The bottom line is that playing games away from campus is now becoming more of a trend, not less of one.
  2. I also read about the financial hit the athletic department is taking each time the Razorbacks play in Little Rock. The huge amount of money that Southeastern Conference schools are now receiving for television rights (the SEC Network has been successful beyond even the most optimistic predictions) make actual per-game revenue a smaller part of the overall athletic department budget than ever before. In other words, Arkansas can easily afford to make a little less money in Little Rock than it would make in Fayetteville if playing in Little Rock on one or two Saturdays each fall better advances the overall goals of the university. Bottom line: Per-game revenue is just not as big an issue as it once was.
  3. People point to the annual conference game against Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington as a complicating factor. I don’t see it. There’s no reason the Hogs can’t continue to play at Jerry Jones’ palace while also playing at least one game (and maybe two in some years) at Little Rock. If the choice did have to be made between Arlington and Little Rock, members of the board would need to ask themselves this question: “Is it more important to the overall goals of the university to have a game each year in an adjoining state or in the largest city of the state where the university is located?”
  4. To those who claim that “nobody else is doing it,” I would at least request that they be consistent. Here’s what “nobody else is doing” in the SEC these days with the exception of Arkansas: Refusing to play in-state opponents. LSU was going to open the season this year with McNeese State before lightning forced the game to be called off. Auburn was taken to overtime last Saturday in its game against Jacksonville State, which is just 108 miles from Auburn campus. Mississippi State opened its season at Southern Mississippi. Georgia will close its season as always against Georgia Tech. It’s high time for Arkansas and Arkansas State to play each other on an annual basis.

A friend who has decades of experience in the world of Arkansas football recently laid out his “dream scenario” at a time when so many are predicting that college football is about to become a thing of the past at War Memorial Stadium. He said he can see the day when:

— UALR starts a football program (it’s already in a football conference, the Sun Belt, and has an athletic director from a football family) and plays its home games at War Memorial Stadium.

— Little Rock finally gets that bowl game it was so close to landing a few months ago.

— A coalition of legislators from northeast, southeast, southwest and central Arkansas pass legislation mandating that Arkansas and Arkansas State play each other in football each year at War Memorial Stadium.

I don’t see all of that happening.

But I do see the UA trustees taking into consideration more than just the football program when it comes time to renegotiate the contract with the War Memorial Stadium Commission.

I like Bret Bielema personally. I like Jeff Long. They’ve been nothing but nice to me. And I have good friends on both sides of this issue. I simply want what is best for the university and the state as a whole.

It all comes down to this: At a time when Arkansans now represent a minority of the freshman class at the University of Arkansas, there’s far more than the wants and needs of the athletic department to consider.

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AICU: Locking the door

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

I locked the door at the North Little Rock office of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities for the final time Tuesday night.

Having had the opportunity to serve as the AICU president since January 2011 was a blessing. In fact, I enjoyed working for the state’s 11 private colleges and universities so much that I thought it was the job I would still be in when I retired.

But life is full of surprises, and the good folks here at Simmons First National Corp. offered me the chance to build something from scratch. It’s the kind of challenge I like.

June was one of the busiest months of my life. I had told the folks at Simmons that I would start work on June 1. I also had promised the 11 college presidents for whom I worked that I would get AICU to the June 30 end of its fiscal year. So I worked at Simmons until about 5:30 p.m. each day and then headed across the Arkansas River to the AICU offices for another three hours or so.

It was a relief to say so long to June. Yet it also was a bit sad to say so long to the organization that represents the state’s private institutions of higher education.

Of course, AICU traded up in the “Rex trade” since the new AICU president will be Dr. Rex Horne, who is leaving Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia after nine years as its president. Rex Horne is among the most talented men I know.

In addition to Ouachita, the current AICU members are Arkansas Baptist College at Little Rock, Central Baptist College at Conway, Crowley’s Ridge College at Paragould, Harding University at Searcy, Hendrix College at Conway, John Brown University at Siloam Springs, Lyon College at Batesville, Philander Smith College at Little Rock, the University of the Ozarks at Clarksville and Williams Baptist College at Walnut Ridge.

The organization has an interesting history. What’s now AICU was founded in the spring of 1954 as a sort of United Way for private colleges. Charter members of what was known at the time as the Arkansas Foundation of Associated Colleges were Arkansas College (now Lyon), College of the Ozarks (now a university), Harding College (now a university), Hendrix College, John Brown University, Ouachita Baptist College (now a university) and Southern Baptist College (now Williams Baptist).

The stated mission of the organization was to:

— Interpret the aims, functions and needs of the member colleges to the public

— Solicit funds for the benefit of the operating budgets of member colleges

In 1974, the Independent Colleges of Arkansas was organized as a related organization. It was charged with representing private colleges and universities in the area of public policy. Meanwhile, AFAC continued its fundraising role. ICA and AFAC operated out of the same offices.

In addition to the seven members of AFAC, ICA member institutions were Central Baptist, Crowley’s Ridge, Arkansas Baptist, Philander Smith and Shorter College at North Little Rock.

AFAC changed its name to the Independent College Fund of Arkansas in 1983.

In 1993, Central Baptist became the eighth ICFA member.

In 1998, ICA and ICFA merged and became AICU. By then, Shorter had lost its accreditation and thus was not eligible for AICU membership.

During the organization’s more than five decades of existence, more than $20 million has been raised and distributed to member institutions. In the early years, the funds distributed to members were unrestricted and used for a variety of purposes. Now, all money raised is for student scholarships.

Retired military officers served as the paid executives of the association during its first two decades.

Gen. Hugh Cort led the organization from 1954-58 and was succeeded by Col. Cletus Bennett from 1958-68 and Col. Maurice Radcliffe from 1968-74. They traveled the state seeking support from businesses.

Even into the late 1980s, some annual gifts were as small as $50. In its formative years, the association’s budget was augmented by large gifts from Winthrop Rockefeller, who moved to Arkansas from New York in 1953.

The organization’s executive director now carries the title of president. There were four presidents in a 14-year period:

— Max Jones from 1974-77

— William Patterson from 1977-79

— Frank Ivey from 1980-82

— Ben Elrod from 1983-88

When Elrod resigned to accept the presidency of Ouachita, central Arkansas businessman Kearney Dietz was hired as president. He served for almost 24 years before retiring in January 2011. When we renovated our office, we named it the Kearny Dietz Office Suite in honor of his many years of service.

In the early years of ICA’s policy efforts, there were repeated attempts to pass legislation to provide a college tuition equalization grant to Arkansas students who chose to enroll in the state’s private institutions. Those efforts were unsuccessful.

When the achievement-based Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship was created by the Arkansas Legislature in 1991, students were allowed to use the scholarship money at either public or private institutions in the state. This represented a major policy victory for AICU.

In November 2008, Arkansas voters passed a lottery amendment that provides additional funds for the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship program. Those funds still may be used by students at either public or private in-state institutions.

Though raising money for scholarships is still a part of what AICU does, governmental affairs and public affairs have become increasingly important through the years. The AICU president serves as the liaison between the 11 member institutions and the governor’s office, the Legislature, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and the state’s congressional delegation. In the area of public affairs, the AICU president is expected to give speeches statewide and write articles to educate business and civic leaders about the importance of private higher education to the state’s economy.

My replacement grew up at Camden. Rex Horne was the 15th president in the history of Ouachita, which was founded in 1886. Prior to becoming Ouachita’s president, he was the senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church at Little Rock for 16 years. Before he became pastor at Immanuel, Dr. Horne was a pastor in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. He was the president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention from 1995-97.

Dr. Horne completed his freshman year at Ouachita before finishing his bachelor’s degree at what’s now Lyon . He later earned a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at Fort Worth and a doctor of ministry degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also was a weekly columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for 10 years while at Immanuel and is the author of three books. Under Horne’s leadership, Ouachita has significantly enhanced and expanded campus facilities.

AICU is in good hands with Rex Horne.

I could lock the door on that last night in June with a smile on my face, thankful that the time as AICU president had been a part of my life’s journey.

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Ben Elrod: Part 4

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

It didn’t take Ben Elrod long to learn that there were major differences between being the vice president for development and being the president of Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia.

“The main difference was having the ultimate responsibility and the weight of that,” Elrod said in a 2005 interview that looked back on his tenure as president. “I didn’t deal with that much as a vice president. The president is really the one who bears the brunt of that pressure. This was difficult because I had been a pastor. I had told Dan Grant way back there in the 1970s: ‘I don’t think I could be president because I would want to be pastor to all the people, and you can’t be pastor and administrator at the same time. You can’t be very objective if you’re going to be the pastor.’

“I had difficulty firing people when they needed to be fired. Delivering bad news was difficult for me. I had some doubts that I should serve as president. But between the time I left Ouachita and came back, I had the experience of being a president and felt that it went well.

“There is a sense in which you can’t be too close to anybody because of the danger of being partial. You’ve got to think in terms of everybody in the organization and the ways of properly communicating with them. I think the main duty of the president is to interpret the mission of the institution for the inner family and for the outside publics and then represent the institution. I got a great deal of personal satisfaction out of doing it and felt that it was a worthwhile investment for my life. I’ve loved Ouachita since I was a student there, so it was a labor of love. I felt good that it turned out the way it did and that we were able to accomplish the things that we did.

“I was conscious of the fact that I depended on a lot of people to get things done. I tried to give credit to others for the things that we accomplished. But I also knew that I had to carry the ball on interpreting the mission, providing the vision and setting the direction.”

The roughest waters that Elrod had to navigate as president came during the period when many Baptist institutions of higher education felt that the fundamentalist movement in the Southern Baptist Convention constituted a threat to academic freedom.

Baylor University in Waco, Texas, which was chartered in 1845, is the largest Baptist university in the country. In 1990, Baylor President Herbert H. Reynolds engineered a change in the university’s charter, a move that allowed the Baptist General Convention of Texas to elect only a quarter of the school’s trustees rather than all of them. Reynolds said at the time that he would not allow the university to be taken over by fundamentalists who were “more interested in indoctrination than education and enlightenment.”

The shock waves were felt in neighboring Arkansas.

Elrod issued a statement in October 1990 that said: “While it’s strictly their business, I’m saddened by the fact that the Baylor University trustees felt it necessary to take such action. Fortunately, the relationship between Ouachita and the Arkansas Baptist State Convention could not be stronger than it has been in recent years. We have excellent leadership in Dr. Don Moore as executive director and Rev. Mike Huckabee as president. They have provided rock-solid stability. For the record, I want to state that Ouachita will continue to be an institution of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Ouachita owes its very existence to the Baptist churches of the state. They have loved and nurtured Ouachita for more than 100 years.”

Huckabee, a Ouachita graduate from Hope who later would serve for more than a decade as Arkansas’ governor, had helped keep the Arkansas Baptist State Convention from fracturing during his two terms as convention president.

“My prayer and my commitment will be that, long after the controversies that divide Southern Baptists have subsided, Ouachita Baptist University will still be dedicated to the principles on which it was founded in 1886,” Elrod said in that 1990 statement. “We will continue to adhere to the mission statement adopted by our faculty, staff and board of trustees: ‘To provide students the opportunity to experience growth in Christian ideals and character, to develop their intellectual and physical abilities, to think critically and creatively, to mature in their understanding and appreciation of the world, to communicate effectively and to accept their obligation to be of service to God and mankind.”

Under Elrod’s leadership, Ouachita would revert to its original charter, which called for a self-perpetuating board in which board members elected their successors.

“It was the most difficult thing I dealt with as president,” Elrod said in the 2005 interview. “It became apparent to me that the nominating committee of the state convention was not communicating about the appointment of trustees. With the denominational situation divided, I could read that and knew what was happening. We were about to be taken over. It was an organized group that wanted power, and they wanted Ouachita. They had no business with Ouachita.

“I insisted that we had to minister to all Arkansas Baptists, not just a few and not just those of a particular persuasion. To do this, we were going to take back the authority we gave the convention soon after Ouachita was chartered to nominate and elect our trustees. We later did what we could to get the convention to agree to go ahead with the process. That system has worked quite well.

“The convention sequestered our money for two to three months and threatened not to support us further, but that was soon settled. The forces of reason won the battle. Ouachita people came out of the woodwork from all over the state. It was just an overwhelming show of support. A majority of Arkansas Baptists won that battle. It was a battle that had been lost in some other states.”

For Elrod, it might have been easier at the time if Ouachita had simply separated itself entirely from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention rather than crafting a compromise. Elrod, though, was determined to keep the relationship intact.

“It was difficult to decide how to do it,” he says. “I decided that the best way to interpret our actions was to say very little but to say the same thing every time we addressed the matter. What I said was: ‘We want Ouachita to be out of the line of fire when it comes to denominational warfare.’ I was determined that we would not be swallowed up by a fight that didn’t involve us. That’s what I said over and over.

“At schools in other states where that group had succeeded in taking over the trustees, there were just unbelievable problems. The matter of academic freedom just went out the window. The trustees would interview every prospective staff and faculty member. These people were required to sign certain things. There were all sorts of goofy restrictions. We were determined to avoid that. I’ve never had such a groundswell of support for anything I did.”

Of course, Elrod had a track record in Arkansas that dated back decades. It wasn’t as if he were new to the state, to Ouachita or to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

“I’m sure it helped,” he says. “Trust is so important in a leader. Once you lose trust, there’s not much that you can accomplish. I felt I did have the trust of Arkansas Baptists. I had been a pastor in Arkansas. I had been very supportive of the convention and its work. I was pretty well a theological fundamentalist, but I was not a warring fundamentalist. I didn’t want a warring faction to take over the institution. I had many friends among fundamentalists, but they were not part of the group that wanted to go to war and take over the school. So they supported us. I really appreciated them for doing what they did because it made them very unpopular in that group.”

Though there have been tough times and will be more hard times, Elrod is an optimist when it comes to the future of Christian higher education.

“It’s by the grace of God that these institutions have survived for as long as they have,” he says. “I have a feeling they will survive a long time yet to come by the grace of God. I’m not sure that those who abandoned their Christian commitment will do as well as those who have stuck by it. I think there’s a strong support structure out there for institutions that maintain their dedication to Christian values and to the lordship of Christ. I have great hope that this will be the case for Ouachita. I have confidence in the Ouachita family.”

Elrod says he could always feel “the presence of God” at Ouachita.

“When I walk across this campus, I’m as convinced as I can be that his presence is here and that it brings about all sorts of miracles,” Elrod says. “That confidence is what keeps me optimistic about Ouachita’s future.”

In a September 1989 address to the Ouachita student body, Elrod said: “The nicest tradition going at Ouachita since its founding in 1886 is what thousands have agreed is a sense of the presence of God. Of all the ways in which Ouachita has influenced those who have been a part of the family, nothing has compared to the impact of the unmistakable presence of God in the lives of students, faculty and staff.”

In a speech titled “Why I Believe in Baptist Higher Education,” Elrod said: “I believe in Baptist colleges because they are conservative institutions in the best sense of that term. Conservative in its best sense refers to the preservation of things of value. Our Baptist colleges have through the years been conservative in that sense. They had laid heavy emphasis on basic honesty, the sanctity of marriage and the home, the orderly process of government, the worth and dignity of every human being and the key role of the church in the life of our nation.

“We need some institutions of great strength serving that function in America. Such values have held us together as a people. The society will disintegrate just as slowly or as quickly as those values become no longer held by our people. We are not bound together in America, as are the people of many nations, by the overshadowing guns of an army. We are not held together by racial singleness. Our cohesiveness is not to be found in our government as such. America is bound together by commonly held values, and our little hilltop colleges have been staunch defenders of those values.”

In 1997, Elrod announced that he would retire as president of Ouachita, taking the title of chancellor of the university. He had accomplished what he set out to do.

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Ben Elrod: Part 3

Monday, June 29th, 2015

When Ben Elrod arrived as the young president of Oakland City College in rural southwestern Indiana in 1968, the school had 670 students and an operating budget of $1.2 million.

“Gifts and grants in 1967-68 were $78,000, practically all from the denomination,” Elrod says. “The college had never been regionally accredited. The denomination (General Baptists) was small, consisting of about 60,000 people. The total denominational budget was less than $300,000 for all causes. The 800 churches were primarily small rural churches, most of which were barely able to finance the local ministry without regard to other denominational causes. There were 4,000 alumni and friends on the mailing list. There had never been an alumni fund as such, although alumni had been solicited for various capital campaigns.

“The college had operated with a deficit for four consecutive years and had drawn upon its meager reserve funds to bail it out. The reserves were depleted, and there were scarcely any uncommitted assets. There was one person with a doctorate on the faculty, the rest holding master’s degrees. The denomination was suspicious of the college but was giving practically all the outside support the college was receiving.”

Under Elrod’s leadership, 600 additional contributors were recruited, and student applications increased by 10 percent.

“In about February of my second year there, just as I was finishing up at Indiana University, a committee from William Jewell College in Missouri called and wanted me to come over and talk to them about the presidency,” Elrod says. “I did. I dealt with them during a period of four to five months. Then Dan Grant called and told me he was coming to Ouachita as president. He wanted me to come back to my old job of vice president for development. I had the pain of that decision to make. I could stay at Oakland City, I could go to William Jewel or I could come to Ouachita.”

Grant’s father, Dr. J.R. Grant, had been Ouachita’s eighth president from 1934-49. The elder Grant was able to keep the doors open during the Great Depression while overseeing the construction of a gymnasium, student center, auditorium and dormitory. Student enrollment numbers increased after World War II. The administration building known as Old Main was destroyed by fire in 1949, but Grant Memorial Building was dedicated in 1953 to honor the former president’s accomplishments.

At the time of his hiring at Ouachita, Dan Grant was on the faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and was recognized as one of the nation’s leading political scientists. The Ouachita board of trustees asked him to move to the town where he had grown up — Arkadelphia — and become Ouachita’s 12th president.

“It was the toughest decision I ever made,” Elrod says of his decision to follow Grant to Ouachita. “William Jewell College called on a Saturday night. The fellow who had been my contact there said the committee was ready to unanimously recommend me the next afternoon as president and that he had no doubt the board would accept the recommendation. I said, ‘When do you have to have an answer?’ He said, ‘By 8 p.m.’ This was after I had been thinking about it and praying about it for a month. So he had every right to put a deadline on it. Well, we did some more driving around, talking, praying and thinking. Finally, I called him at 8 p.m. and said: ‘Bill, I can’t say yes. So I guess that means no.’ At the time, I really didn’t know why. I just knew I couldn’t do it. I turned around and called Dan Grant. I told him I was coming back to Ouachita. I never looked back or regretted the decision to come back. I had eight of the most pleasant years of my life with Dan Grant as president and with me as vice president for development. We just had a wonderful relationship.”

Elrod says he hadn’t considered the possibility of coming back to Ouachita when he left for Indiana.

“I knew of Dan Grant’s reputation, and it was very tempting to me to come back to work with him,” Elrod says. “When I had been at Ouachita the first time, I had corresponded with him and talked to him on the phone, enlisting him to take part in the alumni campaign. I got him to help with his classmates so they would give to the annual fund. That was our only acquaintance up to that point.

“When he accepted the presidency at Ouachita, he said the first thing he did was call me. He thought he could administer a college, but he didn’t think he could raise money. He thought I could, so he called me. We had eight wonderful years. Ouachita prospered during those years, and we raised a lot of money. We added to the endowment. I thought I would be here for a lifetime.”

Those eight years saw the establishment of international exchange programs, an expanded honors program and endowed chairs of instruction. Elrod also raised millions of dollars for construction of the Evans Student Center and Lile Hall in 1973, the Mabee Fine Arts Center in 1975, a new campus drive and pedestrian bridge over the ravine in 1976, the Blackmon Field House in 1977 and McClellan Hall in 1978.

While on the platform for the dedication of McClellan Hall, Dr. W.O. Vaught, the legendary pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church at Little Rock, leaned over and asked Elrod if he would be willing to talk to the presidential search committee from Georgetown College in Kentucky.

Elrod responded bluntly: “No.”

“We went ahead with the dedication, and I thought about it some more,” Elrod says. “I decided I ought to at least give it a look.”

Vaught’s brother-in-law was on the Georgetown board and had inquired about Elrod. Georgetown was an old school, having been chartered in 1829 as the first Baptist college west of the Allegheny Mountains. There was tradition, but there also were financial problems. The school is in the bluegrass region of Kentucky, about 12 miles north of Lexington. Elrod accepted the board’s offer at Georgetown.

At age 47, Ben Elrod found himself leaving Ouachita again in the summer of 1978 to become a college president for the second time.

“We look upon this move as a closing to a wonderful chapter of our lives,” Elrod said at the time. “One of the things that has made the experience such a delight has been the pleasure of working with Dr. Grant. He’s one of those unusual administrators who makes it a pleasure to work for him. It’s highly probable that we will retire in Arkadelphia. We’ve lived here longer than any other place other than the towns where we grew up.”

Grant said at the time: “It’s hardly enough to say that Ouachita’s loss is Georgetown’s gain or that we will miss Ben Elrod very much. We can only be grateful that he has shared the past eight years of his energy, dedication and wisdom with Ouachita and contributed in such a strategic way to this period of unparalleled progress.”

Elrod served as president of Georgetown College for the next five years. Then, he and Betty Lou came home to Arkansas.

“I felt I had done at Georgetown what I went there to do,” he says. “At the time I went to Georgetown, the relationship between Georgetown and the denomination was in a bad state of repair. They were financially strapped, all of their reserves were drained and they had been accumulating an operating deficit. I knew that I could help them in those areas and went there to do that. I did accomplish those things and felt good about it. I never thought of it as a lifetime proposition. When the call came to come back to Arkansas, that was the call to come home, and we did.”

Grant had helped convince the presidents of the other private colleges and universities in the state to hire Elrod to head what’s now known as Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities. The organization operates from offices in North Little Rock, specializing in governmental affairs and public affairs for private higher education while also raising money for scholarships at the 11 member institutions. What’s now AICU had been founded in the spring of 1954 as a sort of United Way for private colleges. During the organization’s more than five decades of existence, more than $20 million has been raised and distributed to member institutions.

Elrod served as the president of AICU from 1983-88 while also doing outside fundraising consulting for other institutions of higher education.

Then, Ouachita called once more.

Returning to Ouachita as the university’s president wasn’t on Elrod’s radar in early 1988.

“I came back to Arkansas with the idea that the last expression of my ministry would probably be the position of president of the Independent Colleges of Arkansas and the Independent College Fund of Arkansas,” Elrod said in an August 1988 interview. “I was comfortable in feeling that my last contribution would be to the overall field of independent higher education in Arkansas. … I also was given permission to do consulting on a part-time basis in the area of fundraising for colleges and universities. I’ve been keeping at least one out-of-state client. I had thought about doing more of that and perhaps easing out of this job in later years.

“When Dr. Grant retired when he did, which was earlier than I had expected, I was contacted by a number of Ouachita people on and off the campus. I didn’t apply. … I found that my background of having had a call from the Lord at age 16 and having been fully employed in one place or another in the work of the Lord ever since without ever applying for a job, that background wouldn’t let me apply for this or any other job. So I didn’t. I did respond to the committee’s inquiry by saying that I would suggest they look for a younger man who could give them 20 years perhaps and that if they didn’t find that person, they could come back and we would talk later. That’s what happened. Through my personal prayer and questioning, I had come to the position that if they asked me, I would be willing to serve.”

Elrod, who was 57 at the time, said he had “no illusions about being a long-term president” but that things had “come together in a rather nice way. It feels right to me. You know, some decisions you make feel a bit uncomfortable, sort of like a new pair of shoes. Others feel comfortable from the moment you make them, and this one has.”

“I would be hard-pressed to turn down an opportunity at this point just because I’m 57 years old,” he said at the time. “I still want to serve. And if I’m capable and judged capable by the people who are making the decision, I will have a hard time saying no to them.”

Several months after beginning his tenure as Ouachita’s president, Ben Elrod was formally inaugurated in the spring of 1989.

He said in his inaugural address on April 13, 1989: “As a university, we accept the challenge of the 1990s. We understand that the challenge is not that we simply exist, but that we excel. We intend to do just that, building on the strong foundation provided by those who have served before. One can readily envision a great decade of progress in the 1990s. Alumni, Arkansas Baptists and friends comprise a loving constituency. They share the burden of the challenge. They are strong and steady allies. They have witnessed dramatic progress. They like the feeling. They take pride in the results. They are ready to join us in further victories.”

In his charge to the new president that day, Grant urged Elrod to hold people’s feet to the fire.

“This doesn’t always bring the praise of people, but it will bring appreciation from more than you might expect,” Grant said. “Your life in the fiery furnace or, to change the metaphor, your life in the lions’ den may be worrisome during the long, hot summers and even in the cold of winter, but take the world of Daniel. It will be worth every minute of it.”

Elrod later said, “I didn’t realize how much I had missed being on a college campus, especially Ouachita’s campus. The call of alma mater is the call to come home, and it evokes all kinds of good feelings, just as going home had done through the years.”

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