Archive for August, 2009

Room with a river view

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

The River Inn on Mud Island at Memphis opened in October 2007. I stayed there for the first time Saturday night — it was Melissa’s birthday, but I won’t dare tell you how many — and the experience was a good one.

The River Inn is a boutique hotel with only 28 rooms and suites. That means it’s quiet, and it also means that there is a lot of personal service provided by the staff.

We arrived Saturday in time for lunch at Tug’s, the less formal of the two restaurants at the River Inn. I was worried at first when it took forever for the drinks to arrive and when the entrees appeared before the appetizer. But the fried oysters were some of the best I’ve had north of New Orleans, and a gumbo of shrimp, crawfish tails and sausage was also good. Tug’s is open from 11 a.m. until midnight Monday through Friday. The restaurant opens at 8 a.m. for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays. Bottom line — good food, nice atmosphere, service could stand some improvement.

Dinner was at Currents, the fine dining restaurant adjacent to the River Inn lobby. The three-course meal for $29 is a steal for a restaurant of this quality. Breakfast at Currents, which was also a treat, is included in the price of the room. I have no complaints about Currents. I even agreed with my waiter about how nice it is that Memphis Mayor Herenton has resigned.

There’s also a rooftop terrace with a great view of the Mississippi River. Though it’s a bit hot to be outside in August, we still sat up there for almost 30 minutes Saturday night, looking west toward Arkansas and the setting sun. The window of our third-floor room also looked out onto the river and the adjacent, well-manicured Riverwalk.

While the hotel rates are not cheap, it’s a great choice for Arkansas couples searching for a close spot to get away. Champagne is served upon arrival, and the turn-down service includes chocolate truffles and port (though it would be nice at this price if they actually turned down the bed, replaced some towels and toiletries, turned the radio on low, laid out a robe, etc. like a Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons).

It’s so quiet that you don’t realize you’re in the city. There’s almost the feel of a country inn, though you’re on the edge of downtown.

The hotel and its restaurants were built by investors Henry Turley, Lewis Holland, Tom Scott and Joe Weller to complement the surrounding Harbor Town development. The Henry Turley Co., established in 1977, is behind some of the leading developments in Memphis.

Based on the New Urbanism concept of development — think Seaside with narrow streets, front porches and lots of joggers and bikers — Harbor Town is a collection of homes, townhouses, lofts and apartments on the northern end of Mud Island. If you look to your left while driving east into Memphis over the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, you’ll see it.

The Henry Turley Co. has also developed the Shrine Building in downtown Memphis, the Uptown Memphis mixed-housing development and the South Bluffs development. It has proposed redeveloping the Mid-South Fairgrounds now that the fair is leaving Memphis for Tunica.

Most Arkansans, familiar only with the Mud Island River Park portion of the island, don’t realize that Mud Island is home to more than 5,000 residents. Harbor Town has its own Montessori school, a health center and an upscale neighborhood grocery story and sandwich shop known as Miss Cordelia’s. Harbor Town has been a favorite home for past and present Memphis Grizzlies players and coaches.

Nature trails, walking trails, ponds and a marina all are part of the Harbor Town mix.

At breakfast Sunday morning, two couples were telling the waiter about the Journey concert the night before at the Mud Island Amphitheater.

“The concert was great,” the man, who appeared to be in his mid-40s, said. “But the park is falling apart.”

Like me, he probably remembers when the park was new in the early 1980s. One of the best outdoor concerts I ever attended — was it 1982? — was Al Jarreau on Mud Island on a perfect summer evening. What great Mud Island concert memories do you have?

I also remember how much I enjoyed the Mississippi River Museum when it was new. The last time I took my kids to the museum, almost half the attractions were closed or broken.

Unfortunately, like so much that is controlled by the city government of Memphis, the park was allowed to deteriorate. With a stagnant city government and an out-of-touch mayor, crime soared, development slowed and Memphis residents fled to places like Collierville, Southaven and Hernando.

As mentioned, the fair is leaving. The Pyramid sits empty. Downtown retail at Peabody Place was a failure. And the neighborhoods surrounding Graceland remain crime-ridden.

As someone who has always enjoyed spending time in Memphis, I hope the city can get its act together. With a new mayor on the way — thank goodness — there is at least hope. I’ll have more on that in a later post.

For now, Harbor Town and the River Inn offer a respite from the crime, neglect, decay and apathy that has been eating our neighbor to the east in recent years from the inside out. It’s worth the trip. And unless you want to, there’s really no need to go to other parts of town. You’re on the bridge and back in the promised land of Arkansas within a matter of minutes.

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Building Arkansas

Friday, August 7th, 2009

Wednesday was an inspiring day for me. That’s because I was surrounded by “builders” during a day spent on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas at Conway.

I’m not talking literally about homebuilders or construction workers. I’m talking about people concerned with building the Arkansas economy and improving the state’s per capita income.

In a world in which so many people spend so much time moaning, groaning, complaining and tearing things down, it’s always refreshing to spend time with those who want to build Arkansas.

The morning started in some of the classes that are part of UCA’s Community Development Institute Central. This program consists of a series of three one-week-long seminars that offer training in community and economic development. The program draws economic developers from Arkansas and other states.

Under the capable leadership of Kelly Lyon, UCA’s Center for Community and Economic Development serves as a key academic outreach program for the university. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, colleges and universities will play an even larger role than ever before in driving local, regional and state economies. UCA is certainly doing its part in that respect.

The day got even better because of the opportunity to have lunch with Phil Baldwin of Arkadelphia, the president and chief executive officer of Southern Bancorp, the nation’s largest rural development bank. Phil is one of our state’s most talented leaders. Under his direction, Southern Bancorp has helped spearhead countywide strategic development plans in Phillips County in east Arkansas and Clark County in southwest Arkansas.

The strategic plans and the teams of leaders those plans have created are transforming these two counties. The efforts already have generated more than $100 million in new investments in those counties and led to national recognition from the American Bankers Association and the Council on Foundations.

During the afternoon, the CDI participants joined business and civic leaders from across Faulkner County for that county’s version of the Arkansas Works Summit. Following a statewide summit, the governor’s office is trying to organize countywide summits across Arkansas. When it comes to the connection between education and economic development, I can assure you that Gov. Mike Beebe gets it.

As you would expect, the governor praised Conway for its amazing growth in recent years. But the Amagon native also reminded those in the audience of the need to lift communities up in all parts of the state.

“You are your brother’s keeper,” the governor said. “You are not an island.”

Gov. Beebe clearly understands the importance of the state’s two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Arkansas state government spent 16.3 percent of general revenue on colleges and universities in fiscal year 2008. Funding for higher education has increased steadily in the past couple of decades and is now on par with the national average for per capita spending on higher education.

We do a good job getting kids into college in this state. We just don’t do a very good job of keeping them there. For that reason, Arkansas still ranks 49th nationally in the percentage of adults with a college degree. It’s a ranking that must be changed if the state is ever to achieve its potential.

Gov. Beebe painted an optimistic picture, saying that Arkansas is poised to come out of the current recession in better shape than most states due to its lack of deficits at the state level and its recent economic successes in attracting businesses in the wind power industry, the information technology industry, the aviation industry and other sectors of the economy that could be poised for renewed growth once the recovery takes off.

In the words of Phil Baldwin: “If people tell you that change takes a lifetime, don’t believe them. If you’re doing the right things, you can effect change pretty quickly.”

The room at UCA on Wednesday afternoon clearly was filled with people who are doing “the right things.” May their numbers multiply.

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Plate lunch from paradise

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

I have been asking myself the same question all afternoon: “Why have I never been to BJ’s Market Cafe in North Little Rock prior to today?”

There’s nothing I like better than the traditional Southern meat-and-three lunch. And the one I had at BJ’s (they don’t use periods — i.e. B.J.’s — on their business cards, so I won’t use them here) was equal to anything I’ve had in Central Arkansas.

For me, it was fried pork chops with greens, squash and sliced tomatoes. All were excellent. Dining companion Bobby Tucker had the chicken and dumplings. That was my second choice. And dining companion Blake Eddins (didn’t he used to play basketball somewhere?) also had the pork chops.

No one had any complaints. And everyone had dessert. I had the egg custard pie, the piece de resistance that caused me to be sleepy all afternoon.

The place was packed. Other “vegetables” offered today included great northern beans, corn, fried potatoes, cole slaw, pasta salad and potato salad. You have to love living in a place where pasta salad is classified as a vegetable.

Desserts included coconut pie, chocolate pie, blackberry cobbler, the aforementioned egg custard pie, strawberry pie, pecan pie, lemon meringue pie, lemon icebox pie and strawberry cake.

If you don’t order the plate lunch (and I don’t know why you wouldn’t), the menu offers a chicken fried steak, fried pork chops, chicken tenders, a hamburger steak, a ham steak, a catfish fillet dinner and a jumbo shrimp dinner. The sandwich menu ranges from hamburgers to open-faced roast beef sandwiches.

The breakfast menu includes three types of omelets, ham and eggs, salt meat and eggs (you won’t find that everywhere), pork chops and eggs and something called The Texan. It consists of a ribeye steak, two eggs, home fries and biscuits or toast.

By the way, there is not even a listing in my dictionary for salt meat. Yankees!

You also have to love a place where an order of “biscuits and gravy with ham or salt meat” is listed under “Lighter Fare.” Only in the South would that be considered light.

There’s a great mix of people, from the “suits” who drive over from downtown Little Rock to the blue-collar crowd. You might refer to it as Homer’s North. The restaurant opens at 6 a.m. and closes from 3 p.m.

To get there, take the Prothro Junction exit off Interstate 40 and head north on Arkansas Highway 161. Look for the BJ’s sign on your left about half a mile up the road. Turn left off Highway 161 onto Market Plaza at the farmers’ market. You’ll see the cars if it’s near noon.

Please send along other suggestions for best meat-and-three lunches in Arkansas. It took me far too long to find BJ’s.

A final tip: If you get there at a time when you have your choice of tables, be sure to request a table that will ensure Whitney is your waitress.

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Shoot, Don, shoot

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

I mentioned in the previous post a weekend that was spent in Newton County.

Fortunately, I get to visit beautiful Newton County several times each week without having to leave Little Rock. That’s because I’m on the e-mail list of Don Nelms. Arkansas is blessed with some fine photographers, and Don now has to rank near the top of that list.

I’m inspired by his story. I first got to know Don when I was a newspaperman covering Arkansas politics. Don always has been heavily involved in Democratic politics. Earlier this year, in fact, he left his lovely mountain home to come down from the hills to Little Rock so he could help Gov. Mike Beebe with the legislative session.

Don owned and operated some of the leading automobile dealerships in Northwest Arkansas for 32 years. He was there for the boom in the region, and his businesses boomed right along with Northwest Arkansas. In 2001, Don sold his dealerships to the Penske Auto Group. These days, he’s probably glad he’s no longer an automobile dealer.

Rather than hang around Northwest Arkansas, count his money and become a regular on the charity ball circuit, Don and his wife Millie chose to check out of the rat race and move to a sparsely populated county. That’s part of what fascinates me about his story. He said so long to one of the country’s fastest-growing areas, left behind a frenzied business pace and didn’t look back.

Instead, he went to the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks and began taking photographs — thousands and thousands of photographs. Photography became his passion. With each passing month, Don became better at his craft. Each year, he selects several hundred of the best photographs and prints them on canvas. They are framed without glass and shown at the Nelms Gallery.

You don’t just stumble across the Nelms Gallery, mind you. You have to be going there. The gallery is located atop Mount Sherman, four miles west of Jasper on Arkansas Highway 74. There’s a sign on the road. The grounds have more than four miles of walking trails. There also are ponds and picnic areas. There’s a porch on the outside of the gallery for sitting and rocking.

I can promise you it’s worth the trip. The gallery is open each Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. I suspect they also would open by special appointment if you were really serious about buying. You can check out the website at www.nelmsgallery.com.

Don, 63, was born in Paris, Texas, a town I know best as the place where Coach Gene Stallings lives. Don graduated from what was then East Texas State at Commerce and worked for GM for three years before moving to Fayetteville.

His gallery atop Mount Sherman held its grand opening in March 2008. The 4,000-square-foot home that was converted into the gallery has a contemporary feel inside.

Don told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “From the beginning, this has been about showing people the tremendous asset that the Buffalo River region is and to communicate that to as many people as possible. In this gallery, they’ll get a glimpse of what they could see if they spent time to go look for it. I’ve found a lot of places that the average person would never have a chance to go.”

Don Nelms, the self-taught photographer of the Ozarks, followed his heart. If he never sold another photograph, I sense that he would still be happy.

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An Ozarks weekend

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Notes from a weekend spent in a remote part of the Arkansas Ozarks:

1. The hamburgers at C.J.’s Butcher Boy Burgers on Arkansas Highway 7 in Russellville are as good as advertised. Feltner’s Whatta-Burger still has tradition on its side and is convenient for Arkansas Tech football games. But C.J.’s deserves all of the praise it has received. It was good to see Van and Ginnie Tyson having dinner there on Friday night. Van and Ginnie publish The Atkins Chronicle, which has been around since 1894, and The Dover Times. They represent the kind of good people who run weekly papers across this still largely rural state.

2. Heading up Highway 7, you wonder why some entrepreneur has not tried to resurrect the Booger Hollow Trading Post. It seems the Arkansas Ozarks needs a Booger Hollow. And it would be much cheaper to resurrect than Dogpatch USA and Marble Falls. How could you have thought that a snow skiing resort would make money in Arkansas?

3. On my list of favorite downtowns in Arkansas — Jasper. There’s a nice crowd downtown on this Friday night, eating the specials at the Ozark Cafe and the free-range elk, buffalo and beef at the Boardwalk Cafe. In need of renovation — the Buffalo Theater. How neat would it be to be able to watch a movie again after dinner in downtown Jasper?

4. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has done a first-class job with both the Ponca Elk Education Center on Arkansas Highway 43 in Ponca and the Hilary Jones Wildlife Museum and Elk Information Center on Highway 7 in Jasper. These are examples of how Amendment 75 of 1996 — the one-eighth of a cent sales tax — is being used as a tool to preserve and promote this state. Forty-five percent of the proceeds of that tax go to the Game and Fish Commission. Another 45 percent of the money raised goes to the state Department of Parks and Tourism for capital improvements to Arkansas’ 52 state parks. In 13 years, we’ve gone from a system in which parks were falling apart to one of the five best state parks systems in the country. Nine percent of the proceeds go to the Arkansas Department of Heritage which, among other things, operates the Delta Cultural Center at Helena-West Helena, the Old State House at Little Rock, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center at Little Rock and the Historic Arkansas Museum at Little Rock. One percent of the proceeds go to the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.

5. Also on my list of favorite downtowns — Kingston. The old Bank of Kingston building is a jewel. And the cafe next door has doughnuts to die for and the prettiest waitress in the Ozarks.

6. On my list of favorite buildings — the old Stamps General Store building at Osage in Carroll County. Built in 1901, the building is now home to the Osage Clayworks, which offers fine handmade pottery. On a rainy Saturday morning with mist covering the tops of the mountains, this building looked like something out of a movie. It’s an Arkansas treasure.

7. Our ramblings on Saturday led to us crossing several fine smallmouth bass streams — the Buffalo River, the Little Buffalo River, the Kings River, Osage Creek. Crappie is my favorite Arkansas fish to eat. But I think I’m ready to declare that my favorite kind of fishing is for stream smallmouths on light tackle out of a canoe or while wading. It’s takes a lot more effort than roaring across one of the state’s massive U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments in a bass boat, but the rewards are immense.

8. Yet another favorite building — the rock structure that houses the general store at Parthenon on Arkansas Highway 327 in Newton County. As the only customer on a Saturday afternoon, I felt obligated to buy something. And I did — $13 worth of Ozarks honey. Long may this store remain in business.

9. There are few things better to eat in summer than vegetables fresh from an Arkansas garden. We stopped late Saturday afternoon by the home of L.C. Matlock on Mount Sherman in Newton County. L.C. was busy tying up a dog that had tangled with a skunk, especially since Mrs. Matlock was complaining about the smell the dog had left on the porch. This wetter-than-normal summer has left L.C. with a bumper crop in his garden. We buy tomatoes, cucumbers and okra. The Saturday night meal, with pork tenderloin as the main course, is cooked by that noted North Little Rock cook, Bubba Lloyd. The pork, tomatoes and cucumbers are rounded out with squash and green beans from another local garden. It’s a meal to remember.

10. Rather than returning on Highway 7, we cut over and return on U.S. Highway 65 just so we can stop at my favorite bakery, Serenity Farm Bread at Leslie in Searcy County. With loaves of bread in hand, the weekend is complete.

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