Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

The breakfast club

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

It’s shortly past 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Don Allen is sitting at his usual spot.

They call it the Round Table, and it’s in the corner of the state Capitol’s basement cafeteria in Little Rock.

Allen, 85, is the patriarch of the Round Table, a legendary breakfast spot where politics, sports and personalities have been cussed and discussed for decades.

Allen became a regular at the table in 1972 when he joined the staff of then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. He can be found in the same seat most weekday mornings, having arrived by 5:20 a.m.

“They let me in the back door,” he says.

When Allen began coming to the Capitol basement for breakfast, legislators such as Rep. John Miller of Melbourne and Rep. Lloyd Reid George of Danville ruled the roost at the Round Table.

On the large lazy Susan in the middle of the table, brass nameplates for Miller and George state that their seats are “reserved in perpetuity.” The nameplates were purchased by Little Rock attorney George Jernigan, a former chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and a former chairman of the Little Rock-based Political Animals Club.

“When someone dies, we move the nameplates from the actual table to the lazy Susan,” Allen says.

George, a noted raconteur, was born in 1926 in his grandparents’ house at Centerville in Yell County and grew up at Ola. He graduated from Hendrix College and then became a coach and teacher at Fourche Valley, Ola, Morrilton and Gillett. George later borrowed enough money from his father and grandmother to open a butane gas company at Danville, where he was elected mayor.

George first was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1962 and served a total of 28 years. He would celebrate the final day of legislative sessions by wearing overalls, a sign that it was time to go back to the farm in Yell County. George died in February 2012 at age 85.

Miller, who lived in Izard County for 84 of his 85 years, was a 1949 Arkansas State University graduate who worked in his family’s retail business before spending four years as the Izard County clerk. He later opened an insurance agency, a title abstract business and a real estate brokerage.

Miller was elected to the Arkansas House in 1958, the start of a 40-year legislative career. He soon became recognized as the expert on the state budget. Miller died in June 2014.

There’s one other nameplate on the lazy Susan. It belongs to former Rep. William K. “Mac” McGehee of Fort Smith, who was elected to the Legislature in 1996 and was found dead of natural causes in his apartment in the Capitol Hill Building adjacent to the state Capitol just before the 1999 legislative session. McGehee was given his “reserved in perpetuity” spot because he had the current lazy Susan made by the Riverside Furniture Co. in Fort Smith and then flew it to Little Rock in his private plane.

“It’s a lot bigger than the old lazy Susan,” Allen says matter of factly. “George Jernigan gave us the old one, but it was hard to reach.”

The lazy Susan has not only bottles of barbecue sauce, hot sauce and pepper sauce but also jars of homemade jams, jellies and preserves that legislators bring and leave there. Jars of honey and sorghum molasses also are dropped off from time to time.

The table was constructed by the staff of Arkansas Secretary of State Bill McCuen, who later was imprisoned for corruption in office. McCuen died of cancer at age 57 in 2000. Before his election as secretary of state in 1984, he had served as a public school teacher and principal at Hot Springs, as the Garland County judge and as state land commissioner.

McCuen put his signature on most everything at the Capitol during his decade as secretary of state and had a soft spot for those who sat at the Round Table. The new table — the smaller version used in earlier years now sits on the other side of the cafeteria — was made out of leftover plywood from a Christmas display.

Capitol observers thought the Round Table’s days were numbered in November 2014 when Arkansas voters approved an ethics amendment that would no longer allow lobbyists to buy breakfast for legislators. For years, top lobbyists would put money in the pot to fund the breakfast activities. Legislators who were invited to sit at the table simply went through the line, got what they wanted and had their purchases recorded in the spiral-bound notebook that rested next to the cash register.

Ron Harrod is a longtime lobbyist who became a regular at the Round Table after being appointed in early 1983 to the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission to replace James Branyan of Camden. Harrod, a Dumas native, was an insurance agent in Prescott at the time.

“When the ethics amendment passed, we decided to shut down the table,” Harrod says. “But you know what? Not a single legislator complained about having to buy breakfast. We found out that it was about the fellowship rather than the food.”

He then adds (with a smile for the benefit of the legislators at the table): “We’re not allowed to buy them breakfast, although one of them could buy me breakfast. To this day, not a single legislator has offered to buy my breakfast.”

There are still two brass nameplates on the table for living legends.

One belongs to Allen, who became the executive vice president of the influential Arkansas Poultry Federation in 1976 and held the job until 2000, when he retired and was replaced by former state Sen. Morril Harriman. When Mike Beebe became governor in January 2007, Harriman resigned from the Poultry Federation to become Beebe’s chief of staff, a job he held for Beebe’s entire eight years as governor.

The other nameplate belongs to Tim Massanelli, a native of the community of Goat Shed in Lincoln County. Massanelli worked on his family farm, ran a liquor store and managed a coin-operated machine business during the early years of his career. In 1973, at the suggestion of state Rep. G.W. “Buddy” Turner, he became the parliamentarian for the Arkansas House of Representatives and served for 38 years until retiring in 2011.

Massanelli worked with 19 speakers, seven governors and more than 1,000 House members. He was replaced by Buddy Johnson, who began working for the House in 1985 after having served as a reporter for United Press International. Johnson joins the breakfast group on this Wednesday morning, trading barbs easily with Allen and Harrod.

Massanelli’s nameplate has a spelling mistake. It says that his chair is “reserved in perpeturity.” The regulars decided to leave the plate just like it is so they could give Massanelli a hard time.

Allen tells stories of past legislators such as the late state Rep. Bobby Newman of Smackover, who Allen says would order three soft eggs each morning and then sop up all the yolk with his toast. Then there was the legislator who irked the late Zelma Maxenberger, who managed the cafeteria for a quarter of a century. The legislator, who shall remain nameless, would loudly ring a bell for service prior to the official opening time of 6 a.m. Told by the management that no coffee would be served to those at the Round Table until 7 a.m. if he didn’t stop ringing the bell, the offending legislator was banned from the table.

“Sometimes we have 14 or 15 people sitting over here at one time,” Allen says. “I have to tell you that the idea of lobbyists buying off politicians with a meal is pure BS. This has simply been a way for us to get to know each other through the years.”

Harrod says: “Most of these legislators have someplace where they go for coffee back in their towns. This is just the Little Rock version of what they have back at home.”

Many of the traditional spots where Arkansans gathered for breakfast and political talk in the 20th century are gone. One notable example was the Sno-White Grill at Pine Bluff, which closed last year and was replaced by an Italian restaurant. Sno-White was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The Pine Bluff institution closed when Bobby Garner decided to retire at age 79. Garner would arrive at 5:30 a.m. six mornings a week with the restaurant opening at 6 a.m. Among the coffee-drinking regulars, there were 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even 10 a.m. shifts.

While the state Capitol has the Round Table, Sno-White had the famed Back Booth. It was a large booth with political posters covering the walls behind it — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate” and even “Monroe A. Scharwazlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”

Schwarzlose, who raised turkeys in nearby Kingsland, ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.

Kelley-Wyatt’s in Batesville had its Round Table, where Independence County politicians gathered for years. The restaurant closed for a time but reopened last fall.

Jerry’s in Fayetteville, long a breakfast gathering spot near the Washington County Courthouse, is gone. But a well-known restaurant up the road in Springdale lives on. In 1944, Toy and Bertha Neal began serving meals in Springdale. Neal’s Café still opens at 6 a.m. seven days a week and is a political gathering place for the northwest corner of the state. It fact, its political cachet increased when owner Micah Neal was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. Toy and Bertha Neal were Micah Neal’s great-grandparents. Micah’s father, Don Neal, later ran the restaurant in the landmark pink building.

In Conway, Bob’s Grill on Oak Street downtown has the motto: “If it happens in Conway, it’s talked about at Bob’s Grill.”

Away from the state Capitol in Little Rock, the breakfast spot for politicians was once the Coachman’s Inn, a hotel owned by famed financiers Jack and Witt Stephens. It stood where the downtown post office is now located. In 1983, Skip Rutherford left the staff of U.S. Sen. David Pryor and moved to the private sector to work for Mack McLarty, the chief executive officer of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. Rutherford missed politics and wanted an excuse for those with a strong interest in the political game to gather and talk about what was going on in Arkansas. He asked some friends to join him one morning at the Coachman’s for breakfast. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about former Gov. Orval Faubus and the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis. Afterward, those in attendance agreed to meet again and bring friends to what they decided to call the Political Animals Club.

At first, the Political Animals Club’s membership was limited to people who were not running for or holding elective office. When Rutherford announced in 1987 that he was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, he stepped down as club chairman. The Political Animals Club had moved its meetings from the Coachman’s Inn to the Little Rock Hilton (now the Clarion) on University Avenue by that time. Jernigan took over as the second chairman in 1987 and was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks.

The fourth Political Animals chairman was Bob Lyford, who was the general counsel for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. During Lyford’s tenure, the club often held its 7 a.m. breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room at the AECC headquarters in southwest Little Rock. In January 2007, Lyford handed over the chairmanship to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the White House during the Clinton administration. Ronnel switched the meeting times from breakfast to lunch as people’s habits changed and fewer people wanted to show up at 7 a.m.

The Coachman’s has long since been replaced by downtown’s Capital Hotel (also owned by the Stephens family) as the breakfast gathering spot of choice for lobbyists who are looking for something a bit fancier than the basement of the state Capitol. Most mornings now find several tables at the Capital Hotel filled with lobbyists and legislators (who presumably are paying for their own meals).

Though breakfast meetings of the Political Animals Club are now a rarity, there are smaller breakfast groups that meet on a regular basis to talk politics. Rutherford is a member of two such groups. One group began meeting in 1991 at a now-defunct downtown Little Rock restaurant known as Hungry’s. The group later met in North Little Rock at Roy Fisher’s Steak House, also now defunct.

For years, Fisher’s waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group whose regulars included Rutherford, then-state Sen. Bill Gwatney, former Little Rock bank executive Gene Fortson and longtime North Little Rock political gadfly Walter “Bubba” Lloyd Jr.

Members of the group and even the waitress would tease Gwatney because of his family money, especially when he would order a staple of the Fisher’s breakfast menu known as “the working man’s breakfast.”

“That’s as close as you’ll ever come to being a working man,” Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later in the day during a shootout with the police. No reason for the murder was ever discovered.

Soon afterward, Rutherford said of the breakfast group: “We had no regular schedule. It was just when somebody sent a notice out. It was always a long breakfast, talking about politics, sports, current issues. Those conversations were great because Gwatney would unload on any issue. Politics was a common ground. When I was state party chairman, I used to say in speeches that my best achievement was making sure Bill Gwatney ran as a Democrat and won as a Democrat.”

After taking a break following Gwatney’s death, the group began meeting again. The members now gather at the Red Door at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock.

Rutherford also is a member of a Saturday group organized by Little Rock businessmen Bill Booker and Graham Catlett.

“Bill and I began having brunch on Saturdays at Buster’s in the early 1980s,” Catlett says. “We later began meeting at Copper Grill at 8 a.m. each Saturday, and the group grew. Our meeting places move seasonally.”

One of the regulars is Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

“By 9 a.m., all the world’s problems are solved,” Catlett says.

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Tomb of Doom (now Boom)

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Sidney Shlenker descended on the city of Memphis like a character out of “The Music Man.”

He talked a big game, but he had the credentials to back up the talk.

He once owned the Denver Nuggets.

He once was the chief executive of the company that ran the Astrodome in Houston.

He was born in Monroe, La., in August 1936. Two years later, his family moved to Houston. Shlenker’s father became wealthy in the liquor business and real estate, eventually purchasing Houston National Bank.

Shlenker headed to Tulane University at New Orleans but had little interest in his studies. He returned to Houston without a degree and worked his way up the ladder at his father’s bank, moving from teller to the vice president in charge of installment loans.

He teamed up with an insurance salesman named Allen Becker in 1966 to convince a client to sponsor a boat show at a new facility known as the Astrodome. Becker and Shlenker earned about $9,000 each and decided to form a company known as Pace Management Corp. It produced events at the Astrodome that ranged from demolition derbies to motorcycle races.

By 1990, the renamed Pace Entertainment was producing multiple Broadway touring shows, hundreds of rock concerts, dozens of motorcycle races and even tractor pulls. The company invested in Broadway shows and owned several theaters.

Shlenker owned 45 percent of Pace until the early 1990s, but he let Becker run the day-to-day operations beginning in 1968. That allowed Shlenker to concentrate on sales and marketing of the Astrodome.

“He brought in heavyweight fights and other events to the world’s first domed stadium,” the Los Angeles Times reported after Shlenker died at age 66 in April 2003. “But his promotional piece de resistance may have been securing the rights to the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The so-called Battle of the Sexes drew 33,000 paying customers to the Astrodome, one of the largest crowds ever to watch a tennis match.

“After the Astrodome’s builder, Judge Roy Hofheinz, suffered a stroke in 1975, Shlenker was made chief executive and president of Astrodomain Corp., the Astrodome’s parent organization. In so doing, he became president of the Houston Astros baseball club. In 1982, Shlenker became minority owner of the Houston Rockets basketball team. Three years later, he sold his share of the Rockets and purchased the Denver Nuggets for $20 million from fellow Texan Red McCombs, a friend and sometimes business partner. The deal was consummated during a 30-minute phone call. Four years later, Shlenker sold the Colorado basketball team for $65 million.”

Flush with money, he turned his eyes to Memphis and the idea of The Great American Pyramid, a 20,000-seat facility on the banks of the Mississippi River.

It was to include a Grammy music museum, the College Football Hall of Fame, a Hard Rock Café and an amusement park known as Rakapolis. Mud Island would be renamed Festival Island.

Shlenker told The New York Times: “It’s going to be a monument like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, a signature for the city. The difference is, this will have something inside it.”

Memphis magazine named Shlenker its Memphian of the Year for 1989 and put him on the cover.

The project, however, had problems from the start.

In the 1950s, Memphis artist Mark Hartz had come up with a plan for three pyramids to be built overlooking the Mississippi River. Years later, Hartz’ son resurrected the idea and convinced entrepreneur John Tigrett to take it on. It was Tigrett who brought Shlenker to town. Tigrett and Shlenker later would have a falling out and were no longer speaking by the time Shlenker left Memphis.

The groundbreaking ceremony was in September 1989, and The Pyramid opened in November 1991 without the amenities that had been promised by Shlenker. There was no music museum, no College Football Hall of Fame, no Hard Rock Café, no amusement park.

It was owned and operated by the city of Memphis and Shelby County. The county sold its share to the city in April 2009.

“Shlenker left town, leaving Memphians holding a bag full of past-due construction bills,” The Memphis Flyer later wrote. “In 1991, our former Memphian of the Year earned a Memphis magazine Kudzu Award (our version of Esquire’s Dubious Achievements) and was featured on the cover as a comical Humpty-Dumpty figure atop The Pyramid that had been his downfall.”

Things only got worse for Shlenker.

He moved to Los Angeles and found himself entangled in 1995 in the Heidi Fleiss affair. Shlenker, Mexican businessman Manuel Santos and actor Charlie Sheen testified in the Hollywood madam’s trial that they had written the checks produced in court by Fleiss’ prostitutes.

Three years later, Shlenker was involved in a highway accident that left him a paraplegic.

Back in Memphis, The Pyramid came to be known by locals as the Tomb of Doom.

On opening night, the arena floor flooded. The acoustics and sight lines left much to be desired. The surrounding Pinch neighborhood never fully developed into the tourist attraction that had been promised to Memphis taxpayers.

There were a few bright spots. Some good Memphis Tiger basketball teams played there. Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson boxed there in 2002. A huge concert marking the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death occurred there in 2002. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament held first- second-round games there in 1995, 1997 and 2001.

When Memphis landed an NBA team, the new tenant declared that its stay at The Pyramid would only be temporary. The truly world-class FedEx Forum was built adjacent to Beale Street at a cost of more than $250 million and opened in 2004.

The Pyramid went dark.

So what would go there?

Some said it should be a casino.

Others proposed the nation’s largest aquarium.

An outlet mall?

An indoor theme park?

Enter Johnny Morris.

Morris had started his career selling fishing supplies in the back of a liquor store owned by this father in Springfield, Mo. Fishermen on the way to Branson would stop and buy supplies.

Bass Pro Shops was incorporated in 1971. Morris added a catalog business three years later.

Bass Tracker boats became part of the growing Morris empire in 1978.

In 1984, Morris began construction of a giant showroom in Springfield that would become one of the state’s top tourist attractions.

His Big Cedar Lodge on Table Rock Lake opened near the Arkansas border in 1988.

The first Bass Pro Shop outside Missouri opened at Atlanta in 1995.

The company Morris founded now has more than 20,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $4 billion.

Morris saw potential in the empty Pyramid and began talking to Memphis officials in 2005. In 2008, the city announced a tentative agreement with Bass Pro Shops. But negotiations bogged down, and it seemed the facility would forever be the Tomb of Doom.

Miracle of miracles, the city and Bass Pro announced in June 2010 that they had signed an agreement for Bass Pro to lease The Pyramid for 55 years and redevelop the structure. The city committed $105 million to help with seismic retrofitting and other improvements. Bass Pro invested another $30 million.

Finally, something was going right at The Pyramid.

The Tomb of Doom became the Tomb of Boom.

Almost 700 employees were hired. A replica of a cypress swamp was built between the retail displays. There are archery ranges, gun ranges, a Ducks Unlimited museum, a 30th-floor observation deck, aquariums, restaurants, a bowling alley and even a 103-room hotel.

The 500,000-square-foot facility opened in April, and the turnstile count reached 1 million by July. That’s far more people than visit Graceland.

Morris said the facility has been such a success that he’s considering adding a second hotel downtown and perhaps a zip line.

All of downtown has benefited.

The owner of The Majestic restaurant on Main Street said May was the best month in the nine years the restaurant has been in business.

“Bass Pro is not cheap,” restaurant owner Deni Reilly said. “People coming to see Bass Pro and experience Bass Pro are people with money to spend. They’re advertising The Pyramid in places like Washington, D.C.”

Morris told The Commercial Appeal: “We think we’ll continue to thrive as a regional destination and experience. Only time will tell, but our goal is to keep fueling the fire.”

Almost a quarter of a century after it opened, The Pyramid appears to have found (as the real estate folks like to say) its highest and best use.

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Oaklawn’s renaissance

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

With Oaklawn Park entering the final days of the 2015 race meeting, I figured it would be a good time to share this story that I wrote originally for Talk Business & Politics magazine:

Eric Jackson, the longtime general manager of Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs, vividly remembers that trip across the Chesapeake Bay more than 17 years ago.

It was February 1998, and it was cold. Jackson and Bobby Geiger, Oaklawn’s director of gaming and wagering, had taken a flight to Baltimore and then gotten on a small boat that was headed to an island in the bay.

“It was dark, it was sleeting and Bobby and I just had on our suits,” Jackson says as he sits in his Oaklawn office on a Monday afternoon. “We were freezing. We also knew we had a lot of work ahead of us.”

They were bound for Parsons Island, which once was described by the Baltimore Sun as a “bucolic, privately owned island covered in corn and sunflowers and with scattered wildlife.”

The 100-acre retreat belonged at the time to Jim Corckran, who along with his brother owned an east Baltimore manufacturer of nails, rivets, nuts, bolts and other fasteners that had been founded in 1865. Corckran had purchased the island from McCormick & Co., the well-known spice manufacturer that had begun doing business in 1889 at Baltimore.

Jackson and Geiger weren’t headed to the island to talk about nuts, bolts or spice. They were there to talk thoroughbred racing and ways to preserve the sport in the face of increased casino competition.

Two years earlier, brothers John and Jim Corckran had teamed up with Ted Mudge, the owner of a Baltimore-based insurance brokerage who was active in the thoroughbred racing industry, to purchase AmTote International Inc. Founded in 1932 as the American Totalisator Co., the firm specialized in the equipment used to control pari-mutuel betting at horse racing and greyhound racing facilities. American Totalisator installed its first mechanical tote system at Chicago’s Arlington Park in 1933.

Besieged by the proliferation of casinos in Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana, Oaklawn’s Jackson had come up with the concept of Instant Racing, an electronic gambling system that allows players to bet on replays of past races. Instant Racing terminals resemble slot machines.

“The 1980s had been great for Oaklawn,” Jackson says. “At the time, we didn’t fully appreciate just how great they were. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we began to face competition from new tracks in Oklahoma and Texas (Remington Park opened at Oklahoma City in 1988 and Sam Houston Race Park opened at Houston in 1994). “We responded by instituting simulcasting, becoming the first track to offer full cards from other tracks. But while we were looking west toward Texas and Oklahoma, the casinos were being built to the east in Mississippi and to the south in Louisiana.”

An initiative that would have allowed some casinos in Arkansas — including one at Oaklawn — was tossed off the ballot just before the November 1994 election. Oaklawn made another run at it in 1996.

“We got sucker punched about a month before the 1996 election,” Jackson says. “We had gone into it with the idea that the companies operating casinos in Mississippi would not oppose us since two casinos would be allowed at Hot Springs in addition to what happened here at Oaklawn. Then they came after us. The ads were brutal, and we got our teeth kicked in. Simulcasting had been Plan A. The casino initiative had been Plan B. Frankly, we didn’t have a Plan C.”

Proposed Amendment 4 in 1996 would have established a state lottery, permitted charitable bingo games and raffles by nonprofit organizations and allowed Hot Springs voters to decide whether to authorize casino gambling at Oaklawn and two other sites in the city. The initiative failed 61-39 percent.

It was then that Jackson began to play around with the idea of Instant Racing.

“I thought that there had to be a way to take past races and put them in a format that people would still enjoy,” Jackson says. “Our advertising agency came up with artwork of what the terminals might look like, and we invited representatives of three companies to come and hear what we had to say. Two of them thought it was a dumb idea. The third person was Ted Mudge of Amtote. He wanted to give it some additional thought.”

That was in 1997.

Mudge’s interest set the stage for the February 1998 trip to Parsons Island.

“It was like a think tank out on that island,” Jackson says. “There were all kinds of people there. We worked for about 36 straight hours. It became known as the Parsons Island Project. You can still find old files around here labeled P.I.P., which stands for Parsons Island Project.”

During the 1999 legislative session, the Arkansas Legislature removed the requirement that simulcast races be shown live, opening the door for Instant Racing. The first test terminals were placed on the floor at Oaklawn and at Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis in January 2000. There were 50 machines at each track. By 2002, the concept was taking off in Arkansas.

“For the longest, Instant Racing was just here in Arkansas,” Jackson says. “We then started to get into other states. Louis Cella has been what I call our Fuller Brush salesman. He has gone all over the country talking about Instant Racing. He’s the reason it’s in other states.”

Louis Cella is the son of Charles Cella, who has been at the track’s helm since 1968.

Charles Cella’s grandfather and great-uncle, also named Charles and Louis Cella, were among the founders of Oaklawn and were investors in racing ventures across the country in the early 20th century.

Charles Cella’s father, John Cella, led Oaklawn into the modern era and was the track’s president for many years until his unexpected death in 1968.

The fourth generation of the Cella family operating Oaklawn — Louis A. and John G. Cella — both serve on the board.

Louis is a 1987 graduate of Washington and Lee University in Virginia and received his law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1990.

John is a 1985 graduate of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and is a thoroughbred owner.

Both men inherited their father’s passion for the Hot Springs track. And both have confidence in Jackson, a Hot Springs native who grew up playing golf on the par-three course that once was on the Oaklawn infield. Jackson graduated from Hendrix College at Conway with degrees in business and economics and has been with Oaklawn since 1978. He was the director of operations from 1978 until he was promoted to general manager in 1987.

Jackson became the general manager following the death of the legendary W.T. “Bish” Bishop, who had taken over in July 1972 from the equally legendary J. Sweeney Grant following Grant’s death. Grant had been the general manager since 1954.

In other words, Oaklawn has had just three general managers in 60 years.

Oaklawn celebrated its centennial year in 2004. A year later, Oaklawn and the Cella family were awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit, the most prestigious award in racing. But no longer was Instant Racing enough to keep up with casinos in Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The track needed additional relief from the Legislature and got it when legislators passed an act in 2005 permitting Oaklawn and Southland to install “games of skill” such as electronic blackjack and electronic poker if approved by the city or county. Gov. Mike Huckabee allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

More than 60 percent of West Memphis voters approved the games at Southland. In late 2006, work began on a $40 million Southland expansion that included a new main entrance to the dog track, a 55,000-square-foot gaming room, a 400-seat special events center, a 150-seat nightclub, a 280-seat buffet and additional restaurants. Last year, a $37.4 million expansion at Southland was announced, including dozens of new gaming machines and the addition of Sammy Hagar’s Red Rocker Bar & Grill.

In Hot Springs, meanwhile, a public referendum to allow expanded electronic games at Oaklawn passed by just 89 votes in November 2005. Litigation ensued.

In September 2007, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the law authorizing Oaklawn to add expanded games of skill. On the day after the Arkansas Derby in April 2008, Oaklawn began construction on a 60,000-square-foot, two-level structure to house the electronic games.

Things have taken off from there:

— In August 2012, Oaklawn announced that there would be a record $20 million in purses for the 2013 race meeting. The purses, in turn, attracted a higher quality of horses. When Rebel Stakes runner-up Oxbow won the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore in May 2013, he became the 10th Triple Crown race winner to have come from Oaklawn in 10 years.

— In June 2013, Oaklawn announced plans for an expansion of its gaming area that would increase capacity by another 50 percent. The work began in early August of that year and ended just prior to the start of the 2014 race meet.

— Construction on the additional $20 million expansion resumed the day after the Arkansas Derby last April.

— In November, the new gaming area and Silks Bar & Grill opened.

— By the start of this January’s race meet, a high-limits area and a poker room had also opened.

“We’re going to have purses of $23 million this year,” Jackson says. “We’ve picked ourselves up off the mat. This is just as much fun as it was in the 1980s, but this time we appreciate it more. We realize that we looked into the abyss and survived. When things were at their worst in the 1990s, Charles Cella insisted that we keep the racing quality up until we could find a lifeline. He was, in essence, underwriting the purses.

“These days most tracks are owned by gaming companies. We consider ourselves a racetrack that happens to have gaming. We’re the only one who truly uses the gaming proceeds to vastly improve the quality of racing. Gaming now pays the light bill here, but racing is our passion. It’s in our DNA.”

David Longinotti, Oaklawn’s director of racing, is a Hot Springs native like Jackson. He began covering Oaklawn when he wrote sports for The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs. He later helped open Remington Park in Oklahoma City before becoming director of media relations at sister track Thistledown in Cleveland in 1991. Longinotti returned to Remington as director of communications in 1994. He later spent more than a decade handling the Oaklawn account for Little Rock advertising agency CJRW and then joined the Oaklawn staff in 2006.

“This is David’s Christmas,” Jackson likes to say of the racing season, which runs from early January until the middle of April.

Oaklawn is now among the top five tracks in the country in average daily purse distribution. Race fields were full early in this year’s meet, and there was a lack of stall space. Jackson laughs when asked about the multiple facility expansions that have occurred in recent years.

“That’s a clear indication of the poor job that management did with projections,” he says. “It would have been much cheaper if we had done it all at once.”

In 2014, Oaklawn and Southland saw combined electronic games of skill wagers of almost $3.53 billion. Oaklawn pulled in $1,359,074.501. Southland had $2,172,451.426.

The totals are expected to be even higher this year.

A bad winter played havoc with Oaklawn’s schedule, but Jackson is philosophical. He says, “There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s an outdoor sport.”

The Hot Springs track continues to gain momentum at a time when a number of other tracks across the country are suffering. The Fair Grounds at New Orleans has cut purses consistently in recent years. Oaklawn, meanwhile, has been increasing its purses for more than a decade.

In an interview last year with The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, thoroughbred owner Maggi Moss of Des Moines, Iowa, said of the Fair Grounds: “Nobody cares, so why would I take the time to care? When I go to Oaklawn, I know people care. You get treated great.”

“I don’t think anyone ever expected to see our purses double in just 10 years thanks to Instant Racing, gaming and good racing,” Longinotti says.

Off-track handle picked up last year when Oaklawn’s races returned to the racing channel TVG after only being shown on competing channel HRTV in 2013. The track also has benefited from a product known as “OaklawnAnywhere,” an advance deposit wagering site that allows Arkansas residents to bet using the Internet.

At age 79, famed trainer D. Wayne Lukas is one who spends his winters and early springs at Hot Springs. The Wisconsin native has won more Triple Crown races than any other trainer with 14 (he has captured the Kentucky Derby four times, the Preakness Stakes six times and the Belmont Stakes four times). Lukas already had become a legend in the quarter horse industry when he made the switch to thoroughbreds in 1978.

He says: “Arkansas has something special going on here. Something happens here that’s now missing at a lot of other tracks. You have real fans here.”

Lukas believes Oaklawn could serve as an example for tracks across the country. That’s because it’s still a place for family outings, a spot where the food and the chance to visit with friends is as much a part of the experience as the betting.

Lukas calls Hot Springs “a national treasure,” a resort town where a day at the races is a social event worth getting dressed up for. He says about the only racing towns that can compare these days are Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Lexington, Ky.

“Racing got soft all over the country,” Lukas says. “We became too confident that people would keep coming to the track. Going to the races is still a part of the culture of this state. There’s a genuine enthusiasm for the game that’s hard to find elsewhere. Look at the average daily attendance at Oaklawn. It’s higher than most of the other tracks.”

Lukas says that he likes the fact that he can walk into a Waffle House for breakfast and have people come over to talk racing. That doesn’t happen in New York, Los Angeles or Miami. Across the American landscape, thoroughbred tracks have become sad, empty places, mere adjuncts to adjoining slot facilities. Oaklawn, though it now has an extensive gaming center, has been able to remain a bit different. The racing still matters.

In a book titled “Crown Jewels of Thoroughbred Racing,” Hot Springs native Randy Moss wrote: “No palm trees line the entrance to this racetrack, and its paddock isn’t one of those botanical gardens that make horseplayers want to fold up their Daily Racing Form and splash on suntan lotion. It doesn’t have a Phipps or a Hancock on its board of directors. Thomas Jefferson never raced there and overalls outnumber neckties by three-to-one in the grandstand. But ask well-traveled horse lovers to recite their favorite racetracks and chances are good that Oaklawn Park will pop up in the conversation. For a little country track in Hot Springs, Ark., on a two-lane road between nowhere and no place, Oaklawn has made quite an impact on the racing world.

“During the track’s rapid rise to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, racing executives from throughout the country and even reporters from Sports Illustrated and The New York Times were dispatched here in hopes of determining what made this unlikely racetrack so special. They usually returned home with a hangover and a stretched-to-the-limit credit card, reporting that they couldn’t figure out the secret formula but sure enjoyed the heck out of the search. But without even knowing it, they knew it. The key to Oaklawn has always been simple. The track is one big party.”

Moss, who now works for NBC Sports, related the story of Cuban-born trainer Laz Barrera, who remarked after a race in Hot Springs that he had never been to Oklahoma. Told that he still hadn’t been to Oklahoma, Barrera replied: “Well, wherever we are, it’s a long way from California.”

With the glory days of the 1980s and the early 1990s over, Randy Moss wrote in 1997: “Although great horses still are flown in for the Racing Festival of the South stakes, the crowds and enthusiasm have dimmed somewhat in recent years. The Clydesdales have been replaced by a tractor, the infield critters and wagon rides are gone, riverboat casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana have taken away many of the celebrants and some fans now stay home for the convenience of watching the track’s races on simulcast screens in Shreveport, Dallas-Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and West Memphis.”

Little did Moss know in 1997 that a new chapter was about to be written at Oaklawn.

The old lady of Central Avenue has received a remarkably successful facelift since those words were written. Along came Instant Racing. Along came the other so-called games of skill. Up went the purses. Horses went on from Oaklawn to win Triple Crown races. And the national media noticed.

For Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs, maybe these are the good ol’ days.

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The Dierks family and south Arkansas timber

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

My longtime friend Len Pitcock of Hot Springs sent me a note today about the home in which he lives, the 1955 Peter Dierks Joers house. Joers died in March 2006, and the home was purchased by Pitcock the following year.

Being a native of south Arkansas, I’ve long been fascinated with the old timber families who owned so much of the southern part of our state in the 20th century. The story of the Dierks family is especially interesting.

Peter Henry Dierks was a German immigrant who became a successful banker and farmer in Iowa. His sons Peter, Hans, Henry and Herman founded the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. in Lincoln, Neb., in 1895.

Peter Dierks Joers, by the way, was the great-grandson of Peter Henry Dierks.

Peter Henry Dierks married a Danish immigrant named Margaretha Dorothea Tauk. Herman Dierks, who became the brother most associated with Arkansas, was the couple’s seventh child.

In 1897, the Dierks family moved the company headquarters to Kansas City since that city was becoming a center of the timber industry. By the turn of the century, the brothers owned 24 lumberyards. They had made the jump in 1897 from simply selling lumber to manufacturing it following the purchase of a sawmill at Petros, Okla., for $15,000. Because of the lack of large timber reserves in the area, the sawmill closed after three years. The brothers had better luck with their purchase of the Williamson Brothers mill at De Queen. Herman moved to De Queen to manage that mill, starting the Dierks family’s involvement in the state.

Herman began purchasing timberland across southwest Arkansas, beginning with a major tract in northern Howard County.

Herman had been born in Iowa in 1863 and had joined his brother Hans in Nebraska after Hans purchased land along the newly constructed Burlington Railroad. In addition to heading up the family’s Arkansas operations, Herman Dierks served as president of the Florien Lumber Co. in northwest Louisiana, which the brothers purchased in 1906. When Hans died, Herman took over as president of the company and remained in that position until his death in 1946.

The next generation of the family joined the company and spread out to manage mills across Arkansas and Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, there were big lumber mills at Broken Bow and Wright City. The De Queen mill burned in 1909 and was replaced by operations in the Howard County company town of Dierks.

That area of Howard County had been settled by Henry Block, James Wallen and John Cesterson in 1848. A wagon trail connected a settlement known as Hardscrabble to the town of Center Point, which was 10 miles to the south. The area was covered by dense forests of hickory, oak and pine. In the early 1900s, the Dierks family established the De Queen & Eastern Railroad to move workers and supplies into the region while carrying the timber out. Hardscrabble grew rapidly and changed its name to Dierks in honor of oldest brother Hans Dierks.

The Holman Hotel opened there in 1903, a bottling company was opened by John William Pate to produce fruit-flavored sodas in 1907 and many area families gave up their attempts to grow cotton, instead choosing to move into Dierks to work in the mill.

“Hardwood was harvested first and was used largely for barrel staves,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Around 1917, the hardwood had been exhausted, and interest turned to the softer pine wood. The Dierks company built a sawmill in the city, and the population continued to grow. The racial composition of the community also began to change. At the time of the 1910 census, Dierks had been home to only one African-American resident. In 1917, with the new sawmill — and with many men joining the armed forces during World War I — the company created a segregated neighborhood for black workers and their families. The neighborhood included a hotel, two churches, a school and stores. The Dierks company also operated a large store, which they called the Big Store, for white residents of the area.”

In October 1925, the company made a huge land acquisition in the Ouachita Mountains when it bought the Yell Lumber Co. Almost 88,000 acres of timberland came with that purchase. The timber was used to supply a massive mill built at Mountain Pine in 1928.

It’s safe to say that the cities of Mountain Pine and Dierks owe their existence to the company. At one point, the family holdings grew to 1.8 million acres of timberland, making the Dierks family one of the largest landowners in the country.

The Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. changed its name to Dierks Forests Inc. in 1954.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “The company, always family owned, had undertaken a number of innovative projects to capitalize their investments and maintain profits, including the construction of box factories, facilities for the production of pressure-treated wood products, facilities to make fiberboard and a small paper mill. By the late 1960s, these operations were still managed by the grandsons and one great-grandson, Peter Dierks Joers. The family stockholders, now numbering in the hundreds, had diverse interests and small share holdings. When approached by Weyerhaeuser, the offer of $317 million in cash and preferred stock was too much to pass up. In September 1969, Dierks Forests Inc.’s 1.8 million acres of land, three sawmills, paper mill, treating plant, wood fiber plant, gypsum wallboard plant, two railroads and smaller facilities were sold to Weyerhaeuser.”

As for the town of Dierks, the Big Store closed in 1970. A plywood mill built by Weyerhaeuser replaced the old Afraican-American community. By the late 1980s, there were no black residents of Dierks. The Dierks population in the 2010 census was 1,133 residents, down from a high of 1,544 residents in the 1930 census.

Peter Dierks Joers continued to live in Arkansas after the company was sold. He had been born in Kansas City in 1919, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and went to work for the Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. in 1946. He became the board chairman in 1965.

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program notes: “Joers was considered one of the state’s most prominent businessmen. In addition to holding a number of high-level positions in family-owned businesses, Joers also served on various boards and commissions including the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Wood Products Association, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield and Keep Arkansas Green. He twice was elected president of the Associated  Industries of Arkansas and served on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s natural resources council. In 1970, Joers was appointed by President Nixon to the U.S. Government Procurement Commission.

“Joers consistently worked to improve the community, attempting at one point in the 1970s to attract a branch of the Smithsonian Institution to Hot Springs. He offered to donate 100 acres for the construction of a museum. Joers died March 23, 2006, in Hot Springs, where he is buried. The home remained vacant yet cared for by a full-time staff until it was purchased by Kathleen and Len Pitcock in June 2007.”

Joers purchased the 10 acres where the home sits from Mose Klyman in 1954 at a cost of $10,000. A Dallas builder named Hal Anderson oversaw the $138,000 home project in 1954-55. Joers spared no expense. A pool was added at a cost of $10,522. The family company supplied premium-grade wood for the interior of the home. Texas limestone was brought in by Texas Quarries Inc. of Austin. A company known as Scandinavian Art Metal of California did custom copper work. The Dunbar Furniture Co. of Indiana was hired to provide the dining room table and its matching sideboard.

Another architecturally significant structure in Hot Springs with a connection to the Dierks family is the company’s former headquarters building, which was designed in 1956 by the father-son architectural team of Irvin McDaniel Sr. and Irvin McDaniel Jr.

McDaniel Jr. had dropped out of school when he was a high school senior in 1941 to join the Canadian Air Force. His plane was shot down by the Germans over the North Sea. He floated in a raft for four days before being rescused by a Danish fisherman, who took him to Denmark and turned him over to the Germans. McDaniel was a prisoner of war for more than two years before being part of the great escape from Stalag III. He studied architecture for eight to 14 hours a day in prison because there was nothing else to do. The younger McDaniel later practiced in Hot Springs and died in 1978.

The Dierks family moved the company headquarters from Kansas City to Hot Springs when the building at 810 Whittington Ave. was completed. People’s Ice Manufacturing Co. had been at the site.

A streetcar barn was just to the west of the building. Just past that was Whittington Park, a baseball field that opened in 1894 and was used by many professional baseball teams for spring training. The field also was used for high school football games and other events. It was torn down in 1942.

Weyerhaeuser now uses the Dierks building for offices. The site of the baseball field is a parking lot these days.

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A new owner for That Bookstore

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Here’s how the entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture begins for That Bookstore in Blytheville: “With its straightforward name and the legacy of a legendary proprietress, That Bookstore in Blytheville might be Arkansas’ best-known bookstore. In the early 1970s, Mary Gay Shipley, then a schoolteacher, saw a void in her hometown and opened a paperback exchange store affiliated with a Memphis group called The Book Rack. The bookstore has remained at 316 W. Main St. since 1976. Though locals called it ‘that bookstore’ for years, the store did not become officially known as That Bookstore in Blytheville until 1994.”

Back in February of 2012, I thought That Bookstore was a goner.

Shipley had decided, just prior to her 68th birthday, to retire. She was looking for a buyer, and I doubted a buyer could be found for such a business in a struggling Delta town.

In 2009, That Bookstore had been nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year award. Shipley wrote in her submission to the magazine: “I opened the bookstore in my hometown of Blytheville because I saw a need. With only a tiny library and no place to buy books, a bookstore that would encourage reading and book conversations became my dream. My goal was, and still is, to create a good bookstore, not merely a store good enough for Blytheville, but a good bookstore. … TBIB understands that we sell a product offered free only a block away at the public library and often available at Walmart for about the same price we pay our suppliers. As a result, we are heavily dependent on customer service. But what is good customer service? For TBIB, customer service is about more than pleasantries and waiting on people immediately. It is about more than knowing our products. For us, service centers on knowing our customers.

“Books are very personal, and our business is to get to know our customers and embrace their reading choices and event interests. We serve with a positive mindset, and no matter who the bookseller might be, our customers know they are always speaking to another book lover.”

Shipley told Dan Broun for a 2008 publication that Broun wrote on the creative economy in Arkansas: “We’re still in business because of John Grisham.”

That Bookstore was among a handful of stores to have Grisham, an Arkansas native, for a signing following the publication of his first novel. He rewarded the store by returning time after time through the years for book signings.

Broun wrote: “When most authors announce their book tours, you can usually guess the stops: the big cities, of course, like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and perhaps some college towns with literary bents like Charlottesville, Ann Arbor or Berkeley. So you might be surprised to find your favorite author scheduling a stop in little Blytheville.”

In 2008, an Associated Press travel writer listed That Bookstore among nine destination bookstores in the country, putting it in the company of The Strand in New York.

That same year, Main Street Arkansas named That Bookstore in Blytheville as its Main Street Merchant of the Year.

AY magazine’s list of Arkansas’ 12 most powerful women had Shipley on it.

How on earth, I wondered at the time, would we find someone with the business savvy, determination and marketing ability of Mary Gay Shipley to run a small business in downtown Blytheville?

She said she would part with the 2,400-square-foot building for just $35,000. Shipley also said at the time that she had spoken to Grisham and that he had agreed to “continue to support the store with the new owner.”

In November 2012, Shipley announced that there was a new owner — a 22-year-old nonfiction writer from Mountain Home named Grant Hill.

Hill loves books. He loves writing. But the pressures of running a small business proved daunting for such a young man.

“I had been talking to my folks and doing the math — and checking my blood pressure — and came to the conclusion that I needed to look for a way to, in a sense, minimize any damage to the bookstore and my own health,” Hill told the Courier News at Blytheville in a frank interview in December of last year. “I hadn’t really even told anybody that I wanted to sell the business, and Chris Crawley came in like two days later. Chris and I have had a working relationship since I moved here, and he has done work with the bookstore and me. He said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about us possibly working out a deal to buy the bookstore.'”

Within two weeks of that conversation, Crawley and attorney Yolanda Harrison had purchased That Bookstore in Blytheville.

“I talked with Mary Gay about it, and she really understood that my goal was to see this store succeed, for the community not to lose the store, however that had to happen,” Hill said. “I knew it had to be someone else who would be more prepared, and particularly since it’s a couple, which doubles the amount of work that can get done. I was always committed to seeing the store succeed. I knew with Chris and Yolanda that I had found someone who could do that. That’s why we moved so quickly.”

On Good Friday, as a group of us ate our way through the Arkansas Delta (see the previous two Southern Fried posts), we stopped by the store.

We walked in, and Crawley immediately called out to us, “Come on in and make yourself at home. We have some fresh coffee on.”

It was almost as if Mary Gay Shipley were back in charge.

I introduced myself to Crawley and learned his story.

Here’s part of that story in his own words: “I am a Blythevillian. My birth was at Dr. Fairley’s clinic in Luxora. My parents were Sol and Girtie Crawley. They were sharecroppers, and later my father built houses for people who could afford them. I had eight siblings — five sisters and three brothers. I have one sister left in Milwaukee and one sister in Blytheville. I’m the last brother standing.

“I attended Robinson Elementary School, Lange Elementary School and an assortment of schools as my mother’s Alzheimer’s and dementia became more than anyone should have to bear. At age 11, I went to Wrightsville School for Boys before the foster care system relegated me to Poplar Grove near my school in Marvell, where I graduated with honors. From frequent visits to see my family in Blytheville from the time before I was 16 in early 1976 until October 2012 when I was 52, the Book Rack and later That Bookstore in Blytheville figured strongly in my development and focus.

“Prominent in my memory are Mrs. Harrison, my first-grade teacher; Mrs. Wiggs, my fifth-grade teacher; Mrs. Butler, my seventh-grade teacher; Mrs. Rowland, my junior high school principal; Mrs Nichols, a high school teacher; and Mary Gay Shipley, the owner of the bookstore. There were other teachers and books. Together and collectively, they were the cause of it all.”

Crawley said he “took the first thing smoking” out of Arkansas the day after his high school graduation at Marvell. He moved to Milwaukee. He attended Marquette University and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Crawley went on to obtain a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University, a small Catholic school at Milwaukee. He did employment policy, staffing and technology work in Milwaukee before moving to Los Angeles to work as a talent manager. After three strokes due to toxic black mold infestation, Crawley moved home to Blytheville.

“I came back to Blytheville to die, but God had other plans for me,” he said.

Books always provided a refuge for Crawley.

“My love affair with books began at an early age,” he said. “Reality was sometimes bleak and seemingly proscribed. I loved books because they gave me options. They piqued my interests. Even when I was avoiding school, I could often be found reading one of my favorite books. Even in my young teens, I thought owning a bookstore would be a little piece of heaven. … I see the bookstore as a mechanism to uplift the town’s spirit.”

Crawley described himself as a “resurrection, restoration and renovation project inspired by God. I want to be a resurrection, restoration and renovation project for That Bookstore in Blytheville and the surrounding communities. I want to improve the look of the store inside and out. I want to increase the inventory, expand product offerings beyond books, bring back the high-quality authors for book signings, conduct new author forums, reintroduce national book tours to Blytheville, present live music, host book and poetry clubs, grow the event calendar, have children’s reading hours, rebuild the website, increase the level of social media interaction and more.”

It’s an ambitious agenda for a man who thought he was coming home to die.

“I want to make the bookstore a place where people will visit and say, ‘That Book in Blytheville is wonderful. It’s more than just a bookstore.'”

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Examples for the Spa City

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

They held the third in a series of town meetings at Hot Springs on Monday night.

For three consecutive Mondays, the room was packed as the Downtown Game Plan Task Force heard from various entities.

This week’s meeting had a far different tone than the meeting the previous week.

On April 7, the crowd included some of the downtown property owners who are the very source of the sad state of affairs that afflicts what once was one of the most famous stretches of street in the South — the part of Central Avenue from Grand to Park. As I’ve written on this blog more than once, that stretch of street (which includes Bathhouse Row) is iconic.

It is to us what Beale Street and Music Row are to Tennessee.

It is to us what Bourbon Street and St. Charles Avenue are to Louisiana.

It is to us what the San Antonio River Walk is to Texas.

The River Walk is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the Lone Star State.

Hot Springs is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Arkansas.

Imagine how Texans would react if someone were to dump raw sewage day after day into that stretch of the San Antonio River.

Yet having thousands upon thousands of square feet of unused space in historic buildings that continue to deteriorate is the Arkansas equivalent of just that.

It is the shame of this entire state.

On April 7, we heard property owners whine about why they couldn’t do certain things. Some of them most likely will weigh in again in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

I’ve heard by telephone and email from many of those property owners and even the mayor. Because of my interest in downtown Hot Springs, I’ve read everything they’ve sent me. I’ve tried to keep an open mind. If the city has not communicated properly with them in the past, then shame on city government. Communication is vital.

You might have noticed that I haven’t written anything in several weeks in order to hear from as many people as possible. I’ve come to this conclusion: Despite the complaints of a few property owners, city manager David Watkins and Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce executive director Jim Fram are two of the best things to happen to the city. They come from elsewhere. They have good track records. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work. They’re not beholden to the old power structure. They’re forcing change.

Change is never easy.

The message on April 7 from certain property owners was this: “We need to slow down.”

My message on April 14 was this: “We’ve been moving slowly in downtown Hot Springs for more than 40 years. If anything, it’s time to speed up.”

Yes, property owners’ voices must be heard. Government actions must be transparent. There must be a better job done promoting those businesses that are downtown. Ultimately, though, the property owners who want to blame their own inaction on the city have been unable to win my sympathy.

Here’s the bottom line: Either develop your properties or put them on the market at a reasonable price so we can see if there are people out there with the will and capital to do so. To have empty upper floors in so many downtown buildings is no longer acceptable. We as Arkansans are holding you directly accountable for the deterioration of the national treasure that is downtown Hot Springs.

As I said, the meeting’s tone on April 14 was different. It was optimistic. That’s because there were can-do people from three cities — one in the north third of the state, one in the central third of the state and one in the south third of the state. Those cities have become examples not just for other cities in Arkansas but also for communities across the country on how you accomplish downtown revitalization.

There was Mayor Bob McCaslin of Bentonville.

There was private developer Richard Mason of El Dorado.

And there was Brad Lacy, the president and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce.

“If you wait for everybody to agree, it will never happen,” Lacy said.

Sound advice.

Some people won’t be happy. That’s no reason for the business, government and civic leadership of Hot Springs to slow down now.

In the 1970 census, Hot Springs had a population of 35,631 people. The city had grown steadily in every census since 1860.

Conway had a population of 15,510 in that 1970 census.

So Hot Springs was more than twice as large as Conway. Look at the two cities now.

In the 2010 census, Conway was at 58,908. The city’s population is estimated to be more than 63,000 now.

Hot Springs had 35,193 residents in the 2010 census, fewer than it had four decades earlier.

What happened?

In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, it’s a huge asset for Conway to be the home of three four-year institutions of higher education — Central Baptist College, Hendrix College (I represent both Central Baptist and Hendrix in my job as president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities) and the University of Central Arkansas.

What Conway did was build an environment that would attract young, talented people who wanted to call the city home after college.

Hot Springs — with its many arts and entertainment venues — could also become a “hot spot” for the young and talented if it would create downtown residential opportunities.

In this century, economic development is all about attracting talent.

“We’ve been very deliberate in recruiting more white-collar employees to town,” Lacy said. “You have to get the coolness factor right. Young professionals want things that are different from what Conway traditionally offered.”

He said Conway experienced a crisis of confidence in the 1990s when high-tech Acxiom decided to move its corporate headquarters to Little Rock. Though Acxiom still employs far more people in Conway than in Little Rock, the fact that the company’s top executives would now be working in the capital city caused Conway’s leaders to examine their priorities.

Lacy went to work in 2000 and discovered that downtown Conway was dead at night.

“You could shoot a gun down the street at 6 p.m. and not hit anyone,” he said. “We were standing downtown one night and a car filled with people from out of state came by. One of the people in the car rolled down his window and screamed out, ‘Hey, nice downtown.’ He was being sarcastic. We got the message. It was another wake-up call for us.”

Hopefully, the fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel in late February has provided a similar wake-up call for Hot Springs.

The Conway Downtown Partnership was formed in 2001, and the trajectory has been straight up since that time.

“We have more multifamily projects coming online,” Lacy said. “We want to extend that downtown feeling farther toward Interstate 40.”

Near downtown, the Village at Hendrix is among the best of the so-called New Urbanism projects in the country. Smart, talented people who could live in much larger cities are moving to Conway. And more and more of them are choosing to live in or near downtown.

McCaslin, the Bentonville mayor, is a native of Hot Springs. Like most Hot Springs natives, he loves the town and wants to see it prosper.

He was transferred by the food company for which he worked to Bentonville in 1996 to service the Walmart account — part of that “vendor revolution” that helped propel the explosive growth of Benton County and Washington County. McCaslin retired from the company in 2002 and ran for a city council position. Four years later, he was elected mayor. In 2007, voters in Bentonville overwhelmingly approved a massive bond issue (to be paid off by one cent of the city’s sales tax) for improvements in five areas. The bond issue included $85 million for street improvements and $15 million for park improvements. In identifying where to spend the money, the Bentonville city fathers pointed to downtown as one of the city’s strengths. There’s a charming town square, which was the home of Sam Walton’s five-and-dime store.

Streets were improved downtown. There was extensive landscaping done.

“Renovating downtown was the greatest investment we could have made with those taxpayer dollars,” McCaslin said. “There has to be a community and political will to make these kinds of things happen. I can tell you that Hot Springs has a lot better bones to work with than we did at the start. Hot Springs has more history. Your downtown footprint is bigger. You have a bigger palette to work on than we did.”

By the way, Bentonville had a population of 5,508 in that 1970 census. The population was 35,301 in the 2010 census.

Of course it helps to have the Walmart headquarters.

It helps to have Alice Walton create one of the world’s top art museums, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and place it near downtown.

I can hear the whiners in Hot Springs now: “If only we had an Alice Walton.”

Consider what you DO have: The first “national reservation” (later to become a national park) in America; the hot springs; Bathhouse Row; the city’s rich history.

These are things no billionaire could buy. Build on those assets.

The story in El Dorado is different from the ones at Conway and Bentonville. If anything, it’s even more impressive given the years of population loss in far south Arkansas.

In the 1920 census, El Dorado had a population of 3,887 people. In January 1921, oil was discovered. By 1923, there were an estimated 40,000 people living in El Dorado. That had leveled off to a population of 16,421 by the 1940 census. In 1960, there were 25,292 El Dorado residents. The city has lost population in each census since then, falling to 18,884 by the 2010 census.

“We started a long decline in the 1960s,” said Mason, who has been involved for years in the oil and gas business. “Cities need a vision, and we didn’t have one.”

He talked of old families who made no improvements to the buildings they owned (does that sound familiar, Hot Springs?). Eventually, Mason purchased 17 buildings, renovating all of them along the way.

“To attract a quality tenant, you have to have a quality piece of property,” Mason said. “I think you should look seriously at Central Avenue and encourage business owners to begin buying these properties up. You want downtown to be your key destination. It should be special because there’s only one downtown in each city. We now have one of the best retail districts in the state. We’ve recently raised $45 million to make El Dorado what we’re calling the Festival City of the South.”

More than 1,000 trees have been planted along the downtown streets in El Dorado, and there are planters filled with seasonal flowers. Mason talked of women who come from much larger cities such as Shreveport to do their Christmas shopping in El Dorado due to the festive atmosphere. He said he sees no reason why downtown Hot Springs couldn’t become a regional retail destination.

“Sooner or later, everybody in Arkansas is going to come to Hot Springs,” Mason said.

Here are words from Mason that everyone in Hot Springs must hear: “If the downtown is perceived to be dead and dying, the whole town is perceived as dead and dying. The downtown is more important than most people realize.”

Yes, for more than 40 years, Hot Springs has neglected its historic downtown in favor of development in other parts of the city. Now, a rare window of opportunity is open. Sometimes it just takes that first domino to fall and start other things happening in a neighborhood.

Perhaps that domino was the announcement Wednesday that Henderson State University will place an education center in the Landmark Building at the downtown intersection of Central Avenue, Market Street, Ouachita Avenue and Olive Street. The center will be ready in time for fall semester courses and bring new life to that part of downtown.

Bringing life back to a dying downtown.

Conway did it.

Bentonville did it.

El Dorado did it.

Hot Springs starts with so much more than those cities had at the start of their downtown revitalization efforts. Due to the historic nature of the buildings in downtown Hot Springs, I would contend that the owners of those properties have certain stewardship responsibilities that go beyond their bottom lines. They are called on to be something more than mere monthly rent collectors. If they cannot live up to those responsibilities, it’s time to give someone else a chance.

Who will be the Richard Mason of the Spa City?

It’s time to act. Hot Springs business, civic and political leaders: You’ve neglected the state’s most noted stretch of street for far too long.

People across the state are watching to see if you take advantage of this window of opportunity or squander it. History will not judge kindly those who were on the wrong side at this critical juncture in the history of Hot Springs.

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Little Rock’s downtown renaissance

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

It’s finally happening.

The pace of redevelopment in downtown Little Rock has reached critical mass.

It’s now safe to say that downtown is back.

The announcement came earlier this week that the Chi family of Little Rock — which already owns five restaurants and two motels in the capital city — has purchased the Boyle Building at the intersection of Capitol and Main and will transform it into a hotel.

In the nearby River Market District, construction will begin soon on a Hilton Garden Inn and a Hilton Homewood Suites. Add to the mix the millions of dollars in renovations being done at the Marriott Little Rock and upgrades made in recent years at the Doubletree Hotel. Also add in the addition of the Courtyard by Marriott in 2004, the Hampton Inn and Suites in 2008 and the Residence Inn by Marriott last year. A few blocks away, the Capital Hotel remains, quite simply, one of the finest hotels in the country.

The restaurant scene downtown is as busy as the hotel scene. In the River Market District, high-dollar Cache and down-home Gus’s are packing them in during their first months of business. On one end of Main Street, the reincarnation of Bruno’s Little Italy is doing a brisk business. On the other end of Main Street, South on Main is receiving rave reviews from foodies across the country.

Developer Scott Reed and his partners continue work on the Main Street Lofts and the K Lofts, which will bring hundreds of new residents to the street. The Mann on Main, the building that houses Bruno’s, has already brought more office workers during the day and residents at night.

Over on Capitol Avenue, Reed and his partners are about to transform the Hall-Davidson Building into more loft apartments. The ground floor of that complex reportedly will house a fancy restaurant known as The Still with Chef Donnie Ferneau at the helm. The new owners of the Lafayette Building, meanwhile, are promising to bring a restaurant to that historic facility and increase its role as a place for meetings, wedding receptions and the like.

Back on Main Street, expansions and relocations for organizations such as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Arkansas and the Arkansas Repertory Theater are making the idea of a creative corridor a reality. That corridor also will be the home of Kent Walker Artisan Cheese. An underground space will include rooms for manufacturing and aging along with a tasting room that will serve cheese, wine and beer.

“It’s basically the opposite of a wine bar, where you have all of these awesome wines and five cheeses that they just grab,” Walker told Sync earlier this year. “Here you’ll have a whole bunch of awesome cheese, not just our own stuff. We’ll rotate out a few wines and beers, both local and from elsewhere. It’s a unique space and should provide a pretty neat look into the science of cheese aging.”

As the downtown lofts fill up with residents, expect even more upscale businesses — art galleries, wine bars, gourmet food stores and the like — to join Walker. As I said at the outset, critical mass is being reached. Success will begat success.

A bit further north on Main Street, the advertising and public relations firm Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods will move into the Fulk Building, where Bennett’s Military Supply long was located. Across the street, the building that housed Mr. Cool’s Clothing will be the home of Jones Film Video, a CJRW subsidiary. In other words, even more creative folks are coming to Main Street. Just down the street, the well-known bicycle manufacturer Orbea has opened a facility. There’s already a fancy cigar bar on Main Street.

Artisanal cheese, expensive bicycles, boutique hotels, ballet studios, hip restaurants, cigar bars.

Is this downtown Little Rock or is this Portland?

“Our agency has always been located in the heart of downtown, and we’ve been looking at several options for the better part of a year now,” says Wayne Woods of CJRW. “When we considered what we’ll need moving forward, the Third and Main location made all the sense in the world. To the extent that our move will advance all that is going on in the Main Street corridor, we’re very pleased.”

There’s something else you can factor into all of this development downtown. At some point soon, more than $20 million of city sales tax revenues will be invested downtown for a technology park. Yet more creative people. Yet more customers to eat cheese, smoke cigars and sip wine.

Doug Meyer of Terraforma, the development company renovating the two Main Street buildings for CJRW, told KATV-TV, Channel 7, this week: “It’s like $60 million under contract right now on Main Street. … With all the momentum on Main Street, this thing is snowballing. It’s wonderful.”

I’ll say.

Private investors and government aren’t the only ones getting in on the act, either. The nonprofit sector is also active.

Last month, the Junior League of Little Rock announced a $1.1 million capital campaign for the old Woman’s City Club, its headquarters at Fourth and Scott. The Junior League plans to transform the building’s third floor into a center for small and startup nonprofits. The center will have the capacity for six organizations and 17 employees. Also planned are landscape improvements, parking lot enhancements, iron fencing, new lights and structural upgrades to the 1910 building.

“This is a transformational project for our community,” says Mary-Margaret Marks, the Junior League president. “The nonprofit center will enhance job creation and economic development.”

Compare this revolution to where we were just a few years ago in downtown Little Rock.

Here’s how the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program described the downfall of downtown: “Starting in the late 1960s, downtown Little Rock experienced a marked decline that it has yet to recover from. This decline was caused by a number of factors. Starting with the post-World War II economic boom, the availability and affordability of automobiles allowed for a dramatic increase in ownership. With more cars on the road, downtown began to develop a traffic problem. These new cars allowed for the continued growth of suburban areas. Interstates 30 and 40 were constructed around Little Rock, making it even easier to live outside the city and still access the amenities of city life. This triggered westward growth and the development of suburbs like Maumelle in the 1970s.

“In addition to normal suburban growth, the 1980s was an era of white flight. This was due to the many desegregation issues that the area schools faced. The area desegregation program assigned students to neighborhood schools and allowed majority students to transfer into minority schools. However, this program led to de facto segregation as the racial makeup of most of the neighborhoods was homogenous.

“In 1982, the mostly African-American Little Rock School District sued the mostly white North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts to create a singe district with a countywide busing program to end segregation. During the next three years, the districts were ordered to consolidate, and then that order was overturned. The instability of the districts and desegregation issues caused many parents to move their children to suburban districts.

“Between 1960 and 1980, Little Rock’s population grew by about 10 percent while the combined population of the suburban cities of Benton, Bryant, Cabot, Conway, Jacksonville, North Little Rock and Sherwood grew by almost 120 percent. Because of the suburbanization, strip malls and other types of retail centers developed, such as the 1959 construction of Park Plaza off University Avenue and the 1973 construction of McCain Mall in North Little Rock.

“The modern malls drew crowds of shoppers who wanted less complicated traffic, more convenient locations and more parking. These new shopping centers undermined the Capitol Avenue and Main Street commercial district, especially because many of the businesses in the district opened profitable branches in the new shopping centers, removing the customers’ need to travel to Main Street.”

As it turned out, the salvation of downtown Little Rock would not be the return of large retailers.

Instead, the comeback is based on small entrepreneurs, restaurants, bars, apartments, condominiums, hotels and the arts.

Downtown’s demise took decades.

Even the sunniest optimist could not have predicted that the renaissance would occur with such force.

 

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Building Pine Bluff — Ramsay, May, Makris

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

I was delighted to open the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette early Sunday morning and see George Makris Jr. of Pine Bluff gracing the front of the newspaper’s High Profile section.

My weekly newspaper column just four days earlier had been devoted to Pine Bluff. I had noted how Makris fell in line with his predecessors as CEO of Simmons First National Corp. — Arkansas business legends Louis Ramsay and Tommy May.

Many people in the financial sector had speculated in recent years that Simmons would move its senior management team to Little Rock once May retired. The selection of Makris by the Simmons board — he’s a Pine Bluff native with deep roots in the community — as May’s successor sent a signal that Simmons will remain headquartered in Jefferson County.

Yes, the Simmons name will be on the state’s tallest building — the 40-story Metropolitan Tower in downtown Little Rock — by late March. Simmons, which has operations in Missouri and Kansas in addition to its Arkansas operations, bought Metropolitan National Bank out of bankruptcy in November.  The two banking systems are to be integrated by March 21. But despite the fact that the big “S” will shine down on the capital city, Simmons will still be a Pine Bluff-based business.

Imagine what downtown Pine Bluff — already desolate along several blocks of Main Street — would be without the Simmons headquarters there?

The continued presence of the Simmons executive suite also is important psychologically in a city that has seen its population decline from 57,140 in the 1990 census to 55,085 in the 2000 census to 49,083 in the 2010 census.

Simmons National Bank opened its doors at the corner of Main and Barraque streets on March 23, 1903, with four employees. Total deposits were $3,338.22.

The trust department opened in June 1922. Simmons’ historians will tell you with pride that it was among the first Arkansas banks to reopen without restrictions following the federally imposed bank holiday in 1933 as Franklin Roosevelt set out to fight the Great Depression. The word “First” was added to the bank’s name in 1960. The move into Missouri and Kansas occurred in 2010.

Pine Bluff long was known for its strong business leadership. Ramsay was Mr. Pine Bluff, if not Mr. Arkansas.

When I first joined the board of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame almost two decades ago as the youngest board member, there were giants such as Ramsay who were part of the organization. I would sit quietly at board meetings and listen to those wise men.

Louis Ramsay was the only person to serve as president of both the Arkansas Bar Association and the Arkansas Bankers Association. At the time of his death in 2004 at age 85, he had been associated with Simmons for 52 years — as a director and later as president, chief executive officer and chairman. His former law partner, Bill Bridgforth, said of Ramsay: “He had a way of making the right result happen. In everything that he did, he exemplified the way people should conduct their personal and professional lives with integrity.”

May, who had known Ramsay for almost three decades, said at the time of Ramsay’s death: “He loved his church, his family, Arkansas, Pine Bluff and his beloved Razorbacks. He certainly will be remembered for his leadership in the legal profession, banking industry and higher education. Likewise, to many, he will be remembered for his compassion for others. He never met a stranger, and he always would spend time listening to anyone about their challenges or accomplishments. Mr. Ramsay always found a way to help others come up with the right decision when their challenges were greatest, and he found a way to share the enthusiasm when others found success.”

Those quotes reminded me of the quotes in that High Profile story about Makris. Everyone talked about Makris’ love for Pine Bluff and his ability to make things happen.

I have to believe that if Louis Ramsay were around today, he would be pleased by the choice of George Makris Jr. at Simmons.

May said it was Ramsay who coined the Simmons motto: “We don’t do extraordinary things; we simply do ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

“Mr. Ramsay was an ordinary man who spent a lifetime doing ordinary things extraordinarily well, and we are the beneficiaries of his work,” May said. “If I could take one person and say this is who I would like my children to be like, it would be Mr. Ramsay.”

Ramsay was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2003.

Like Makris, Ramsay was a son of south Arkansas whose early career choice wasn’t banking. Ramsay grew up at Fordyce and often would go to the Dallas County Courthouse to watch criminal trials. Following his high school graduation in 1937, he headed east on an athletic scholarship to the University of Alabama. But he missed Arkansas and came back to the state to play football at the University of Arkansas. Ramsay served during World War II and he wound up as a major in the Army Air Corps. He returned to Fayetteville after the war and received a law degree in 1947.

A friend from Pine Bluff, Harvey McGeorge, suggested that Ramsay consider joining the Pine Bluff law firm that had been founded by William Franklin Coleman and Nicholas J. Gantt Jr. in 1911. Ramsay did indeed join the firm and stayed there. He was a board member at Simmons in 1970 when other board members asked him to take over the bank.

“I told them that I wasn’t sure I was the right person,” Ramsay told Arkansas Business in 2003. “I always wanted to be a lawyer.”

A deal was made that allowed him to remain with the law firm while also running the bank “so I would have a job to come back to if the bank job didn’t work out.”

Things worked out in banking. Ramsay was the Simmons CEO by 1974 and the company’s chairman by 1978.

In that interview with Arkansas Business, Ramsay talked about his passion for advancing Arkansas: “I love this state. I believe it’s poised to overcome some of its past. I’m always disappointed when I see things that set us back. I remember back to Bob Burns and Lum and Abner. But it’s now poised — if we take advantage of the opportunities — to get a better reputation. I look at the growth in northwest Arkansas. I see the expansion at Wal-Mart and the trucking industry in the state, at businesses like Stephens and Dillard’s, and I see the state doing much better.”

Ramsay talked about the importance of unity in a state of fewer than 3 million people: “We need to unify in an all-out effort and support efforts to gain new business anywhere in the state. We need to stop the competition among ourselves. If Pine Bluff can help Marion get a Toyota assembly plant, do it. If we can help west Arkansas get Interstate 49, we should do it. Unity is important for the state. We can overcome a lot, but we need to work together.”

Ramsay was a member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees from 1971-81 and also served as the board chairman of the Arkansas Science  and Technology Authority, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield and the University of Arkansas Foundation. When then-Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Ramsay to chair the state’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1986, he said that Ramsay “represented everything good about the state of Arkansas.”

Tommy May is also a son of south Arkansas. He was born at Prescott in December 1946 and raised at El Dorado.

May went to college at the University of Arkansas. His hard-nosed father, a lawyer named Buck May, pulled him out of school after two years because he was unhappy with his son’s grades. Tommy May worked on a pipeline project in the pine woods of south Arkansas before joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967. He served in Vietnam and then returned to Fayetteville after his discharge from military duty. A much more mature Tommy May had better grades this time around. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1971 and his master’s of business administration degree in 1972. The CEO of First National Bank of Commerce in New Orleans came to the Fayetteville campus for interviews and offered May a job in New Orleans.

May returned to El Dorado from the Crescent City in 1976 to work for Exchange Bank. He became the bank’s president and CEO in 1981. In 1987, Ramsay convinced May to make the move to Simmons. Like Ramsay before him, May spent a decade as a member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees. In 2007, he received the University of Arkansas Chancellor’s Medal and the Walton College of Business’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

May was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in February 2010.

During Simmons’ annual shareholders’ meeting last April, Makris announced that May would be the inaugural chairman of the Simmons First Foundation. The foundation is funded with an initial endowment of $1 million. Because of his weakened voice due to ALS, May addressed the crowd in a video and noted that Makris is “the right person at the right time to lead what I think is an exceptional management team.”

Makris, 57, has spent his career building his family’s Anheuser-Busch distributorship, M.K. Distributors Inc. He served 12 years as a director at Pine Bluff’s National Bank of Commerce and has been a Simmons director since 1997.

In a feature on Makris in Arkansas Business last May, Gwen Moritz wrote: “If there’s anything all that experience has taught George Makris, it’s that he is not a banker. … But he is a marketer — M.K. received regional and national awards from Anheuser-Busch in March — and marketing may be what Simmons First National Corp. needs now more than ever as it looks to untapped — if you’ll pardon the beer pun — markets in Missouri and Kansas for the growth that simply isn’t available back home.”

Makris’ father started the beer distributorship in 1964. The younger Makris attended the public schools in Pine Bluff, where he excelled in football and baseball. He began college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia — which has long had a connection to a number of notable Arkansas families — before transferring to what’s now Rhodes College (then Southwestern) at Memphis. He went on to earn an MBA at the University of Arkansas and was considering entering law school when his father told him: “You’ve been in school long enough.”

George Jr. returned home to Pine Bluff and joined the family business. He married Debbie Kirkpatrick, the daughter of Quality Foods founder Don Kirkpatrick, in 1980 and the couple had three sons.

Makris told Talk Business Arkansas last year: “What’s important to me is the relationship that Simmons has to Pine Bluff. It means so much to this community and, quite honestly, this community means quite a bit to Simmons.”

Roby Brock wrote in the story: “Makris acknowledges that the southeast Arkansas town has been hit hard by a decline in population and a loss of business leadership. In the past two decades, financial sector changes wiped out a swath of Pine Bluff banking executives. Some moved to central Arkansas endeavors, some passed away, others phased out as banks merged, and the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s led to the exiting of others.”

“That’s a lot of lost leadership,” Makris said.

There’s a bit of gallows humor among the business leadership in Pine Bluff when it’s said: “What’s the nicest neighborhood in Pine Bluff? Lake Hamilton.”

Indeed, in the formerly ritzy neighborhoods near the Pine Bluff Country Club, “for sale” signs are common, and homes are a bargain.

Makris, though, sees a number of positive developments — new political leadership, a dynamic new chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a half-cent economic development sales tax that’s generating about $3.5 million annually.

“New is good when you need a change,” Makris said. “When you get all of that leadership together, we ought to be able to design a strategy for Jefferson County that puts us on a path to growth. I’m from Pine Bluff, and I’ve chosen to stay in Pine Bluff.”

Simmons’ growth — with the purchase of Metropolitan and rumors of the impending purchase of another Arkansas bank — and its decision to place a Pine Bluff native at the top of the company can only help as the city tries to reverse the population decline of recent decades.

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Grapette: A legendary Arkansas brand

Friday, January 10th, 2014

A version of this story appears in the January edition of Celebrate Arkansas magazine.

The nondescript metal building is on Industrial Drive in Malvern, just a mile or so from busy Interstate 30. There’s a small sign out front, but most of those who drive by likely don’t know that it’s now the home of one of the country’s iconic soft drink brands, Grapette.

When older Arkansans think of Grapette, they likely think of Camden rather than Malvern. And for good reason.

It was at Camden in 1926 that a service station owner named Benjamin Tyndle Fooks learned that a local bottling plant was for sale and decided to purchase the business. A customer at the service station, Henry Furlow, had told Fooks that he wanted to sell his plant on Adams Street in Camden. Fooks was ready for a change and wasted no time borrowing $4,000 from a local businessman named Charles Saxon so he could buy the bottling plant from Furlow.

Fooks soon became the first bottler in south Arkansas to make regular truck deliveries in rural areas.

Business was steady initially, and Fooks bought another plant at Arkadelphia in 1927. He purchased an additional bottling operation at Hope a year later.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, however, Fooks’ fortunes took a hit. He sold the Arkadelphia and Hope operations. But he held onto his Camden plant and began driving through the piney woods of south Arkansas, north Louisiana and east Texas selling what were known as Fooks Flavors out of his car. He would take orders from local bottlers for the flavors and then return to Camden to mix the flavors. Fooks would work late into the night in the syrup room of his Camden plant.

Fooks continued to experiment with various flavors through the years. He drove trucks during the day and did his experiments at night. In the winter, when the demand for soft drinks fell off, Fooks made peanut patties and brittle.

Fooks developed a grape flavor in the late 1930s that he thought would be popular. He obtained a copyright for the name Grapette and began selling the drink at Camden in 1940. Grapette came in six-ounce clear bottles that showed off the drink’s beautiful color.

Lemonette, which contained a large amount of real citrus juice, came along in 1946. Fooks added an orange drink in 1947. Naturally, it was called Orangette.

“Realizing the potentialities of an outstanding grape drink, Mr. Fooks devoted a great deal of time and research to perfecting such a beverage,” Herbert C. Fooks wrote in a family history titled “Fooks Family.” “After thousands of experiments, he developed an unusually distinctive taste quality of the grape soft drink, which is known internationally today as Grapette. In May 1940, Grapette was first placed on the market at Camden. It was the beginning of a successful business. In 1950, after 10 short years, Grapette had become a most popular grape-flavored beverage. The Grapette Co. became the seventh-ranking beverage company in the industry.”

Fooks was an interesting character to say the least. He was born in 1901 on a farm near Paducah, Ky. His family moved to Camden in 1914, and Fooks finished high school there in 1918. He went back to Paducah to attend a business college and then returned to Camden to enter the lumber business with his father.

In 1920, Fooks decided to become a Methodist minister and headed to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. After three months, he changed his mind about becoming a minister. He instead became a prominent Methodist layman, later serving on the boards of Southern Methodist University and Hendrix College.

Fooks worked in the lumber industry for several years, operating sawmills in Louisiana and assisting his father with the family’s sawmill at Camden. He also operated a wholesale lumber business at Memphis before selling it in 1925 so he could return to Camden and buy a service station. Fooks later took an interest in cattle. His Fooks Farms near Camden covered almost 1,500 acres and had 300 head of Aberdeen-Angus cattle.

Fooks even introduced a challenger to Coca-Cola in 1962 with Mr. Cola, known for its distinctive 16-ounce bottles. He added a product known as Lymette in 1963. At its peak, Grapette had more than 600 bottlers in 38 states.

In 1972, Fooks sold the Grapette Co. to the Rheingold Corp., which brewed beer along with bottling regional soft drinks in California, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. Rheingold changed the company name to Flavette and moved the headquarters to Florida.

Pepsico began a hostile takeover of Rheingold in 1975, and the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Pepsico had to divest several soft drink lines. The Grapette brand was purchased in 1977 by Monarch, the bottler of NuGrape. The Grapette name was shelved, and industry observers believed Grapette had become a thing of the past in this country.

The Grapette brand lived on in other countries.

In 1942, an Arkansas oilman named R. Paul May persuaded Fooks to allow him to market Grapette in Latin America. Grapette, Orangette and Lemonette became highly popular in the region, especially in Guatemala. A separate company known as Grapette International was established in 1962. May retained the international ownership of Grapette after the brand was retired in the United States. Following May’s death, Grapette International was passed on to his son-in-law, Brooks Rice.

Rice had been an early Walmart stockholder and began considering ways to partner with the company. During a 1986 meeting with Rice, Walmart founder Sam Walton made it clear that he wanted Grapette in his stores. Rice couldn’t use the Grapette name, but he could provide the famous flavor.

In 1989, Grapette International began producing a line of drinks for Walmart under the Ozark Farms brand. The drinks were brought back on the market in 1993 under the Sam’s Choice brand, and Walmart was given the right to the flavors. Sam’s Choice grape was, in fact, Grapette.

In 2000, Monarch finally agreed to sell the Grapette name. Slowly, the Grapette and Orangette brands replaced the Sam’s Choice label. For the first time in more than two decades, Grapette was being sold in the United States.

___

Of the seven children of Brooks Rice, two were males — Paul and David Rice. They’re 11 years apart in age. The two brothers, along with their brother-in-law Ed King, now operate Grapette International.

The building that houses the company in Malvern covers 45,000 square feet and was built to house a plastic recycling firm that later closed. Grapette, needing more room, moved its operations from Hot Springs to Malvern in 1999.

“We had begun producing an isotonic sports drink for Walmart,” Paul says. “It really took off, and we needed a bigger facility almost overnight. This building fit the bill.”

There are no traffic lights around the building, and it’s easy for trucks to get in and out at all hours. Drinks aren’t actually bottled at the Malvern plant. The products coming out of Malvern are highly concentrated flavor compounds. A five-gallon drum of one of these compounds is enough for 20,000 12-ounce cans. The smells of the concentrates — which are quite pleasant — permeate the building.

“By concentrating the flavors so intensely, you reduce shipping costs,” Ed says.

The industry landscape has changed dramatically in recent decades with far fewer bottlers than there once were. The flavor compounds produced by Grapette International are used in everything from sports drinks to snow cone mixes to margarita mixes. For competitive reasons, the company is sensitive about revealing the private label flavors it produces. It’s not a large operation from an employee standpoint. There are only about 15 full-time employees, most of whom have been with the company for a number of years.

The company’s conference room is a bit of a Grapette museum. Visitors immediately are offered a cold Grapette. In a case, there’s a 1945 six-ounce Grapette bottle that has never been opened.

On the company’s website, there’s a “memory lane” section so people can write about their memories of drinking Grapette. A Grapette advertising campaign in Central America uses the tagline “the memories that make you smile.”

Nostalgia is important.

“There often are emotions associated with soft drinks,” Ed says. “It’s something fun, something different. Grapette is special to people because that name disappeared for almost a generation in this country. A lot of gratitude goes to Walmart. They are largely responsible for bringing it back.”

Sam Walton had said in the meeting with Brooks Rice: “I want Grapette in my stores.”

The name Grapette wasn’t in the stores until after Walton’s death in 1992. But company executives remembered the founder’s wishes.

The current flavor is a little less sweet and has a higher carbonation level than the original. The government has also restricted one of the ingredients that originally made the drink’s color so rich.

“The beauty of Grapette is that it affected so many of the senses,” David says. “It was bright. It was sweet. It had a great grape taste.”

Dozens and dozens of flavors now come out of the Malvern plant.

“We do everything from dill pickle to blueberry flavors,” Paul says. “We do flavors that are spicy and specific to the Latin-American market. We do flavors that are bitter with vinegar and specific to the Asian market. We ship worldwide.”

He notes that the company’s first shipment to the Netherlands occurred several days before my visit.

“There aren’t a bunch of moving parts here,” David says. “If somebody mentions the Grapette International headquarters, people probably expect a huge bottling operation. That’s just not what we do.”

Instead, there are labs where the company continually experiments with new flavors and colors.

“We work on new products and types of packaging for those products,” Ed says. “We’re even into frozen yogurt flavors and yogurt delivery systems. Our strength is our large flavor portfolio.”

An example of the innovation that goes on at Grapette International is a line of sugar-free frozen pops that can be used by athletes and industrial employees to hydrate rather than having to consume more traditional electrolyte drinks.

“Kids on youth sports teams like them, and their parents like them,” Paul says.

Another growth area is a line of frozen slush drinks that are sold in convenience stores. Convenience store owners like the drinks because they attract consumers into the store after they have paid for gas at the pump.

The three partners are astute businessmen. Ed and Paul once worked in the financial industry. Ed is a graduate of the University of Arkansas, Paul is a graduate of Hendrix College at Conway and David is a graduate of Rhodes College at Memphis.

Paul says: “We’re nimble, and we’re innovative. We don’t necessarily know what the next big thing is, but we’ll be ready to respond. We also have really smart people working here. They believe in what we’re doing. Several of them were chemistry majors in college.”

“In a good family company, you have a higher level of trust,” Ed says. “And this is a good family company. We have a very low employee turnover rate.”

It all goes back to Benjamin Tyndle Fooks, who decided decades ago that he had developed a grape soda that tasted the way a grape soda should taste.

Thanks to a helping hand from Walmart, consumers across the country are still enjoying the taste of Grapette.

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Presqu’ile: Almost an island

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Presqu’ile is a Creole word meaning “almost an island.”

For decades, it was the name of a gathering spot for the Murphy family of El Dorado at Henderson’s Point on the Mississippi Gulf Coast near Pass Christian.

Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005 and wiped Henderson’s Point clean.

In honor of that part of their family heritage, the Murphy family named a winery in the Santa Maria Valley of California after the Gulf Coast compound.

Many of those who attend the Nov. 21 Arkansas food and wine gala at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock will be sampling Presqu’ile wines for the first time. The event will raise money for the new Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Tickets are $125 each. Those desiring more information should call (501) 661-9911 or email morris.leslie@sbcglobal.net.

A bit of background on the Murphy family and Henderson’s Point is in order.

First, the Murphy family.

Charles Murphy Sr. already had extensive timber and banking interests in south Arkansas when oil was discovered in 1907 in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport.

“Murphy decided that his timber company should purchase land on a scattered, noncontiguous pattern to provide more exposure to any oil development,” John Ragsdale wrote in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy had oil royalty interests in it. He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area. In 1936, Phillips Petroleum discovered a small oil field at Snow Hill in Ouachita County, but the area’s extent was limited. Murphy preferred to spread drilling and production risks. He did not have an extensive operating company but rather owned interests in different operations.

“In 1937, an abandoned Phillips Petroleum well in western Union County, where some Murphy acreage was located, was re-entered by the Lion Oil Refining Co., which discovered deeper multiple zones between 5,000 and 8,000 feet below the surface in the Shuler Field. This included the Smackover limestone, which led to development of fields in the Smackover limestone throughout south Arkansas. Then, in 1944, Murphy land was included in the development of Louisiana’s Delhi Field, a major oil producer. This was the largest field for Murphy.”

Charles Murphy Sr. had moved to El Dorado in 1904 to operate a bank. By 1907, he owned 13 banks. He built a sawmill at Cargile in Union County and later established a railroad to supply the mill with timber from north Louisiana and south Arkansas.

Charles Murphy Jr. took over the family businesses in 1941 at the age of just 21 after his father suffered a stroke. Murphy Jr. had attended Gulf Coast Military Academy at Gulfport, Miss., at age 16 and had learned to love yachting. Much later in life, he would write two books on the sport, “Yachting Smart” and “Yachting Far.” He received expert tutoring, especially in French. Murphy Jr. graduated from El Dorado High School in 1938 and got married in October of that year.

Murphy Jr. spent three years in the Army during World War II. In 1946, he and his three sisters — Caroline Keller, Bertie Deming and Theodosia Nolan — pooled their interests to form C.H. Murphy & Co. In 1950, that company was transformed into the Murphy Corp., with Murphy Jr. as its president. He would serve as president until 1972 and as chairman of the board until 1994.

Murphy Corp., which had gone public in 1956, became Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964. The first foreign exploration for the company occurred in Venezuela in 1957. That was followed by production in Iran in 1966, the North Sea and Libya in 1969, Spain in 1979, Ecuador in 1987 and the Gulf of Mexico in 1988. Deltic Farm & Timber Co. was spun off from Murphy Oil Corp. in 1996 to form Deltic Timber Corp. Deltic is the developer of the Chenal neighborhood in west Little Rock and has timber holdings in Arkansas and Louisiana. Earlier this year, the Murphy USA subsidiary was spun off to form a company that focuses on retail sales, primarily at stores associated with Walmart.

Murphy Jr., an erudite man, served on the state Board of Higher Education and on the boards of Hendrix College at Conway and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.. He established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans. He died at his home in El Dorado in March 2002.

Murphy Jr.’s son Madison would go on to become chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission.

Next, Pass Christian and Henderson’s Point.

Henderson’s Point on the Gulf Coast was named for John Henderson Sr., a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1839-45. Along with several partners, Henderson acquired 15,000 acres and developed the coastal community of Pass Christian. He died in 1857. In 1903, descendants of Henderson formed the Mexican Gulf Land Co. to promote Henderson’s Point as a planned community. It was advertised to wealthy New Orleans residents as the only remaining undeveloped tract between New Orleans and Mobile with easy access to rail transportation. There would be parks, big lots and a streetcar line to Gulfport and Biloxi. Located at the western tip of the Pass Christian peninsula, Henderson’s Point had homeowners who were known for fighting annexation to Pass Christian, and the area thus remained unincorporated.

U.S. Highway 90 west of Pass Christian now separates Henderson Point from the Pass Christian Iles, a 1,400-acre development that began in 1926. Seven miles of canals and lagoons were dug while the marsh areas were filled with the dredged material. The Isles are totally residential while Henderson’s Point has a small commercial district.

The Murphy family compound consisted of 14 acres that stretched in the shape of an isthmus.

The family bought almost 200 acres in California in 2007 to establish the Presqu’ile Winery. The first estate grapes were planted in 2008. A San Francisco architectural firm was hired to design the winery and tasting room, which are connected by a cave that was built into a hillside.

“That the Murphy family’s new Santa Maria property is shaped a lot like an isthmus smacks of serendipity,” Gabe Saglie wrote last year in the Santa Barbara News-Press. “‘We were looking for a great piece of pinot noir-growing land with a little bit of soul,’ says vinter Matt Murphy with a distinct Southern inflection. His family find off East Clark Avenue in 2007, which came after a year’s worth of hunting through pinot hot spots like Carneros and Lompoc’s Santa Rita Hills, fit the bill for clear viticultural reasons. The plot’s pervasive sand-like soil drains extremely well, and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean (the Murphy’s property is the second western-most vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley) creates ideal maritime growing conditions.”

Matt Murphy, the son of Madison and Suzanne Murphy of El Dorado, says of the Mississippi compound: “It was home to us. And it will never be the same.”

The family compound in Mississippi was given its name by Charles Murphy Jr., who loved to use his French. It’s pronounced “press-keel” with the emphasis on the second syllable.

“Presqu’ile is led by president Matt Murphy, and features his wife, Amanda; his brother, Jonathan, and his wife, Lindsey; his sister Anna; and their parents, who still reside in Arkansas,” Laurie Jervis wrote in the Santa Maria Times. “Matt Murphy and winemaker Dieter Cronje, a native of South Africa, lead the winemaking and are vocal believers in the potential of the Santa Maria Valley to lead the West Coast in terroir-driven wines.”

The new tasting room opened in June.

In addition to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and now the California Pacific Coast, the Murphy family long has had close ties to New Orleans.

“New Orleans is, in essence, our second home,” Madison Murphy said recently. “This place is special to us.”

So it’s natural that the Murphy family — and its winery — is playing a leading role in the Nov. 21 Little Rock event to fund an Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Matt Murphy moved to California to learn the wine business.

“During the wine grape harvest of 2006, Matt found himself working at Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country,” Saglie wrote. “He’d already spent previous vintages in Napa, learning the business of growing grapes and selling wine. This was the year he’d get to know an increasingly renowned region called Santa Maria.

“The 2006 harvest had also brought Dieter Cronje to Bien Nacido. He’d already been trying his hand at winemaking for four years in his native South Africa and had developed a zeal for pinot noir. ‘I love to make it because it’s tough to make,’ he says with a Southern accent of a totally different kind. To stretch his wings, ‘it was either Burgundy or the United States for me, and since I knew my lack of French would make Burgundy tough, I came to the United States,’ he says with a laugh. The weather helped set his sights on Central California instead of Oregon.

“When Matt and Dieter met at the height of the grape-picking season, the unlikely duo quickly realized they shared a passion. And not just for pinot noir. The two will tell you they are fiercely focused on making wines that are balanced, not just big.”

The land purchased by the Murphy family in 2007 previously was being used to grow gladiolas.

Saglie wrote: “The promise for growing great grapes was palpable. And the fact it looked a heck of a lot like an isthmus was good fortune at least. They named their new property, for purely sentimental reasons, Presqu’ile.”

Matt and Amanda built a home on the property.

“Presqu’ile’s new, state-of-the-art winery and hospitality building — connected by a unique cave system — and the nearby residences could easily grace the pages of Architectural Digest,” Wendy Thies Sell wrote in the Santa Maria Sun. “The award-winning, San Francisco-based architectural firm Taylor Lombardo Architects designed the project. The design aesthetic is contemporary, sleek and elegant, incorporating stone, wood, concrete, glass and metal. Interesting modern art adorns the walls. They paid attention to every detail — just as Presqu’ile does in winemaking. Many of the building materials are sustainable and sourced from the West Coast. The sandstone used for the exterior and interior of the winery complex were harvested from a quarry in Lompoc. A local artisan labored for seven months hand-cutting and laying each stone.”

The newspaper describe Cronje as “a wine rock star — literally. Cronje not only handcrafts vibrant, complex wines, but he actually has a rock band, The Tepusquet Tornadoes, made up of wine industry friends.”

“We really do want it to be an easy rapport and a place where people can interact,” Madison Murphy said of the winery. “As they say on the Gulf Coast, ‘pass a good time.”’

From the pine woods and the oil patch of south Arkansas and north Louisiana to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to New Orleans and now to the Pacific Coast, the Murphy family of El Dorado has made its mark.

It all comes together on the evening of Nov. 21 at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.

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