Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

The hydroelectric battle

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

The visitors’ center at Bull Shoals-White River State Park is well worth the visit.

On the back deck is a spectacular view of Bull Shoals Dam with the lake on one side and the cold water of the White River on the other side.

If you have any doubt that Arkansas has the best system of state parks in the country, this facility will help put such doubts to rest.

Inside, exhibits tell the story of the White River, both before the construction of Bull Shoals Dam in the late 1940s and early 1950s and in the decades that have followed.

As an Arkansas history buff, the thing I found most interesting was a framed front page of the Baxter Bulletin from 64 years ago (it now publishes six days a week but was a weekly at the time). It was the issue published after President Truman spoke at the dedication of Bull Shoals Dam on July 2, 1952.

Truman, never one to mince words, took a shot at Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) and the other private power companies that had opposed the use of federal dams to generate electricity.

According to the articles in the newspaper, AP&L engineers had constructed a model in an attempt to show that flood control and hydroelectric generation weren’t compatible goals for the same dam.

Truman didn’t hesitate on the day of the dedication to make fun of that model.

What you must understand is that AP&L had been the most politically powerful business entity in the state for several decades thanks to the skills of Harvey Couch and C. Hamilton Moses.

Couch, who grew up in rural Columbia County, had at the age of 35 in 1914 purchased the only electric transmission line in the state. That line ran 22 miles from Malvern to Arkadelphia.

Couch later built two dams on the Ouachita River near Hot Springs (forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine) to generate electricity for his growing utility company.

By 1930, AP&L had 3,000 miles of lines and served customers in 63 of the state’s 75 counties. Couch also formed Mississippi Power & Light Co. and Louisiana Power & Light Co. He built the first modern natural gas-fired power plant in this part of the country near Monroe, La., and was appointed by President Hoover to the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corp., which was formed in 1931 to address problems caused by the Great Depression.

“The only luxury the longtime resident of Pine Bluff (where AP&L had its headquarters) allowed himself was a rustic log cabin on Lake Catherine,” Patricia Laster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He called it Couchwood, and there he entertained everyone who had helped him in his rise to fame, as well as international bankers and presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Couch used his political influence to persuade officials in Washington not to create a taxpayer-subsidized Arkansas River Valley Authority that would cut into AP&L profits. Instead, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created by Congress in May 1933.

Like Couch, Moses grew up in rural south Arkansas. He was born on a farm near Hampton in 1888 and worked in area logging camps when he wasn’t in school. He graduated from what’s now Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia in 1908 and then headed south to New Orleans, where he obtained his master’s degree in Southern history from Tulane University. He earned his law degree in 1911 in Little Rock and then went to work for Gov. George Donaghey. Moses later served as an adviser to Gov. George Hays and Gov. Charles Hillman Brough.

Moses became the general counsel for AP&L and Couch’s other businesses in 1919. Moses moved into the role of AP&L president following Couch’s death in 1941 and proved just as politically influential as Couch had been. Moses was the AP&L president until 1952 and remained as board chairman until 1955.

Sherry Laymon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that “private power companies profited greatly during World War II as they operated at full capacity to meet war production demands. However, decreased power loads after the war created financial difficulties for utility companies, which eventually led to an intense struggle between public and private power entities in the 1940s. To increase public demand for electricity, Moses initiated his Arkansas Plan, designed to encourage community leaders to utilize local residents, resources, capital and labor to strengthen their communities and attract business and industry into the state. The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, state organizations and private corporations supported his efforts and organized to form the Arkansas Economic Council in December 1944.

“Moses, Arkansas’ business cheerleader, visited many Arkansas communities and motivated Arkansans to demonstrate civic pride in their towns by making notable improvements to attract new industry. As a result, local residents enhanced their communities by paving city streets, whitewashing storefronts, landscaping public property and developing recreational programs. They also built houses, churches, hospitals and schools, which attracted more industry to the state. Moses then traveled across the country preaching the gospel of Arkansas to draw corporate attention to the state. Within 10 years, the state reaped bountiful harvests as new industry created 36,000 jobs.”

Arkansas remained a rural, poor state, though. And large parts of rural Arkansas remained without electricity.

“Private power companies had explored the possibility of building a dam at Wildcat Shoals above Cotter as early as 1902 but never began work toward it,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Congress approved the construction of six reservoirs in the White River basin in the Flood Control Act of 1938. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report in 1930 had recommended the Wildcat Shoals site along with seven others as being the most effective of the 13 investigated. However, in a 1940 report, the Corps of Engineers presented the Bull Shoals site as an alternative to Wildcat Shoals, where unsuitable foundation conditions had been found. This report recommended the construction of Table Rock and Bull Shoals as multipurpose reservoirs for flood control, hydropower generation and other beneficial purposes, coming to the conclusion that the reservoir projects were justifiable.”

Pushing early on for construction of dams on the White River was Congressman Claude Albert Fuller, who served in Congress from 1929-39. Fuller, who had practiced law at Eureka Springs before being elected to Congress, helped lead the fight for adoption of the Flood Control Act of 1938, which followed a series of devastating floods in the region in 1937.

Fuller was defeated in the Democratic primary of 1938 by Clyde Ellis. Fuller went back to Eureka Springs to practice law and served as president of the Bank of Eureka Springs from 1930 until his death in 1968. He continued as a private citizen to advocate for the dams.

Meanwhile, Ellis took up the fight in Congress. Ellis, the oldest of nine children, had been raised on a farm near Garfield in Benton County. The farm had no electricity, and rural electrification became his passion.

Ellis helped form the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which was designed to protect the interests of the New Deal rural electrification programs.

Ellis ran for the Senate in 1942 and lost in the Democratic primary. John L. McClellan became the state’s new senator. Ellis was hired in 1943 as the first general manager of the NRECA.

In a 1984 history of the NRECA titled “The Next Greatest Thing,” it was written: “The record of NRECA in those years, stamped with the strong and powerful personality of Ellis and his spellbinding, single-minded leadership, is studded with stunning victories, few defeats.”

Sheila Yount writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Known as Mr. Rural Electrification, Ellis led the electrification association through funding battles for the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided low-interest loans to the nation’s electric cooperatives, and fiercely fought the power companies, which opposed the rural electrification program. Rural service was far more expensive to create than service in urban areas. When the power companies charged higher rates for rural service, their customers used less electricity, making the service increasingly unprofitable.

“Ellis also helped persuade the federal government to include hydropower plants at Norfork Dam in Baxter County and other dams in Arkansas that were originally designed for flood control only. He fought major battles to give the cooperatives access to the power from those dams. Ellis credited the NRECA’s success to the grassroots support of the electric cooperatives.”

Ellis wrote a book titled “A Giant Step” in 1966.

“The wires which tied the houses of rural people together also seemed to unite their spirits,” he wrote. “Beginning in the early days and growing through the years, there has been some unusual quality about the rural electrification program, which has drawn people of diverse political and social views together in a common purpose. The people who work for our program feel they’re working in a cause or movement or a crusade, which many of them can’t define.”

Yount writes: “Besides the political arena, the association’s role expanded to provide many services for the nation’s electric cooperatives, including retirement and insurance plans; training for directors and employees; legal seminars for cooperative attorneys, safety training; and communications assistance. Ellis also helped bring electricity to people in 30 other countries through the Agency for International Development. This program was a compilation of various federal efforts to provide foreign aid during the Cold War. Created by the Kennedy administration, AID used American dollars to fight poverty and bring about development in Third World nations. Ellis traveled to Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries promoting rural electrification, using his experiences in Arkansas to prove to governments and citizens that such a program was possible anywhere in the world.”

Construction on Norfork Dam on the North Fork River began in the spring of 1941.

“The North Fork River was a strong candidate for a tributary flood control project,” Branyan writes. “The Corps noted it was a primary contributor to flooding in the White River because of its steep banks and big feeder streams, which frequently swelled quickly during periods of runoff. For a number of years, the Corps and private entities had studied the site for potential hydropower use as well. … Securing funding for Depression-era projects at the time of a possible impending war, however, was difficult.

“Congressman Ellis argued that a dam with a power plant was immediately needed for any increased manufacturing requirements during possible wartime production demands. He succeeded in obtaining funding and additional authorization for hydropower in the Flood Control Act of 1941, and the Little Rock District of the Corps of Engineers awarded the construction contract to the Utah Construction Co. and Morrison-Knudsen Co.”

The Norfork powerhouse was operational by 1944. A second generator was in use by February 1950.

The dam was made entirely of concrete — about 1.5 million cubic yards to be exact. The site that was chosen is 4.8 miles upstream from the confluence of the White and North Fork rivers at Norfork.

A Missouri Pacific railroad spur from Norfork to the site of the dam was built to move equipment, concrete and 2,000 tons of reinforcing steel. A total of 27,000 railroad cars moved along the spur during construction.

“During 1940, several hundred small farms were abandoned in Baxter County and left in foreclosure,” Branyan writes. “However, the construction of a dam in the area meant prospects for work during the Depression. As soon as word of the approval of Norfork Dam appeared in the newspapers, locals began contacting Ellis to inquire about jobs. During the four years of the project, the number of workers employed on both the dam and powerhouse was 815.

“Farmland around two communities along the river — Henderson in Baxter County and Bakersfield in Missouri — was inundated. Around Henderson, about 400 landowners had to relocate. Twenty-six cemeteries were moved. Crops continued to be harvested into the late fall of 1942. The lake began to fill by Feb. 1, 1943.”

Construction of Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947. That dam required 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete. At the time of its construction, it was the fifth-largest concrete dam in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in the state. Powerhouse construction began in September 1950 and concluded two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

“The completion of the dam and reservoir immediately began to affect the local economy,” Branyan writes. “Media coverage attracted attention to the region and resulted in the quick growth of the tourist industry. In 1940, there were only 13 businesses in the area that provided overnight accommodations. By 1970, 300 such establishments could be found. Assessed taxable real estate values, per capita income and manufacturing payroll rose dramatically in the following decades. The area also now supports a retirement community.

“The dam put an end to long, multiday fishing floats from Branson, Mo., to Cotter. Jim Owen of the Owen Boat Line had operated a float trip business on the river for many years. Largely through Owen’s promotion, the White River garnered a reputation for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. But the new reservoir soon offered equally excellent lake fishing for a number of warm-water species as well as stocked trout below the dam. Marina, boat businesses and fishing guide services sprang up rapidly to handle the influx of anglers.”

Resorts such as Gaston’s became nationally known due to the quality of the trout fishing created by cold-water releases from the dam.

Back to Clyde Ellis: The man known as Mr. Rural Electrification retired from the NRECA following a heart attack and stroke in 1967. He was named general manager emeritus.

Ellis later worked for the U.S. secretary of agriculture and for McClellan in the U.S. Senate. Ellis died in February 1980 in Washington following another stroke and is buried across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital at Arlington National Cemetery.

Here in Arkansas, he probably should be remembered as the man who handed AP&L a rare political defeat while bringing government-subsidized hydropower to a poor, rural state.

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Anita Davis and the South Main renaissance

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in the May-June issue of Talk Business & Politics magazine.

Anita Davis never set out to rehabilitate part of downtown Little Rock.

She wasn’t a historic preservation activist or one of those people who write letters to the local newspaper.

She describes herself as shy.

She simply likes walkable neighborhoods and felt it was time to give back to the city she has called home since the late 1980s.

“I started thinking one day about the fact that I had never really been involved in the community or given anything back,” Davis says during breakfast at the Capital Hotel. “I had a bunch of stuff that I needed to store and began looking for a place to put everything. What I found was a building on South Main Street.”

A love affair with the neighborhood ensued.

Davis, a Murfreesboro native, purchased the Bernice Building at 1417 S. Main St. in 2004.

A year later, she bought an empty lot at 1401 S. Main St.

She admits now that she viewed the neighborhood as dangerous and ran back to her car following her first visit there. But she was captivated by the Bernice Building, constructed in 1923, and soon was reading everything she could get her hands on about the concept of “placemaking.”

Davis found herself attending conferences from Boston on the East Coast to Seattle on the West Coast in an effort o learn more about building walkable neighborhoods.

One of Davis’ daughters lived in New York City in the Chelsea neighborhood. She could easily walk to restaurants, grocery stores, boutiques and entertainment venues from her home. Davis wanted to see if she could bring a touch of Chelsea to South Main Street.

She also wanted to bring a touch of Murfreesboro.

Yes, Murfreesboro.

“When I was growing up in Murfreesboro in the 1950s, we had three drugstores downtown, a hardware store, a movie theater and a lot more,” Davis says. “We could walk to all of those places. You didn’t have to get in the car and drive from place to place. Anyone who grew up in a thriving Arkansas town in the 1950s and 1960s knows what I’m talking about. I had seen it work in a town as small as Murfreesboro, and I had seen it work in a city as big as New York.”

Davis’ parents, Clarence and Bennie Sue Anthony, were well-known in their corner of southwest Arkansas. Davis had a maternal grandmother named Bernice (who once had worked at Franke’s, the venerable Little Rock cafeteria), which was another part of the attraction of the Bernice Building on South Main.

The empty lot adjacent to the building once had been the site of a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant, which had burned. The restaurant’s owners decided not to rebuild in a neighborhood that was becoming increasingly downtrodden. There were still crepe myrtles on the lot. Davis began bringing in plants and benches. A sculpture competition was held. In 2011, a wooden structure was built to serve as a shelter.

The Bernice Garden was born.

It’s now the home of everything from Mardi Gras celebrations to beard-growing contests to farmers’ markets to the annual Arkansas Cornbread Festival each fall.

Prior to Captain D’s opening in January 1981, the lot long had been the home of a tiny restaurant known as the Little Rock Inn. Suddenly, there was life again at 1401 S. Main St. after Anita Davis stepped in.

By 2006, Davis was ready to make another purchase. This time it was the Lincoln Building at 1423 S. Main St., which had been built in 1906.

In 2006 on the other side of Main Street, she bought the property that once had housed a popular dairy bar known as the Sweden Crème.

Now, the Bernice Building houses the downtown location of Boulevard Bread Co.

The Lincoln Building houses the Green Corner Store and the soda fountain that has helped make Loblolly Creamery’s products well known across Arkansas.

The old Sweden Crème is now an innovative restaurant known as The Root Café, which has received national attention.

All of these businesses attract people from throughout central Arkansas and even out-of-state visitors to South Main Street on a daily basis.

Between Boulevard Bread and the Green Corner Store is the home of studioMAIN, a nonprofit organization that brings architects and others in the design community together to introduce urban design concepts for Little Rock. Exhibitions sponsored by studioMAIN have included everything from the work of students to professional designers. An architectural film was produced for the Little Rock Film Festival, and pop-up events are held throughout the city to show what neighborhoods can become. Design awards are given and partnerships have been established with organizations such as the Arkansas Arts Center.

Boulevard Bread began serving customers in 2000 at its flagship location at the corner of Kavanaugh Boulevard and Grant Street in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. Attracted by the South Main vibe, Boulevard’s owners decided to open a downtown location with an expanded bakery that’s open from Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.

The nearby Green Corner Store describes itself as “Arkansas’ first eco lifestyle store” since products sold there are made from natural, organic, recycled or reclaimed materials. Many of the products — ranging from bath and beauty items to apparel to packaged food — are made in Arkansas. Owner Shelley Green calls it a chance to “showcase the array of green products that are both beautiful and functional.”

The soda fountain portion of the building, which had housed the C.H. Dawson Drugstore from 1905-67, became the home in 2012 of Loblolly Creamery, founded by Sally Mengel and Rachel Moore. They debuted their ice cream samples at the 2011 Arkansas Cornbread Festival. Loblolly ice cream initially was sold at only the Green Corner Store. Now, Loblolly products, which often are seasonal and use local ingredients as much as possible, can be found in numerous locations, from Little Rock restaurants such as Big Orange and Graffiti’s to retailers such as Whole Foods and Stratton’s Market.

With the success of its ice cream, Loblolly diversified into drinks and syrups. The ice creams have names such as Rock Town Bourbon Pecan, Little Rocky Road and Earl Grey Lemon.

On the other side of Main Street, Jack and Corri Sundell opened The Root in June 2011 after three years of planning. They featured everything from burgers to homemade bratwurst to vegetarian dishes and soon gained a dedicated following.

In December 2014, The Root won an award from the HLN cable television network’s program “Growing America: A Journey to Success.” The honor came with a $25,000 check. Soon afterward, it was announced that The Root had been awarded a $150,000 Mission Main Street grant from JPMorgan Chase Bank. The Root was among just 20 small businesses nationally to get a grant.

Using shipping containers, the Sundells are expanding the restaurant. Three containers are being used for additional dining space, three containers are being used to expand the kitchen and one is being used as a walk-in cooler.

The premise of the HLN program won by The Root was that teams of MBA graduates and students from top business schools across the country would help three small businesses become more efficient. Also featured were a disaster-relief company in Denver and a barbershop in Detroit. The team that came to Little Rock helped the Sundells improve their website and their social media efforts.

While the Green Corner Store, Loblolly Creamery, Boulevard Bread and The Root Café were achieving acclaim in the neighborhood she adopted, Davis had her own expansion plans. She has always enjoyed collecting items, and purses became a specialty. Davis was intrigued as a child by her mother’s and grandmother’s purses, considering them a reflection of the individuals. She was part of a group that put together a traveling exhibit titled “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses” that stopped in cities across the country, including the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock in 2006. Among the cities where the purses were exhibited were Dallas, Seattle and Sacramento.

Davis eventually decided to create the Esse Purse Museum at 1510 S. Main St. in a building that had been constructed in 1946. The museum opened in June 2013.

Davis says she started collecting purses more than three decades ago, but having one of the premier collections in the country was “not intentional. It was kind of my way of honoring women. There just aren’t a lot of things in this country that honor women.”

Davis believes the museum complements her vision for the rest of South Main Street, which she likes to describe as the “feminine side of Little Rock,” not because men aren’t welcome but because she sees it as an area that’s open to new ideas. The purses on display — more than 250 of them — are arranged by decade beginning in 1900. Davis views the collection as not only a look at the history of fashion but also as something that gives insight into the history of women. Photos and accessories accompany the purses.

Davis’ collection grew to more than 3,000 handbags, most of which were stored in her attic before the traveling exhibition, which toured the country for three years. Davis is hopeful that the museum will lead to additional restaurants and shops along South Main Street.

Though she’s a collector, Davis has a more muted personal style. She admits that she carried the same shoulder bag for a decade prior to opening Esse.

In 2014, The Huffington Post included Esse on its list of the “World’s Hottest Museums.”

It wrote: “Set in an emerging neighborhood filled with boutiques and trendy eateries, Esse Purse Museum celebrates the art and history of women’s handbags. And the best part is that it sells purses too.”

Also on the list were the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. Among the other museums on the list were the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway.

Anita Davis was in very good company.

“When I first got involved with this neighborhood, I asked myself, ‘What do you want it to be?'” Davis says. “I fell in love with the area, and I’m constantly looking for ways to bring more people here. I also feed off the energy and ideas of people like Corri and Jack Sundell. I like people who make things happen, and they know how to make things happen.”

Davis is quick to give credit to other people and entities who have helped spur development along South Main Street. They include:

— Joe Fox and his Community Bakery at 12th and Main. The bakery began in the Rose City area of North Little Rock in 1947 but moved to its current location when Fox purchased it in 1983. Fox moved to Little Rock from Boston in the 1970s and says he yearned for a place where he could read The New York Times and get a bagel and a good cup of coffee early in the morning. Fox became the Little Rock distributor for The New York Times. At the bakery, he has more than a dozen bakers who work through the night.

— The nationally award-winning literary quarterly Oxford American, which moved its offices to South Main Street several years ago and then teamed up with Matt and Amy Bell for a restaurant and entertainment venue known as South On Main, which is in the building once occupied by the popular Tex-Mex restaurant Juanita’s. South On Main has received acclaim for its food and the quality of its concert series.

— Midtown Billiards, which made Esquire magazine’s 2007 list of Best Bars in America. Midtown holds a private club license so it can stay open until 5 a.m. It’s a favorite haunt of musicians, restaurant workers, newspaper reporters and others who work late.

The South Main Street scene received another boost in February 2015 when Bart Barlogie Jr., Eric Nelson and Jason Neidhardt opened what’s now Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, which features Neapolitan pizzas from a double-deck, brick-lined gas oven that can reach temperatures of 650 degrees. To keep things in the South Main family, the owners announced from the first that they would use products from Loblolly and Boulevard.

Davis calls her involvement along South Main Street “the best thing that has ever happened to me.” She said it was “an area that needed some love, and I love it. What’s funny is that I had once been warned by my dad to never buy a building with a flat roof. All the buildings I’ve bought down here have flat roofs. What would he think?”

Davis says she has learned through the years to “figure out what you like and go for it.”

So what does the future hold for Davis?

“I don’t really have firm plans right now,” she says. “I’ve found that running a museum is a full-time job.”

Davis would like to see the Southside Main Street organization, a nonprofit entity that promotes economic development on Main Street between Interstate 630 and Roosevelt Road, continue to grow. Southside Main Street is affiliated with Main Street Arkansas and the National Main Street Center.

She also wants the Arkansas Cornbread Festival to grow. This year’s event will be held Oct. 29 with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and Our House as beneficiaries. The stated goal of the festival, which began in 2011, is to raise awareness and funds for worthy nonprofit organizations while celebrating Southern culture and heritage through food, crafts and music.

“If you grew up in Arkansas, you grew up eating cornbread,” Davis says. “I see it as a link to our shared history and our grandmothers who would make cornbread. What better way to pull in a diverse audience is there than food? I know I grew up on cornbread. We had it about every day with our vegetables.”

These days, there are plenty of food, shopping and entertainment options along South Main Street in Little Rock, thanks in large part to a lady who remembers what it was like to grow up in Murfreesboro.

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Arkadelphia rising

Monday, May 9th, 2016

In the May issue of Arkansas Life magazine there’s a profile of my hometown of Arkadelphia written by Heather Steadham.

The headline reads: “From its new town hall and hybrid police cars to its plans to send every child to college, Arkadelphia is a small town with a big vision.”

Following a riding tour of Arkadelphia with Jimmy Bolt, the city manager, Steadham wrote: “Behind the Amtrak station lies the old Arkadelphia Milling Co., which burned about a century ago but is still a giant part of Arkadelphia’s history and serves as a local landmark with its three old concrete silos standing stalwart against time and tornadoes. It seems like the town has always, in its way, tried to be progressive, and when Arkadelphia Milling Co. shut down, Arkadelphia looked toward tourism to help out its economy. Jimmy tells me how Arkadelphia used to be known for having more gas stations (per capita) than any other town and, in fact, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas reports that ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ proclaimed that the small God-fearing town had more service stations than — gasp! — churches.

“But these days there are much better things for Jimmy to brag about. He shows me the beauty of the flowerbed full of tulips and azaleas next to the Martin Luther King Jr. overpass that the Rotary Club constructed when he was president, making one of the two major entrances into town a joy upon arrival. He shows me the user-friendly arrangement of the Baptist Health System buildings, which are clustered together to form an entire medical village. And he shows me the super-inclusive recreation center at Feaster Park, where tourists and residents alike can enjoy a water park, a skateboard park, an indoor recreation facility, softball fields, outdoor basketball courts and other play areas all in one centralized location. It’s like … there was a plan.”

Steadham ends her glowing profile of the city this way: “When I leave Arkadelphia, driving back down the street that separates what I first thought were two contentious universities, I see what I somehow missed on my way in. Above the road, a bridge links the two sides of the ravine. Written along its face are the words ‘Arkadelphia: It’s a great place to call home.’ When a small town becomes unstuck after a devastating disaster, when good people fight to end intolerance, when the bitterest of rivalries become literally and metaphorically linked, and all of these become inextricably intertwined to form a community, I have to agree. It is a great place to call home.”

The article, mind you, was written before it was announced late last month that a Chinese company with 10,000 employees worldwide — Shandong Sun Paper — will build a $1.3 billion pulp mill near Arkadelphia to create materials for baby diapers and other products. It will be Sun Paper’s first North American operation and represents one of the largest private-sector investments in Arkansas history. So Arkadelphia is hotter than ever from an economic development standpoint.

More than 2,000 workers will be involved in the construction phase during the next three years, which should cause business at area motels, restaurants and retail locations to boom. Once it’s operating, the plant will employ 250 people directly. The biggest impact, however, will come from the 400 truckloads of pine timber the mill will consume daily once it’s at full capacity. That timber demand will create an estimated 1,000 additional jobs. That’s right: 400 truckloads per day.

In the decade since the housing downtown began, the south Arkansas pine belt has been producing timber more quickly than it can be harvested. There’s an enormous oversupply of pulpwood. Thousands of acres that once were row crops or cattle pastures in south Arkansas have been planted in pine, but the needed thinning hasn’t occurred due to a lack of demand. There’s more timber in Arkansas now than at any point in the past 75 years.

As the home of Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University, Arkadelphia will always be first and foremost a college town.

What the Sun announcement does, though, is position Arkadelphia and the rest of Clark County at the center of the state’s timber industry. Other south Arkansas cities have seen job cuts in the industry for at least the past decade, but Georgia-Pacific in nearby Gurdon already bucked the trend by investing $37 million in its lumber mill, increasing capacity by 60 percent.

In addition to being a college town since the late 1800s, Arkadelphia has a long tradition of processing products grown and found in the area.

The salt factory operated by John Hemphill just across the Ouachita River from Arkadelphia in the early 1800s was considered to be among the state’s first manufacturing concerns. A large salt kettle graces the lawn of the Clark County Courthouse. The plaque on the kettle (which for decades was on the Henderson campus) reads: “Used in the production of salt from the water of the Saline Bayou one mile east of Arkadelphia by John Hemphill, pioneer salt maker of Arkansas Territory. Given to the Henderson State Teachers College Museum by the family of Capt. Robert W. Huie, 1845-1929, friend and benefactor of the college.”

The Caddo Indians had been getting salt from the area for hundreds of years. In the late 1700s, Louis Badins referred to Saline Bayou, “whose water yields through evaporation a fifth of salt so corrosive that it consumes meats which are salted with it and it burns sacks in which it is placed.”

Hemphill’s salt refinery operated from 1812-51. There were other places in Clark County where salt was produced. In 1830, H.A. Whittington described the Barkman estate as having “about 5,000 acres with several salt springs on it, from which he makes about 5,000 bushels of salt per annum.”

The Confederates cranked back up salt production in the county during the Civil War. Kettles such as the one now on display at the courthouse could hold 200 gallons and were used to boil water, with the salt left at the bottom.

By the early 1900s, one of the most prosperous industries in Arkansas was the Arkadelphia Milling Co., which produced flour, meal and stock feed. The mill operated 24 hours a day and had the motto: “We never sleep.” Its Dolly Dimple brand of flour was known across the region. The mill unfortunately became a victim of the Great Depression and closed in 1932.

From 1915 into the 1920s, the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. operated one of the South’s largest sawmills west of Arkadelphia at the company town of Graysonia. Almost 500 employees produced more than 150,000 board feet of lumber each day. Graysonia no longer exists, long since having been overtaken by the pine forests that once provided a livelihood for the hundreds of people who lived there.

Arkadelphia was among the state’s leading cities in the early 1900s. In addition to the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. and the Arkadelphia Milling Co, the Temple Cotton Oil Co. also was thriving. The Arkadelphia Rotary Club was formed in 1919, just six years after the famous Club 99 had been established in Little Rock. The Arkadelphia club played a key role in raising money to update the city’s water system and lobbied for getting city streets paved.

Companies that added to the economic mix in Arkadelphia after World War II included Reynolds Metals Co., Hollywood Maxwell, Oberman Manufacturing, Ouachita Marine, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Tectum Corp.

Education long has been a major part of the economy.

Ray Granade wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Arkadelphia became an educational center with the opening of two colleges for white people (Ouachita Baptist College in 1886 and Arkadelphia Methodist College in 1890), two schools for African-Americans (Bethel College AME in 1891 and Colored Presbyterian Industrial School in 1896), and the first in a series of business colleges (Draughon’s in 1891).

“In addition to these, an elementary and secondary school for black students, called the Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy, was founded in 1882. The Arkadelphia Baptist Academy opened in 1890, later updating its name and becoming associated with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock in 1892. The activity by education-minded citizens led one local newspaper to refer to the community consistently as ‘the city of colleges’ while other locals called it ‘the Athens of Arkansas.’ Beginning with their first game in 1895 and continuing into present day, Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University have maintained a football rivalry called the Battle of the Ravine because the two schools are positioned across from another on either side of U.S. Highway 67.”

Timber remained an important part of the area’s economy. In 1967, Esther Ross and her daughter, Jane Ross, began the Ross Foundation. Esther’s father, J.G. Clark, had been an owner of vast tracts of south Arkansas timberland.

The Ross Foundation manages more than 60,000 acres for conservation and charitable purposes. It has poured millions of dollars in charitable funds into the county through the years. Its most notable accomplishment occurred in 2010 when the foundation joined forces with the Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp to establish the Arkadelphia Promise, which ensures that college tuition is paid for graduates of Arkadelphia High School.

J.G. Clark had begun his empire in the forest products industry in the late 1800s. After her father’s death in 1955, Jane Ross managed her family’s business interests. She remained chairman of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. In 1979, Ross relinquished much of the control over the daily operations of the foundation to Ross Whipple, a relative. Whipple, who founded and later sold both Horizon Bancorp and Summit Bancorp, proved to be a shrewd manager of the foundation’s assets. He once described the foundation lands as being “like a mini-national forest. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you. Here in Clark County, the strong history of the forest industry as well as the future growth excites me.”

In her article for Arkansas Life, Steadham described the Ross Foundation offices this way: “The circular silo-like centerpiece I saw from the outside is actually an atrium in the center of the building, its glass ceiling throwing the midday light onto a floor made from concentric wood rings fashioned like a cut tree stump. The walls are rock, and vines crawl up wood support beams. I immediately know I am in a place of uncommon thinking.”

In writing about the Arkadelphia Promise, Steadham said: “Since the scholarship program began in 2011, the Arkadelphia Promise has awarded almost $2 million in scholarships. It awards an average of more than $3,000 per student per year, and Arkadelphia students have attended more than 45 institutions of higher education in 10 states. What I find especially remarkable is how things are looking at the high school level: The retention rate at Arkadelphia High School was up to 87.1 percent for 2014. … Athens of Arkansas, indeed.”

At the same time Whipple was building his banking business, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Mack McLarty, Rob Walton and other well-known Arkansans were teaming up with nonprofit organizations such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create the state’s first community development bank holding company in the 1980s. The goal was to use the proceeds from commercial banks to fund rural development activities rather than paying dividends to stockholders. The first bank purchased was Arkadelphia’s Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in 1988. Since then, additional banks have been purchased in Arkansas and Mississippi. Those acquisitions have made Southern Bancorp the largest rural development banking organization in the country.

On the day the Arkadelphia Promise was announced in 2010 by then-Gov. Mike Beebe, Whipple described it as “one of the best economic events to ever happen in Arkadelphia as well as being a tremendous educational benefit for every graduate of Arkadelphia High School.”

The announcement of Sun’s $1.3 billion investment was the biggest economic event in the city since the Arkadelphia Promise unveiling more than five years earlier. And, I can promise you, the existence of the Arkadelphia Promise is an incentive for companies such as Sun to locate facilities in the area.

In my weekly column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I wrote about Bill Clinton’s visit to Arkadelphia three days after the F4 tornado on March 1, 1997, that destroyed all or parts of 60 city blocks. During a reception following his walking tour of the destroyed downtown business sector, the president said to me: “I can’t say this publicly, but most towns in the south half of the state would never bounce back from something like this. But Arkadelphia will come back because it has strong banks and two colleges.”

Now, add to the mix one of the largest private-sector investments in Arkansas history.

Arkadelphia appears to be south Arkansas’ shining star, living up to the prediction made by President Clinton in those dark days of March 1997.

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Greeks in Arkansas

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

On the day that my column about the history of Greeks in Arkansas ran in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I received a text from my old friend Sam Stathakis in Hot Springs.

“From all the Greeks, thanks for the shout out,” he wrote. “Opa!”

The history of Greeks in Arkansas is fascinating, and James and Helen Hronas did yeoman’s work in pulling it together through the years.

“Because so few single women were among the first immigrants, men would return to Greece or to a larger U.S. city where they had relatives so they could be introduced to eligible women,” Helen Hronas writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Partly because of the scarcity of eligible Greek-American females, about half of the marriages took place with local women who were not Greek. With the first generation, much more intermarriage with non-Greeks occurred, though non-Greek spouses often became active members of the Greek Orthodox Church.

“The Balkan Wars that preceded World War I inspired many immigrants to return to Greece to help free it from the Ottoman Turks. Among those who saw action there were Theo Stathakis and Harry Hronas of Little Rock and Andrew Makris of Pine Bluff, all of whom returned safely to the United States. Newspaper clippings from the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Daily around 1911 described how dozens of patriotic young men from Pine Bluff, Texarkana and Little Rock departed from Union Station in Little Rock for New York to offer their services to ‘overthrow barbarism’ in their native land.

“The contingent of Greek immigrants in Arkansas grew quickly through the 1920s until laws were passed to limit immigration. By then, the Greek population was quite large in Little Rock, probably more than 200. Afterward, it slowed considerably, but those who stayed in Little Rock remained united by their Orthodox faith, common culture and native language.”

Based on the Hronas’ research, here’s a breakdown on Greek immigration to several Arkansas towns:

Little Rock — Most early Greek families who came to Arkansas settled in Little Rock. The first Greek immigrant known to have arrived in Little Rock was Anastasios Stathakis in 1892. New immigrants often would stay at the home of Pelopida and Eugenia Kumpuris. The Homer Society was formed in Little Rock in 1905 to bring Greeks together, and what’s now Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church began meeting in 1913.

Helen Hronas writes: “Annunciation in Little Rock bought its first building in 1919 from Winfield Methodist Church at 15th and Center streets. The congregation outgrew this facility and in the 1970s bought land to build a new church on Napa Valley Drive. It was completed in 1983. The first Greek Food Festival was organized in 1984. Held on the church grounds, it has become a popular event that benefits the church and local charities. The Greek Folklore Society was organized in 1989 to promote Greek folk dancing and to perform at the festival.”

El Dorado — During the oil boom of the 1920s, William Photioo and his wife, Johanna Theoharis Photioo, moved to Union County to open a pharmacy and soda fountain. A plan by the Ku Klux Klan, which was active in south Arkansas at the time, to burn down their business was thwarted by friends of the couple. These friends spoke up on their behalf, and the KKK changed its plans.

Fort Smith — By the 1940s, there were about 40 Greek families in Fort Smith. Many of them were in the restaurant business. St. George Greek Orthodox Church was established after World War II, but it became inactive in the 1990s.

Hronas writes about Fort Smith: “The cafes were so busy that they had to close for several hours a day to catch up with washing huge stacks of dishes, cleaning the premises and cooking more food. The Nick Avlos family entertained Greek-American servicemen stationed at Fort Chaffee. In Fort Smith, all but about five families were composed of Greek husbands and non-Greek wives. They did not have a full-time priest or church services, but occasionally a priest would arrive from Little Rock for a sacrament, funeral or liturgy.”

Pine Bluff — Andrew Makris came to the United States in 1906 and helped begin the OK Ice Cream & Candy Co. in Pine Bluff in 1912.

Hronas writes: “When Makris returned to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars, he married and then returned to Arkansas with his bride and sponsored relatives, George and Peter Zack and Gus Pappas, who became partners at OK. Pappas first sold ice cream as a street vendor and later became proficient in candy making, which became a part of OK. In 1930, the OK founders had a grand opening of their new, modern plant on Main Street, which employed 35 people making ice cream. An upstairs room was devoted to candy making. George Zack headed the milk and Angel Food ice cream department. As the company prospered, they invested in a liquor distributorship. Andrew Makris’ sons, Pete and George, were each named Outstanding Young Men of the Year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and each served as president of the Junior Chamber.”

Because Pine Bluff did not have a Greek Orthodox church, most Greek families there attended the Episcopal church and then traveled to Little Rock for holidays at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.

Hot Springs — Greeks have a long history in the Spa City, having become doctors and leading business owners. In 1954, a movement headed by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association began with the goal of establishing a Greek Orthodox church in Hot Springs. In 1959, the first building ever constructed in Arkansas specificially for an Orthodox congregation was completed, and the parish of Zoodochos Peghee (commonly known as St. Mary’s) opened with a dedication ceremony on Jan. 30, 1960.

Hronas writes: “The Greeks and their families who settled in Hot Springs in the early 1900s were entrepreneurs and worked long hours to support their families. One enduring company was the Pappas Brothers Confectionary. Peter Pappas arrived in Hot Springs in about 1903 and his brothers — John, Angelo and William — later joined him in business. During the Depression, Pappas Brothers, the Deluxe Café (owned by George Gabriel) and other Greek eateries served countless needy people, including students at nearby schools who had no lunch money.”

Texarkana — About 10 Greek families settled in Texarkana. Most of them were in the restaurant business. A priest would come once a month from Shreveport, La., to celebrate the liturgy. People from the Greek Orthodox church in Shreveport also would come during the summer to teach the Greek language to children.

The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese established a mission in Little Rock known as Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in the 1990s. Another mission was established in Fayetteville. Out of the Fayetteville mission grew St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church in Springdale. Noted architect Marlon Blackwell designed a facility for St. Nicholas in 2010.

“During the Great Depression in the 1930s, several families had great financial troubles, losing property and investments,” Helen Hronas writes. “Others lost most of their bank savings. Some families were evicted from their homes and lived in their businesses or elsewhere. Few, if any, Greek families went hungry since their principal occupations were most ofen associated with food. Some local banks and investors worked with small business owners and allowed them leeway in paying their rent so that they did not lose their businesses entirely.”

Many of the male children of the first Greek immigrants to Arkansas served in World War II. Hronas notes that for years after the war, Arkansas Greeks “shipped supplies to Greece and helped financially with the recovery there.”

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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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