Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

Bumpers: A senator remembered

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

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

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

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

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

He would pace.

He would wave his arms.

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

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

I was taking notes.

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

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

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

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

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

Arkansas Democrat Washington bureau,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to make a decision.

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

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

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

I never wrote the story that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything changed on a Friday night that spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the conversation went:

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

“No, he left about an hour ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

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

“Do you know when he will return?”

“No, he didn’t say.”

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

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

No answer.

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

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

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

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you have any idea when he might?”

“No, I don’t.”

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

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

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

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

If only he had known the full story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll never see another one quite like him.

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Pine Bluff’s turning point

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

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

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

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

Yes, parts of downtown Pine Bluff are falling in.

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

Then there are the crime stories.

And the stores about schools in academic distress.

And the stories about infighting on the city council.

And on and on.

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

The leadership of Pine Bluff has had enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Makris is nothing if not a realist.

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

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

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

Consolidating school districts.

Tearing down buildings.

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

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

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

The recommendations hopefully will be implemented in 2017-18.

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

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

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

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

Under the task force will be four steering committees.

Nick Makris will lead the economic development steering committee.

Scott Pittillo will lead the education steering committee.

Rosalind Mouser will lead the infrastructure and government steering committee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There still are major railroad operations in the city.

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

There’s a strong manufacturing base.

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

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

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

Well, it’s now serious and organized.

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

 

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Back downtown in the Spa

Friday, October 16th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much potential.

So much still to be done.

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

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

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

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

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Whither Little Rock

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s address a few of them:

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t see all of that happening.

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

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

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

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AICU: Locking the door

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stated mission of the organization was to:

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

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

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

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

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

In 1993, Central Baptist became the eighth ICFA member.

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Max Jones from 1974-77

— William Patterson from 1977-79

— Frank Ivey from 1980-82

— Ben Elrod from 1983-88

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AICU is in good hands with Rex Horne.

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

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Ben Elrod: Part 4

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shock waves were felt in neighboring Arkansas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Part 3

Monday, June 29th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elrod responded bluntly: “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, Ouachita called once more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Part 2

Friday, June 26th, 2015

As vice president of development and later president of Ouachita Baptist University, Dr. Ben Elrod earned a reputation as a master fundraiser.

He got his start as a Ouachita student, helping save the school’s athletic program.

“During my sophomore year, the decision was made to stop subsidizing athletics,” Elrod says. “So there would be no more scholarships, no more books furnished for athletes. A group of us got together as students and formed a club that we called IPSAY. That stood for I Pay Six A Year. We asked the students to give $6 a year — $3 per semester — to help support the athletic program. We also created a library so athletes would have books. We built a pretty complete library and gave the athletes their books. That helped preserve some kind of athletic program. It was a good little organization.”

Life as a student in Arkadelphia centered on the campus.

“The options for going into town were the picture show and the church,” Elrod says. “We could also go out on the town and eat. There were a couple of good eating places. The girls could go out on Wednesday nights to church. On weekends, they had to be in at 11 p.m. They were very restricted, and that kept the boys in line.”

It was during Elrod’s time as a student at Ouachita that the Battle of the Ravine football game with neighboring Henderson ceased following the 1951 game. The rivalry wouldn’t resume until 1963 due to excessive vandalism and violence. One memorable confrontation took place adjacent to the well-known Tiger statue at the center of the Ouachita campus.

“We actually had a brawl out here around the Tiger,” Elrod says. “Every year there was a pot of Reddie stew cooked the week before the game beside the Tiger. There was a big pot. I have no idea what was in it, but we kept it boiling for a week. We would take turns staying out there all night guarding the Tiger. The Henderson students would find some way to get to the Tiger nearly every year, including throwing balloons full of paint from a distance.

“We had a fence erected to protect the Tiger from the back. There were flanks of students in front of the Tiger to protect it from the other direction. The Henderson students came marching over in ROTC formation, some with ROTC helmets on. Our scouts down in the ravine notified us that they were coming. They just came up to our lines, and we stood there toe-to-toe and fought. It was the silliest thing in the world, and people were injured. One of our guys broke his hand. It was just one of the most stupid things I ever saw in my life, but we thought it had to be done.

“Some people had socks full of rocks that they were using to hit with. It should have never gotten that way. I don’t remember the police coming. I guess we just got tired of fighting.”

Female students watched from the windows of their rooms at Cone Bottoms Hall, which Elrod said made the Ouachita men even more determined to fight. One of the female students was from Smackover and later would become Betty Elrod, Ben Elrod’s wife.

“She was an outstanding basketball player in high school,” Ben Elrod says. “Smackover came up to Rison for a tournament, and I met her there. We had a double date. I was with another girl, and she was with my best friend. I was pretty impressed with her from watching her play basketball and meeting her. That was the last contact we had in high school. We knew each other as freshmen at Ouachita but did not date. She had two or three boyfriends on the line, and I wasn’t one of them.

“I had a girlfriend back home in Rison, and I dated a girl over here at Ouachita most of my freshman year. But we started dating our sophomore year and got married the summer after our junior year. She dropped out of school to teach at Donaldson. She brought in $107 a month. We lived on that the first three months, and then I was called to pastor an Atkins church. We were rolling in money. I was making $200 a month, and she was making $107.”

Elrod’s first church as a pastor had been the Cedar Creek Church near Waldron in west Arkansas. He would drive to Scott County only once a month since four churches were using an old school building on alternating Sundays. Elrod was paid on Sunday nights after church members had come to the front of the church and put money in a collection plate.

“Sometimes it paid my expenses there and back, and sometimes it didn’t,” Elrod said. “If I could, I hitchhiked up there so it didn’t cost so much.”

Then came the call from Atkins, where Elrod had filled in as a guest preacher.

“It was a wonderful experience for us,” he says. “We were 20 years old, and they took us in as their kids.”

In 1953, Elrod enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“While I was in seminary, I was a pastor at Tioga, Texas, which was Gene Autry’s hometown,” he says. “I had a tremendous ministry there and made dear friends.”

Elrod later was the pastor of the First Baptist Church at Marlow, Okla. He would commute from Fort Worth to Marlow and back several times a week.

“That was a pretty stressful time due to the necessity of traveling so much,” Elrod says. “I got to where I could sleep standing up pretty well.”

The next stop for Elrod was back home in south Arkansas at South Side Baptist Church at Pine Bluff.

“I was there for three years,” he says. “During those three years, I was elected to the Ouachita board. I was in the second year of my tenure on the board and was elected vice chairman. It seemed that every time we would meet, we would talk about a lot of needs. The upshot would be that we decided it was a good thing but that we didn’t have the money to do it. So the president, Ralph Phelps, started talking to me about coming as vice president for development. Ouachita had never had a vice president for development, nor had it had an organized fundraising program.”

Phelps, who had replaced Haswell as president in 1953, loved to hunt and fish. He talked to Elrod about the idea of a vice president of development when the two men were fishing.

“I had interpreted my call to be a call to the pastorate, and it was very difficult for me to think about doing anything else,” Elrod says. “I loved the pastorate, but he was pretty insistent on this. One of my problems was that when he talked about fundraising, I sort of equated that to riverboat gamblers. The only fundraisers I had ever seen were people who came down South and fleeced other people. But I had this pressure of seeing the needs of Ouachita from the inside as a member of the board.”

Elrod later learned that Birkett Williams, the school’s largest benefactor, had told Phelps that he would quit giving money to Ouachita if a professional development program wasn’t started. Williams, a 1910 Ouachita graduate, had become one of the nation’s largest Ford dealers at Cleveland. He was president of the National Automobile Dealers Association in 1960 and later was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

“That was Ralph Phelps’ motivation to get a vice president for development,” Elrod says.

The decision weighed on him. It was 1963, and he had served as a pastor for a dozen years. But Ouachita had been good to Elrod, and he wanted to be good back to Ouachita.

In a speech a quarter of a century later, Elrod would say: “I left the pulpit of one of the finest churches in my home state of Arkansas to enter the field of Baptist higher education. When anyone asked why, I found myself telling the same story over again. It was the story of a young country boy who went to college at Ouachita in 1948 with little to his credit except an unusually large number of rough edges; the story of his surprise at finding young people his own age who were firmly committed to the Lord and to high ideals of honesty, upright loving and service to God and fellow man; the story of the boy’s growing admiration for brilliant men and women on the faculty who were also humble and devoted servants of God; the story of the boy’s own vision of service and submission to the will of God for his life.

“In brief, it was the story of a boy remade by the transforming grace of God through a Christian institution. It was that story that I told repeatedly. It was my story. Since that time 25 years ago, I have lived with a fierce determination that what God did for me then would be available to every young man and woman who will accept it. I continue in that determination.”

Elrod says he “reached the decision to accept the position after about a year of praying and trying to decide what to do.”

He had enjoyed the ministry, having served at First Baptist Church in Atkins from 1953-55; First Baptist Church in Tioga, Texas, from 1955-57; First Baptist Church in Marlow, Okla., from 1957-60; and South Side Baptist Church in Pine Bluff from 1960-63.

Elrod quickly discovered that raising funds for Ouachita in the 1960s was a challenge.

“When I called upon donor prospects, they were more interested in conflict than in giving,” Elrod says. “That environment was not conducive to raising funds from private sources. So I turned to the new federal sources of funds available to higher education through the Great Society legislation.”

As part of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Congress created what’s known as the Title III program, a federal grant program designed to improve education. The federal TRIO programs were an outgrowth of that effort. They were designed to identify and provide services for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. TRIO would grow to include eight programs serving low-income individuals, first-generation college students and those with disabilities. Ouachita became a host site for several of the programs.

Elrod says it was a “great boost to Ouachita’s growth. While it was onerous for me to do that and not be able to raise a lot of private money, I realize now it was a good thing for thousands of southwest Arkansas young people who benefited from those programs.”

When Elrod left Ouachita after almost five years on the staff, it was to go to Indiana University and obtain his doctorate in educational administration.

“Dr. Raymond Gibson and one of his cohorts came to Ouachita to consult with us on the Title III program in educational administration,” Elrod says. “Dr. Gibson got me to thinking about obtaining the doctorate. He was very insistent. He was at the time the chairman of the higher education department of the graduate school at Indiana. He just insisted that I give it some thought. I had come to realize that I was prepared academically to be a pastor, not a college administrator. But it looked as if I was going to be in this field the rest of the way. Ultimately, I decided to take the plunge and go. It was a hard decision to leave Ouachita and leave Arkadelphia because we loved it there.”

Before the Elrod family could make the move to Indiana, Gibson called to ask if Elrod would consider serving as the president of a small college in the southwest part of the state, Oakland City College, while doing the work on his doctorate at Indiana University. Now known as Oakland City University, the school was founded by the General Baptists and opened its doors for classes in 1891. In addition to liberal arts and religion classes, an industrial and agricultural department was added to meet the needs of rural areas in southwestern Indiana.

“The two schools were 90 miles apart, and we already had rented a townhouse in Bloomington, so we decided that we would talk to these folks,” Elrod says. “We needed some income while we were in school. Oakland City College hired me as its president. We moved to Bloomington, and I commuted to Oakland City.”

For the first time, Ben Elrod was a college president.

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Ben Elrod: Son of south Arkansas

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

I usually have far too many projects on my plate.

But how was I to say “no” when my friend Ian Cosh, the vice president for community and international engagement at Ouachita Baptist University, called last year and asked me to join him as the co-author of a small book on the life of Dr. Ben Elrod, the former Ouachita president?

When I was growing up in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood of Arkadelphia, the Elrod family lived just two doors down during Ben Elrod’s time as Ouachita’s vice president for development. After I moved away from Arkadelphia, Elrod served as Ouachita’s president from 1988-97. The task of working on the book proved to be a blessing for me, giving me a greater appreciation than ever for this dear family friend who had been a fishing and quail hunting partner of my late father.

Elrod, one of Arkansas’ most respected leaders in the 20th century, learned much about leadership as a high school student at Rison.

“I injured my knee in a football game during the 1947 season, which was my junior year,” he says. “The knee surgery procedures weren’t as refined back then. My surgery at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis didn’t restore full use of my knee. The decision by the doctors was that I should not play contact sports anymore. That was a disappointing development for me, especially as it related to my favorite sport, which was football.

“As the 1948 season neared, the school superintendent and the high school football coach approached me with a request that I coach a newly formed junior high team in the fall. When I arrived at their office, I was really shaken to see both the coach and the superintendent waiting on me. What they had to say was one of the greatest surprises of my life. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I was frightened but excited about the offer. I thought about it for about two minutes and said I’d like nothing better. I eagerly accepted the task and coached the first junior high football team that Rison had fielded.”

Elrod says the high school coach had promised to help, but his focus (as one might expect) was on the senior high team once the season began.

“I was pretty well on my own,” Elrod says. “I was fortunate in that the 40 or so boys who reported for practice were above-average athletes, and a few of them were exceptional. They had played sandlot games together most of their lives. They blended into a good team. We had fun, especially the coach.”

Elrod says coaching helped fill the void that had been created by the doctors’ decision not to let him play football as a high school senior.

“I found that I really liked coaching,” he says. “I had a great group of boys, and they loved the game. If it ever bothered them that they had a high school senior with no coaching experience as their coach, they never gave any indication of their concern. How did we do? We played seven games, and we won four and lost three. The same group as seniors won the state championship in their division.”

In the state playoffs as seniors, those Rison athletes beat Atkins. Elrod was a Baptist minister at Atkins at the time.

“One would assume that I had mixed emotions,” he says. “That would be wrong. Where those kids were concerned, I was still a Rison Wildcat fan. I still am and follow the team closely in the news. That early exposure to such heavy responsibility was one of the formative experiences in my life. Do I think my coaching made them state champions? No. In fact, they may have won that honor in spite of my coaching. But what I’m certain about is that they made my senior year the most enjoyable year of my high school experience and among the most enjoyable of my life.

“I still have great admiration for the two men, superintendent Bill Hobgood and coach Boyd Arnold, for the gamble they took on a high school senior. The boys? The surviving ones are retired now. I’ve attended some of their reunions and take pride in their accomplishments as men. I could have gladly gone into the coaching field as a vocation.”

Instead, Elrod became a pastor, a college administrator, a college president and a master fundraiser.

In all of his roles, he was having an influence on young people, just as he did when he was coaching during his senior year of high school.

In August 1988, Elrod conducted a lengthy interview with Erwin McDonald, the well-known editor of the Arkansas Baptist, a widely circulated magazine. Elrod had experienced heart problems, and McDonald asked him if he worried about the stress of being Ouachita’s president.

Elrod answered: “I could check out right now and feel that the Lord has given me far more than I ever deserved in a lifetime. I have often wished that I could live three lifetimes because there are so many things I want to do. God has filled my life with activity and rewarded me with seeing to it that those activities are worthwhile. I’m not sure that a person could ask for a lot more than that. I have had more than I deserved and much more opportunity than most people have. This makes me want to give the Lord all I have as long as he lets me live.

“If the curtain comes down during my Ouachita days, the only thing that would bother me would be the inconvenience that would cause Ouachita. I would much rather be doing something worthwhile for the Lord and feeling good about it than to live longer by not being busy. However, I plan to live to a ripe old age and may even have a challenge or two beyond Ouachita waiting on me. Those matters are in God’s hands, and I’m pleased to leave them there.”

Fortunately for all of us, Ben Elrod has lived to that ripe old age he talked about. Arkansas is a better place because he walks among us.

Elrod’s family had roots deep in south Arkansas.

“My mother was a member of the Sadler family,” he says. “She was one of five children, all of whom lived in Rison. Both sets of grandparents lived in Rison. … I had enough aunts and uncles and grandparents that if my mother and father were gone for a day or a week or a month, I had plenty of places to stay. I never had a minute’s insecurity because I knew I was loved and accepted.”

Elrod’s mother was less than five feet tall and wore a size 3 1/2 shoe. She almost died in childbirth when John Elrod was born four years before Ben.

Ben Elrod says: “When she became pregnant with me, the doctor advised an abortion and asked for a decision on the matter with a one-week deadline for the decision to be made.”

Elrod says his mother didn’t tell him the story until he was an adult. She decided to have the baby despite the chance she would die during childbirth, something Ben Elrod now calls “a pretty brave response from a little 25-year-old woman.”

One thing that was a given in the Elrod family was that Sundays would be spent at the local Baptist church.

“When I was 12 years old, I made a profession of faith,” Elrod says. “We had a revival meeting, and all of my buddies had made a profession of faith, and I had not. Two or three weeks later, I realized the preacher was preaching to me. I realized my need for Christ and made my profession of faith. The church we attended was a strong church for a little country town. We had some good pastors. We had one very fine pastor in my later years as a teenager.”

For parts of two years, Elrod served as a page for the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I was in Washington at 16 years old when I felt called into the ministry,” he says. “I hadn’t been to church in quite a while. I was living with three roommates, two from New Mexico and one from Little Rock. I don’t know when we had been to church. We went to the Smithsonian Institution. I had always planned on being a doctor. We went through the medical section of the Smithsonian. As I walked through that, the thought came to me: ‘Hey, who are you fooling? You’re not interested in this stuff.’ I really wasn’t. I spent a restless night in which I prayed and asked God to direct me. I felt strongly that his answer was that I was to be a minister. I never wavered from that. My father was not very favorable toward it. He had looked forward to my being in the family business with him and my brother. He didn’t know that my decision was a mature decision, so he challenged it a bit. But I didn’t have a more enthusiastic supporter once I went into the ministry. My mother, of course, was supportive of whatever I did.”

During his senior year at Rison High School, Elrod considered attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the school from which his older brother had graduated. He was concerned, however, about the lack of religion courses. After a visit with Dr. J.R. Grant, Ouachita’s president at the time, Elrod decided to attend Ouachita. Many years later, Elrod would find a letter that Grant had written years earlier to Elrod’s older brother following a visit to Rison. He still has the letter.

Grant was president during Elrod’s freshman year. When Grant retired (he had been president since 1934), he was replaced by S. William Eubanks, who served as president for two years. Harold A. Haswell served as president during Elrod’s senior year.

“We got into deep financial trouble,” Elrod says. “We got into problems with the North Central Association and lost our accreditation. Dr. Haswell has never been given proper credit for what he did for Ouachita in two years’ time. He turned it around with North Central and recovered our accreditation. He was a brilliant man. I was the president of student government during my senior year, and he gave me a voting spot on the administrative council as a student. I thought he was way ahead of his time on that. He was ahead of his time on most everything. He was the world’s poorest speaker. He would bore you to death as a public speaker, but he was a tremendous administrator and did a great job for Ouachita.”

Elrod majored in history and minored in political science. He had been advised that if he planned on attending seminary he should major in something other than religion at Ouachita.

“That was good advice,” Elrod says. “I got a good liberal arts education here and then built on that in seminary with specialized education there.”

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The retirement state

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

It was 1948 and World War II veterans were starting families and buying homes after having attended college on the G.I. Bill.

In the flat cotton country of east Arkansas, a West Memphis businessman named John A. Cooper Sr. had an idea.

Cooper looked to the west — to the Ozark foothills to be exact — and purchased 400 acres near where Otter Creek runs into the Spring River. At first, he used his Otter Creek Ranch as a family retreat. But Cooper had a bigger plan in mind. He began to buy up other land in Sharp and Fulton counties, and in 1953 he formed the Cherokee Village Development Co. with the idea of selling lots to people in Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Gov. Orval Faubus attended the dedication of Cherokee Village in June 1955 (it was Faubus’ first year in office) and declared it to be the “coming mecca of the Ozarks.”

Cooper eventually built two golf courses, seven lakes, 350 miles of roads, a water system and three recreation centers.

“Less than 10 years after the town’s founding, Cherokee Village had grown so much that additional land was necessary to satisfy the demand for new homes,” Wayne Dowdy of Memphis writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, adjoining land was occupied by the Memphis Boy Scout Council’s summer camp, Kia Kima. In 1964, Cooper approached the Boy Scouts and offered to give them a larger tract of land on the South Fork of the Spring River in exchange for their property. The Memphis youth organization relented after Cooper agreed to construct several new buildings on the Boy Scouts’ new property. The Kia Kima trade and other land purchases expanded Cherokee Village to 13,500 acres by 1980.”

Dowdy writes that the development of Cherokee Village “had a profound impact on Arkansas. The retirement community industry became an integral part of the state’s economy as the older Americans who flocked to Cherokee Village transformed the state into one of the most innovative and popular retirement destinations in the United States.”

In the 1960s, Cooper set his sights on Bella Vista in northwest Arkansas, which had a long history as a resort.

John Spurgeon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “William S. Baker, a Benton County Presbyterian minister, and his wife Mary decided in 1915 to develop a summer recreation area in Benton County. Damming Sugar Creek created a large lake suitable for swimming. The Bakers’ plans called for adjacent tennis courts, golf links and nearly 400 lots selling at $100 each. A contest was used to select the resort’s name with the winning entry being Bella Vista. Business was not lucrative, however, and by 1917 the resort was offered for sale.

“Samuel and Mary Linebarger and their three sons moved in 1900 to Bentonville for a change in climate following Mary’s diagnosis with tuberculosis. After she died two years later, the family left Arkansas. The Linebarger Brothers Realty Co., founded by Samuel’s three sons, returned to purchase Bella Vista along with adjoining acreage, seeking a new investment. Initial expansion plans called for a pavilion suitable for dancing, a 30-room lodge and a dining hall. A nine-hole golf course was added in 1922, a large swimming pool in 1924 and the 65-room Sunset Hotel in 1929. In 1930, the brothers developed a cave into a nightclub, calling it Wonderland.

“The resort retained the Bella Vista name and opened from June to Labor Day, renting rooms by the day or the week, selling lots and building cottages. Bella Vista amenities included swimming, golf, tennis, fishing, camping, horse rides, rowing, games and dances with orchestral music. The Linebargers catered to wealthy, urban families who could spend the entire summer on vacation. Under the leadership of Clarence A. Linebarger, the youngest Linebarger brother, summer business progressively improved. The Great Depression, World War II and changing vacation concepts — with automobiles and highways allowing people to venture to new and distant places — resulted in the resort’s decline.

“Elzy Lloyd Keith, who operated the Lake Keith Resort in Cave Springs, purchased Bella Vista in 1952, billing it as ‘Bella Vista the Family Resort, the Beauty Spot of the Ozarks.’ Keith transitioned Bella Vista into a family resort, substituting roller skating for dancing, and added a restaurant, grocery and motel. … Keith closed the Sunset Hotel after one year, giving it to a Baptist minister to start a school. Within five years, the school also closed.”

Cooper moved in, quickly buying up land and dividing it into lots. During the next 35 years, more than 37,000 lots were sold. Almost 13,000 of them have been developed. A study in 1987 showed that 16.5 percent of all Benton County tax revenues and 45 percent of the property tax revenues for the Bentonville School District were coming from Bella Vista. The Bank of Bentonville reported in 1992 that 34 percent of its deposits came from Bella Vista residents.

The population of Bella Vista soared from 2,589 in the 1980 census to 9,093 in the 1990 census to 16,582 in the 2000 census to 26,461 in the 2010 census.

On Nov. 7, 2006, residents voted by a two-to-one margin to incorporate it as Arkansas’ newest city. With the explosive growth of northwest Arkansas, Bella Vista can no longer be considered a retirement community. It’s instead a growing municipality.

In 1970, Cooper set his sights on southwest Arkansas as he began to develop a 20,000-acre tract in Saline and Garland counties into Hot Springs Village.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes: “Cooper had been approached separately by two people with the idea of creating a retirement community, state Sen. Bud Canada and Peter D. Joers, the president of the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. After touring the property by air, Cooper realized the potential of the land and immediately bought 20,000 acres from Dierks Forests Inc. His plan was to create a peaceful retirement community in a natural setting that would offer all modern-day conveniences without the hassle of living in an urbanized city. Unlike his other two communities, Hot Springs Village was created as a gated community in order to provide security for its residents and as an experiment to see if the gated community would result in more residents than the non-gated communities.”

The population grew from 2,083 in 1980 to 6,361 in 1990 to 8,397 in 2000 to 12,807 in 2010.

There were smaller retirement communities in the Arkansas hills built by developers other than Cooper.

Horseshoe Bend — located in parts of Izard, Sharp and Fulton counties — was developed along the Strawberry River.

“In the late 1950s, Bill and Dick Pratt sold 200 acres of land to a group of developers from Texas,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “The brothers — businessmen from Little Rock and Newport respectively — had purchased abandoned land for a retirement community. The Texas developers began selling lots, but they then defaulted on their business loans, and the Pratts regained control of the community. Purchasing additional land, they continued selling lots, as well as creating streets and utilities for the new houses. Where the woods reportedly once hid a whiskey still, an airport was built.

“Creeks that flowed into the Strawberry River were dammed to create several lakes. Cedar Glade Lake failed to fill with water as was intended; engineers discovered that the water was emptying into a previously unknown cave. They spent more than $100,000 plugging holes in the bottom of the lakebed. … A feature called Gobbler’s Knob, frequented by local hunters, was converted into the Turkey Mountain Golf Course. Construction began in 1961, and the first nine holes were open to the public in 1963; the remaining nine holes were finished in 1971.

“The Pratts employed a sales team that at one time had 100 employees. In all, they created 56 subdivisions on 14,000 acres, and by 1974, they had sold 12,000 lots. Many of the houses were prefabricated. More than half of the new residents were from Illinois (which accounted for a quarter of the residents), Missouri, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin. The city was incorporated in 1969, creating a city government and a police force, as well as guaranteeing oversight of the city’s utilities. Various new churches were formed, including Lutheran, Episcopal and Roman Catholic. Each was the first of its denomination in Izard County.”

A film and television producer named Albert Gannaway came to town in the late 1960s with the idea of creating a theme park to be known as Ozarkland. A replica frontier homestead at Ozarkland was to be the set for a televised music program known as “Ozarkland Jamboree.” The park and the television program were both financial failures. East Arkansas music promoter and developer Gene Williams bought Ozarkland in the early 1970s with the idea of creating an amusement park to be called Frontierland. That effort also failed.

“In spite of these failures, the development of Horseshoe Bend provided jobs for residents of the area,” Teske writes. “Retired farmers and business professionals opened shops and restaurants, and roughly half the sales staff of the development hailed from Arkansas. Construction jobs also employed workers whose previous income from farming had been considerably less. Not only did Horseshoe Bend bring the first golf course and first public swimming pool into the region, it also introduced the first Kiwanis Club and the first legal drinking establishments.”

The Pratts decided to sell their holdings in 1974 to a group known as Gulf South Advisors. It turned out to be a corporation involved in questionable activities. Millions of dollars intended for the further development of Horseshoe Bend were lost. A lengthy bankruptcy case put a halt to growth. Former salesmen for the Pratts became independent real estate agents, and a municipal improvement district took over the golf course and lakes.

Meanwhile, just north of Eureka Springs along Table Rock Lake, Robert McCulloch (a Missouri entrepreneur known for McCulloch chainsaws and for purchasing the London Bridge and reassembling it in Arizona) began work on a 4,500-acre retirement community known as Holiday Island in 1970.

“The developers donated one acre of land to Grace Lutheran Church, which was formed in 1972 by 26 Lutherans,” Teske writes. “A Presbyterian church was formed in Holiday Island in the 1990s. There are also two Baptist churches and a community church. In addition to building homes, the developers created two golf courses, a marina, a shopping center and a recreation center. … The area also has two assisted living facilities, a campground and motels and rental properties.”

In Van Buren and Cleburne counties, three Fort Smith businessmen — Randolph Warner, Neal Simonson and George Jacobus — decided in the early 1960s to buy land on the north shore of what would become Greers Ferry Lake for a retirement community.

“They hired a retired cotton broker named C.M. Owen to find a suitable location,” James White writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In his Jeep, Owen followed the logging roads to a high point overlooking the green valley that was being filled to form the lake. A new corporation — Fairfield Communities Land Co. — formed by Jacobus, Simonson and Warner (later to become Fairfield Communities Inc.) began the purchase of land from the Nebraska Tie & Lumber Co., which owned the timberlands on the north shore of the lake. By 1965, the first 3,500 acres had been purchased by Jacobus and his partners. Lots were sold, and the price included a small annual amenities fee for the recreation facilities.

“All early activities centered near the marina, which was built in 1966. In 1967, more than 300 mobile homes were brought in to house the prospective lot buyers. The Wild Boar restaurant was built in 1967 on Highway 330. The second floor of this restaurant became the offices of FCI. The Civic Center building was built in 1972 and was where many of the social and community meetings were held. … Before and after the Wild Board restaurant burned in early 1980, the FCI offices and other businesses began moving to the present Indian Hills Country Club and the mall area.”

In addition to selling lots, the company began pushing timeshares in vacation homes in 1979. By 2006, about 7,800 lots had been sold (only 1,200 of them have houses on them). The number of residents was about 2,400, but there were an estimated 20,000 annual timeshare visitors. FCI later filed for bankruptcy, and the property owners association known as the Community Club assumed control. The city of Fairfield Bay was incorporated in 1993.

The development of these retirement communities established Arkansas as one of the most important retirement destinations in the country. Cooper, who was born at Earle in 1906 and received a law degree from the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., had a keen understanding of people who had been raised poor during the Great Depression before climbing into the middle class. He guessed correctly that some of them would want to retire in places where the cost of living was low and the winters weren’t as harsh.

The 1960s and 1970s were the boom period. Arkansas retirement developments advertised free vacations in markets across the Midwest. Couples would come to the state and spend a few days enjoying the amenities in exchange for participating in a “tour” with a real estate agent that was actually an intense sales pitch like something out of the David Mamet play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Male high school teachers and coaches often would spend their summers as salesmen. The good ones could earn more money in three months of selling lots than they had earned in nine months of teaching.

The problem for the rural Arkansas retirement communities (Bella Vista is an exception since it’s now part of an urban area) is that the Baby Boomers are different from their parents. Fewer of them want to live by a golf course in a rural area during their retirement years. They tend to prefer urban areas with amenities such as fine dining, live theater, symphony orchestras and sports events.

College towns also have proved to be popular retirement spots due to the number of events they offer.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at how these Arkansas retirement communities are now trying to reinvent themselves.

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