Archive for May, 2012

Camden on the Ouachita

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Mayor Chris Claybaker drives his car slowly along the railroad tracks in downtown Camden on a Tuesday afternoon and invites me to take in the view below.

The Ouachita River, the river along which I was raised (upstream at Arkadelphia), shimmers in the late afternoon sun.

On a small sandbar on the other side of the river, several people have put a beach umbrella in the sand and are enjoying the low humidity.

A boat cruises down the middle of the river.

At the ramp, a man backs his boat into the river in order to get in a couple of hours of fishing before dark.

It’s almost as if the Camden Advertising & Promotion Commission set this up as a postcard shot on a late spring day.

Claybaker, who has been Camden’s mayor since 1995, talks about one of his dreams.

“I’ve long had a vision of somebody opening a restaurant on this site,” he says. “Imagine sitting on the back deck and listening to live music on a day like this.”

For now, that part of the mayor’s vision remains far from reality. But so much already has been accomplished along the river. This Friday night, a series of outdoor movies at the Camden Riverwalk amphitheater will commence. The movies, which are free, will begin at dusk. A film will be shown on a big screen each Friday evening for nine consecutive weeks through the end of July.

Several hundred people have shown up in past years for the Friday night free movies when the weather is good.

Sandy Beach Park along the Ouachita River was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s, but the city failed to maintain the park properly.

“It wasn’t a place you wanted to spend time when I became mayor,” Claybaker says on our drive through the park.

He saw to it that city employees cleaned up the property and kept it clean. On this day, people are having picnics in a park that once was a haven for drug sales. Through the years, the mayor has worked to obtain grants from organizations ranging from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to the Ouachita River Commission to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission to continue the riverfront development downtown. There are now docks on the river, retaining walls, a boardwalk, the amphitheater and even an artifical waterfall.

“When I became mayor, you couldn’t even see the river from most of this area,” Claybaker says. “It was all grown up with weeds and vines. We cleaned that out.”

Steamboats plied the Ouachita from 1819-1910, making Camden an important town.

The Vicksburg District of the Corps of Engineers states on its website: “The river commerce was a great force with activity from November to July. It was noted that during high water the steamboats traveled from Monroe to Arkadelphia. When the steamboats approached towns, the captain would blast the horn and the townspeople would stop all activity to run and greet the ships.”

The Ouachita River originates in the Ouachita Mountains of Polk County and flows south for 510 miles. Near Jonesville, La., it converges with the Tensas and Little rivers to form the Black River. The Black River, in turn, meets the Red River about 41 miles south of Jonesville. Another 28 miles downstream from there, the Red River joins the Atchafalaya River.

What’s now known as the Ouachita-Black River Navigation Project began in 1902, making the Ouachita navigable from Camden to Jonesville. Construction on a system of six locks and dams was completed in 1924. There are now four locks and dams in the system.

The northernmost lock and dam is the H.K. Thatcher northeast of El Dorado. That dam produces a navigable waterway 52 river miles north to Camden. It’s named after H.K. “Big Daddy” Thatcher, who spent a lifetime promoting the Ouachita River and whose contributions are recognized with a plaque at the Camden riverfront.

“During the 1850s, Camden served as the supply center for several counties and was the mercantile center for a radius of 100 miles,” Daniel Milam writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “During this time, as many as 40,000 bales of cotton were shipped from its wharfs in a single year. As a steamboat river port, Camden had the accommodations and transportation to service the planter provisioning trade to New Orleans. By 1860, with a population of more than 2,000, Camden had newspapers, churches, schools, merchants, lawyers and manufacturers.”

Union Gen. Frederick Steele occupied Camden during the Red River Campaign of 1864. After losses at Poison Spring and Marks’ Mills, Steele and his troops headed back to Little Rock.

“After the Civil War, cotton production remained important to Camden,” Milam writes. “Much of it was accomplished by sharecropping. Steamboats continued to navigate the river, but railroads were coming. In the 1880s, the Iron Mountain and Cotton Belt were opened, and in the early 1900s, the Rock Island connection was completed.

“Trains opened up markets for Ouachita County’s pine and hardwood forests. Though they were challenged by the railroads, the steamboats continued to service Camden until the 1930s.”

Even as river transportation declined, Camden thrived. There were three major reasons for this.

First, as mentioned, Camden became a railroad center.

Second, oil was discovered at Stephens in Ouachita County in the 1920s.

Third, International Paper Co. built a huge mill at Camden in the late 1920s.

There was other industry.

Camark Pottery operated from 1926 until 1984, its brand known across the country.

Benjamin Tyndle Fooks developed a new grape soda known as Grapette at his Camden bottling plant, which he had purchased in the 1920s, and the brand thrived.

The population of Camden exploded, going from 3,238 in the 1920 census to 15,823 in the 1960 census. Those four decades were the glory years.

The Camden Army Air Field operated from 1942-44. The Shumaker Naval Depot also was established during World War II. It closed in the late 1950s, but the location was transformed into the Highland Industrial Park.

Like much of south Arkansas, Camden has suffered economically in recent decades. The population dropped from 15,147 in the 1970 census to 12,183 in the 2010 census. 

Responding to a declining population, the Camden and Fairview school districts consolidated in the 1990s. IP closed its mill a little more than a decade ago. It was a blow that, in many ways, continues to affect Camden to this day. The mill had been a mainstay of the local economy from the year it opened in 1927 until its closure in January 2001.

A March 2001 Associated Press article began this way: “For 73 years, the stacks at International Paper Co.’s mill belched gray, sour steam day and night over the pine woods of south Arkansas. On summer afternoons, the plumes sullied laundry hanging outside. On winter mornings, they guided deer hunters downwind of their quarry. In any season, townspeople knew the answer to the question ‘paper or plastic?’ But IP closed the paper-bag plant in January, leaving 580 workers without a way to support families long dependent on company paychecks. The employee union urged IP to sell to another papermaker, but the company refused to put it into a competitor’s hands while the market is down. Now, with the hulking plant sitting silent, this town of 15,000 is dealing with its pain and trying to figure out how to remake itself economically.”

Camden has done some things right in the past decade. Not only is there the development of the riverfront as an attractive gathering spot, there seems to be a renewed interest in the city’s downtown.

Emily Jordan-Robertson, who founded Jordan Construction Co. in 1999, has poured vast amounts of energy and capital into restoring downtown buildings for retail and even residential use. Her most exciting project to date is the renovation of the city’s old post office.

Completed in 1896, the building is a classic example of the Richardson Romanesque style of design. The cost of construction was $39,000 at the time.

The building, once scheduled for demolition, was saved by Jordan-Robertson, who then embarked on an 18-month renovation project. It’s now the Postmasters Grill, bringing people from across south Arkansas to Camden for dinner and occasional live music on the patio.

Unlike the downtowns of so many other Arkansas cities, there’s plenty of activity now in downtown Camden after dark.

In addition to the Postmasters Grill, Allen’s Restaurant on Washington Street and What’s Cookin’ on Adams Street bring people downtown for dinner. Head just a bit farther down Adams Street and you can have dinner at either the famed White House Cafe (among the oldest restaurants in the state) or the Sandbar.

Farther out on Washington Street, James Woods continues to serve some of the best fried catfish in the South at Woods Place. He also caters special events at the River Woods, the shaded facility on the banks of the Ouachita that was once the IP Supervisor’s Club. It’s one of those “if only these walls could talk” buildings that has served as an entertainment location for decades.

Camden has a surprising number of good, locally owned restaurants for a city its size.

Another major project during Claybaker’s years as mayor was to clean out the portion of Adams Street once referred to by locals as The Front. Back when I would go to Camden to either play in or broadcast football games on the radio from old Coleman Stadium, The Front was an expanse of liquor stores and beer joints where drug sales and prostitution were common.

While cleaning up The Front and seeking to capitalize on its riverfront and revitalize its downtown, Camden continues to celebrate its history.

Along the Clifton-Greening Street Historic District, visitors can pass by the Greening House, the John Hobson Parker House, the Ramsey-McClellan House, the Richie-Crawford House (built in 1909 for wealthy businessman Walter Richie and later owned by the ill-fated Maud Crawford) and the Cleveland Avenue School.

Along the Washington Street Historic District, visitors can see the Godwin-Powell-May-Dietrich House (built in 1859), the Umsted House, the Marino Home, the Jordan-Shankle Home, the Graham-Gaughan-Betts Home, the Elliott-Meek-Nunnally Home and the McCollum-Chidester House Museum.

The McCollum-Chidester House, built in 1847 and used for five days by Gen. Steele as his headquarters during the Civil War, is open daily and operated by the Ouachita County Historical Society.

The Umsted House, built in 1923 by Sid Umstead, who prospered following the discovery of oil in south Arkansas, now operates as a bed-and-breakfast inn.

Later this summer, Claybaker will take over as president of the Arkansas Municipal League. He will be able to point to things going on in Camden — renewing a downtown, playing to your strengths (in this case a beautiful river), capitalizing on history — as ways to fight the opposing economic forces as the timber industry continues to suffer in south Arkansas.

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Civil War Helena

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

On a warm, humid Friday afternoon, Cathy Cunningham of Southern Bancorp in Helena gazed at the replica of Fort Curtis like a proud grandparent staring at a newborn child.

A week earlier, about 400 people had turned out for the dedication of the replica at York and Columbia streets.

At a time when heritage tourism continues to grow, Helena is doing more than any other Arkansas city to celebrate its Civil War history.

Of course, Helena played a much larger role in the war than most places in Arkansas. It was the home of seven Confederate generals, the site of a July 4, 1863, effort by the Confederates to return the city to Southern control and the place where thousands of former slaves came for refuge.

Among the speakers at this month’s dedication ceremony was U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, whose great-grandfather Abraham H. Miller was born a slave and came to Helena during the Civil War.

The completion of the Union fort replica represents a milestone for a project that began in 2005 when a strategic development plan for Phillips County was released following 18 months of meetings that involved hundreds of people. Developing a viable tourism industry in this part of the Delta emerged as a suggested means to foster economic development. It would be a new approach in a region that has been wracked by years of outmigration.

The county’s Civil War heritage was identified as one of its most significant resources.

In 2008, a downtown master plan echoed the findings of the 2005 countywide strategic plan. It called for the reconstruction of Fort Curtis, the redevelopment of Estevan Hall and a series of interpretive panels at Union batteries on Crowley’s Ridge and elsewhere across the city.

These Civil War interpretive efforts became part of the Delta Bridge project. Southern Bancorp, an Arkadelphia-based rural development banking company, has owned a bank in Helena since 1999. Working with the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, Southern Bancorp officials decided in 2003 to initiate a comprehensive effort to turn around a county that has lost half its population in the past half century.

The Delta Bridge project was born.

The 2005 strategic plan had 46 major goals and more than 200 suggested action steps. Recent Delta Bridge activity includes everything from the completion of the Fort Curtis replica to improvements to the downtown farmers market.

The block-long reproduction of Fort Curtis is the largest of its kind in the region. The interpretive panels educate visitors about the city’s occupation by Union troops from July 1862 until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Just down Biscoe Street, work is going on at the future home of Freedom Park, the first National Park Service-recognized “Underground Railroad Network to Freedom” site in the state. Freedom Park, having replaced eyesores that previously scarred the main route into historic downtown Helena, will have interpretive panels and extensive landscaping. Visitors will learn about the African-American impact on the area during the Civil War.

Work is also under way along Biscoe Street on transforming Estevan Hall into a visitors’ center. Also known as the Hanks homestead, the first part of this Southern mansion was constructed in the 1820s. The house was occupied for decades by members of the Hanks family.

Estevan Hall was the site of the marriage of Helen Keller’s grandparents — Charles Adams and Lucy Helen Everett – on Sept. 29, 1845. Alterations to the home in the 1870s were influenced by the New Orleans style. The house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. Southern Bancorp partnered with the Civil War Preservation Trust to purchase the home.

There are other exciting developments along the Biscoe Street corridor.

At the foot of the Helena Bridge, the site that was once a Holiday Inn (later becoming an increasingly rundown series of discount motels) has been cleared for a $3 million state welcome center.

A private developer is spending $5.6 million to renovate the old Helena High School building into 40 two-bedroom apartments for seniors.

Along the same street, the Chadwicks continue to make the Edwardian Inn the premier place to spend the night in this part of east Arkansas.

Interpretive markers eventually will be placed at 27 Helena sites. You can already access a first-class website at www.civilwarhelena.com.

In 2008, Southern Bancorp joined forces with the Delta Cultural Center and the Helena-West Helena Advertising & Promotion Commission to hire Joseph and Maria Brent from a Versailles, Ky., company known as Mudpuppy & Waterdog Inc. Their charge was to identify Helena’s Civil War resources and develop a plan to capitalize on those resources.

“Before the war, Helena was a prosperous county seat town, a port and the center of commerce for a very wealthy county,” the Brents wrote. “There was a well-defined social order. People’s lives had a rhythm, a pattern. The Union occupation of Helena ripped that pattern apart. Nothing was as it had been.

“Civil War Helena was a city transformed, a city in turmoil. The people of Helena lived in an occupied city under martial law. Union soldiers found themselves in a foreign and hostile environment. Fugitive slaves risked everything for a chance of freedom.”

In addition to Estevan Hall, other existing sites of interest to visitors include Batteries A and D, the Tappan-Pillow House, Magnolia Cemetery, Maple Hill Cemetery and Confederate Cemetery.

There also will be panels at places that were lost such as the Gen. Thomas Hindman home.

Some exhibits will interpret events such as Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s speech to the Yell Rifles and the Phillips Guards. Other panels will interpret policies such as the plantation lease system and the federal confiscation of civilian homes.

“No two locations will be interpreted in exactly the same way,” the Brents wrote. “Some exhibits will consist of a single freestanding wayside. Others will be enhanced with art, reproduction artifacts and architectural details. … Other locations will be interpreted with exhibits designed to evoke the emotions connected with a particular event or a place that no longer exists. All have the same objective — to make Helena’s complete Civil War history accessible, meaningful and relevant to the community and its visitors.”

The Brents listed these advantages and opportunities that can be found in Helena:

– Delta Bridge initiatives have a strong base of community support.

– The Civil War sesquicentennial will generate increased visitation to Civil War sites.

– Helena is well-positioned to benefit from statewide initiatives to promote the Civil War sesquicentennial

– There are opportunities to partner with other sites on the Vicksburg Campaign Trail.

– Estevan Hall provides a perfect venue to introduce visitors to Civil War Helena.

– Opportunities for community involvement in the success of the project are abundant.

– The Battle of Helena is eligible for American Battlefield Protection Program funds.

“There is overwhelming documentation of the economic benefits Civil War tourism is capable of generating for a community,” the Brents wrote. “The challenge then is to develop and interpret Helena’s Civil War resources — the places, people and events — in a way that delivers a meaningful visitor experience; an experience people will want to repeat and that they will recommend to their friends and increasingly to the world at large” through the Internet.

Helena is well on its way to providing that “meaningful visitor experience.”

The tourism portion of the county’s 2005 strategic plan included these goals:

– Convert the travel corridor from the Mississippi River Bridge to downtown Helena into a historic park/greenspace with Civil War cannons, historic markers and hiking trails.

– Redevelop downtown Helena (specifically Cherry and Walnut streets) to focus on their historical context and create a positive experience for tourists.

– Expand development efforts along the Mississippi River to take advantge of this natural resource.

– Create six major tourist events that occur on an annual basis and, in turn, promote business volume and traffic flow to Phillips County.

– Develop countywide tourism through creation and promotion of available scenic and recreational activities.

It is hoped that eventually 20 percent of the 900,000 people who visit Vicksburg National Military Park each year will visit Helena. That would have at least a $9 million economic impact on the city.

The Brents noted that Helena can be reached easily from the Memphis, Little Rock and Jackson metropolitan areas.

“The primary target market for Civil War Helena is the Civil War traveler, a very specific subset of the cultural heritage traveler,” they wrote. “A preserved Civil War site is an asset to the surrounding area; preserved and interpreted it can be an asset to the business community. Civil War travelers are willing to pay in time and money to visit sites they consider worthwhile. Their spending generates more jobs, higher incomes and more tax revenue for state and local governments.

“Civil War travelers are generally middle-aged, affluent and better educated than the national average. They have more leisure time and more disposable income than other vacationers. They spend more money and stay longer than the average leisure traveler. … Civil War travelers are very discriminating, often traveling to an area specifically to visit a Civil War site.”

The Brents noted that Civil War travelers already are aware of Helena because of Cleburne.

“Cleburne is a Civil War icon,” they wrote. “He is and will continue to be a draw, but visiting Cleburne’s grave will not keep people in town for long. The people interviewed were aware of the July 4, 1863, battle and were disappointed that there was not more to see in Helena.”

The folks in Helena are now providing something more to see. No wonder Cathy Cunningham and the many others involved in this effort are proud.

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Primary election 2012: Some day-after thoughts

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I’ve used it a lot through the years, but it remains one of my favorite quotes.

It was the day after the November general election in 1986. Frank White’s third campaign against Bill Clinton had proved a bust for the GOP with Clinton winning re-election easily.

White had used the colorful Louisiana native Darrell Glascock — the man who had helped Tommy Robinson get elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1984 — as his campaign manager. During that 1986 campaign, Glascock challenged Clinton to a drug test with White practically racing to give a sample first.

On the Wednesday after the election, the Arkansas Gazette sent a reporter to various campaign headquarters to write a story on what the day after is like for political types.

As he cleaned out his desk at White headquarters, Glascock was asked what his plans were.

He answered: “I bought a Cornish hen so I can have all of my friends over for dinner.”

For some on this day after the election, it’s Cornish hen time.

I’m glad I no longer work full time in politics. At my age, I find it much more pleasant to sit back, watch the action and comment, which is just what I did last night from 10 p.m. until 11 p.m. on KARK-TV, Channel 4.

Great job with the election coverage, guys. Channel 4 had reporters all over the state.

It was a long, busy day. I had done commentary on Channel 4′s morning show, arriving at 6:20 a.m. I had gone to Camden during the afternoon so I could host a dinner of business leaders and talk about our state’s fine private colleges and universities.

Driving back to Little Rock from Camden, I listened to election coverage on my car radio. First, I listened to the in-depth coverage from Patrick Thomas, Sandy Sanford and Mark Smith on KELD-FM out of El Dorado. Later, Grant Merrill and Jeremy Hutchinson kept me informed on KEWI-AM out of Benton.

Back to that dinner in Camden: On a picture-perfect night with the humidity low, we sat at the River Woods on the shady banks of the Ouachita River enjoying the feast that James Woods had prepared for us — fried catfish, chicken, grilled sea bass, grilled steaks, alligator sausage from New Orleans. River Woods is James’ private events center. If you ever have the chance to go to his Camden restaurant, Woods Place, do so.

These were well-read, intelligent people who are interested in current affairs. We talked about higher education as we enjoyed the feast. We talked about demographic changes in Arkansas. We talked about the economy. But, on primary election day, we talked very little about politics.

I grew up when we were still in the “tantamount to” era of Arkansas politics — winning the Democratic primary was tantamout to election since Republicans just weren’t much of a factor in our state.

As a boy with a deep, abiding interest in Arkansas politics, primary night was when I would beg my father to take me to the Clark County Courthouse to hear the chairman of the Democratic Party Central Committee read the box-by-box returns.

“Okolona Box A . . .”

“Amity Box B . . .”

It was intoxicating.

When not at the courthouse, I would be glued to Channel 7, watching Steve Barnes and my fellow Arkadelphian Jim Ranchino. KATV news director Jim Pitcock would plan for months in advance. Channel 7 would begin its blanket coverage around 7 p.m. and stay on the air until well past midnight.

These days, the Little Rock television stations generally wait until 10 p.m. for election coverage.

It’s not that Arkansans no longer care about politics.

It’s that the Democratic primary is no longer tantamount to election.

In fact, I’m beginning to think that in many areas, winning the Republican primary might soon be tantamount to election.

The changes during the past several years have been nothing short of breathtaking. We’re living history. As I wrote here on the morning after the November 2010 general election, we’re living in a true two-party Arkansas for the first time in any of our lifetimes.

In at least a dozen of the counties in the 4th Congressional District, more people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary.

We’re talking about the 4th Congressional District of Arkansas, for gosh sakes, once among the most reliable House districts in the country for Democrats.

Granted, population losses in south Arkansas through the decades have led to counties now being in the district far north and west of its traditional footprint in the piney woods.

Still, let’s go down to the heart of south Arkansas, where I spent much of the day Tuesday.

In Union County, 500 more people voted in the Republican primary than the Democratic primary. I’m not sure that has ever happened there.

Ouachita County – the place where Sen. John L. McClellan once practiced law and where Sen. David Pryor grew up — had 1,100 people vote in the Republican primary. There was a time — not so long ago — when no more than 50 people would have voted in a GOP primary in Ouachita County.

So let’s look ahead to November and then look even further ahead to 2014.

On the congressional side this November, Republican Reps. Steve Womack in the 3rd District and Tim Griffin in the 2nd District seem safe.

Some observers considered Republican Rick Crawford’s 2010 win in the 1st District – Crawford became the first Republican to represent the Delta in Congress since Reconstruction — a fluke. But there was little money raised and little enthusiasm generated by the three candidates in the Democratic primary. Now my old friend Clark Hall from Marvell and Scott Ellington from Jonesboro will beat up on each other for another three weeks in the Democratic runoff campaign while Crawford continues to raise money as only an incumbent can do.

Crawford is by no means out of the woods, but all the rating services in Washington now have that district rated as either leaning Republican or likely Republican.

Back down in the 4th District, Tom Cotton can continue to rake in funds while state Sen. Gene Jeffress and barrister Q. Byrum Hurst beat up on each other for another three weeks on the Democratic side. As was the case in the 1st District Democratic primary, there just didn’t seem to be much energy on the part of Democratic voters in the 4th District.

Regardless of who wins the Jeffress-Hurst race, Cotton will enter the fall campaign as the heavy favorite. He was impressive in winning his primary without a runoff against the organized, energetic Beth Anne Rankin of Magnolia.

A former Democratic legislator — who understands Arkansas and its people — told me yesterday that he thinks Cotton is the next rising star in Arkansas politics. He predicted that Cotton will serve one term in Congress and then be elected governor in 2014.

I do know this: There will be far more interest in the 2014 primaries than there were in the 2012 primaries.

For one thing, Sen. Mark Pryor is up for re-election. If I had to guess now, I would say that Griffin will win the GOP Senate nomination to challenge Pryor.

With no clear front-runner in the race for governor, I expect crowded primaries on either side.

On the Republican side, you could see Cotton, Womack, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, a business leader or two and maybe even an old warhorse like Asa Hutchinson or Jim Keet run for governor.

On the Democratic side, the attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, has in essence been running for governor since the day he was elected AG. Little Rock businessman John Burkhalter can put a bunch of his own money into the race. Surely there’s a legislator or two on the Democratic side who will run. Maybe even a past statewide candidate or two like a Bill Halter or a Shane Broadway will get in the race.

Consider the fact that this is the first race for governor of Arkansas since 1966 in which we’ll start with neither an incumbent nor a clear favorite.

Mike Beebe was an incumbent in 2010 and the favorite from the start in 2006.

Mike Huckabee was an incumbent in 2002 and 1998.

Jim Guy Tucker was an incumbent in 1994.

Bill Clinton was an incumbent in 1990, 1986 and 1984.

Frank White was an incumbent in 1982, and Clinton was an incumbent in 1980.

Clinton was the strong favorite going into the 1978 race.

David Pryor was an incumbent in 1976 and the clear favorite in the three-man 1974 Democratic primary that included Lt. Gov. Bob Riley (my neighbor from Ouachita Hills) and former Gov. Orval Faubus (whose time had passed).

Dale Bumpers was an incumbent in 1972, and Winthrop Rockefeller was an incumbent in 1970 and 1968.

You must go back to 1966 — almost half a century ago — to find a time when we had a race for governor with neither an established front-runner nor an incumbent. In 1966, Faubus decided not to seek a seventh two-year term. The Democrats nominated Justice Jim Johnson. Rockefeller, who had lost to Faubus in 1964, ran again in ’66 and became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Back to this year for a moment.

Republicans certainly have a chance to earn a majority in one or both houses of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. History in the making.

On the congressional front, if the GOP holds its current seats and picks up the 4th District, the Arkansas delegation in Washington will have gone from 5-1 Democratic at the end of 2010 to 5-1 Republican at the start of 2013.

Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, the pace of political change is amazing from a historical context. As I stated earlier, we’re living in a period that Arkansas historians will be discussing decades from now.

Enough politics for today. That Cornish hen is waiting on me for dinner.

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Golfing on Crowley’s Ridge

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

The state Department of Parks and Tourism reopened the golf course at Village Creek State Park near Wynne earlier this month, providing a destination sure to attract visitors from the nearby Memphis metropolitan area and elsewhere.

The Ridges at Village Creek, a 27-hole public facility, covers about 470 acres within the 6,906-acre state park. The story of how we reached this point is a long, convoluted one.

In 1967, the Arkansas Legislature authorized a study to determine the need for a major state park in eastern Arkansas. Land acquisition for what’s now Village Creek State Park began in 1972 and continued until 1978. The park took in a particularly scenic part of Crowley’s Ridge and was easy to access from both Wynne and Forrest City. It is the second largest of the 52 state parks.

The park was dedicated on June 27, 1976, as Charlie Rich (a native of nearby Colt) entertained a crowd of almost 20,000 people.

“While Village Creek State Park, named for a stream that flows through the area, is classified as a natural state park, it also preserves part of the rich history of the region,” according to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Early settlers named the area Old Cherokee Village, though there is little evidence of Cherokee occupation outside scattered camp remnants.

“A section of the 1820s Military Road that once linked Memphis to Little Rock is still visible in the park. Once called the Memphis to Little Rock Road, it became a major route of Indian removal for the Creek, Chickasaw and Cherokee between 1832 and 1839.

“In addition, part of William Strong’s Delta empire is preserved at Village Creek. The park contains part of Strong’s original Spanish land grants. He built his 20-room mansion within view of Crowley’s Ridge near the Military Road on land just east of the park boundary. Strong became one of the largest landowners and leading politicians in the region between 1820 and 1840. He became the first postmaster along the Military Road and served as county sheriff. He was a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention in 1836, the year of the state’s admission into the Union, and was a delegate to the Arkansas General Assembly in 1840. Strong was instrumental in bringing the Military Road to the area, thus ensuring that its population would grow.”

Initial development at Village Creek State Park in the 1970s included a vistors’ center and limited camping. Two lakes later were added. Lake Dunn was named after Poindexter Dunn, who organized the first company from St. Francis County in the Civil War and later represented the district in Congress for five terms. Lake Austell was named after Samuel Austell, the first county judge of Cross County.

Later additions to the park included picnic areas, more campgrounds, hiking trails, tennis and basketball courts, rental cabins, a special events room, a gift shop, a museum and horse trails and stables.

In January 2006, a company known as Village Creek Resort LLC entered into a partnership with the state to design, develop and operate a golf resort in the park. The state funded construction of a golf course through a $7 million loan from the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. The private company was expected to contribute $8 million.

The course was designed by Andy Dye’s company. Andy Dye’s grandfather, Paul Dye Sr., began designing courses in 1923. Andy’s father, Roy Dye, was also a noted designer.

The first nine holes at Village Creek opened for play in November 2008 just as the Great Recession fully took hold.

“He passed it on to me, and now I’ve passed it on to my sons,” Andy Dye says of his father’s passion for designing golf courses. “That’s four generations of passion for the game. Growing up, golf course design conversation was more common than breakfast.”

Andy Dye’s uncle, Pete Dye, is the most famous member of the Dye clan. After Pete Dye’s father built a nine-hole course on the family farm in Urbana, Ohio, Pete Dye grew up playing and working on the course. He won the Ohio high school championship and later left the life insurance business in Indiana to devote his time to designing and building golf courses.

Roy Dye was Pete’s younger brother. He graduated with a chemical engineering degree from Yale University. In 1969, after 20 years as a chemical engineer, Roy joined Pete in practicing golf course design. He adopted a Scottish style of golf architecture with deep pot bunkers, rolling fairways and undersized greens.

Andy is the oldest of Roy and Ann Dye’s eight children.

Almost 20 of the world’s top 100 golf courses are Dye family designs.

Back on Crowley’s Ridge, Village Creek Resort LLC defaulted on its loans. Through the loan foreclosure process, a bank acquired the leasehold interest in the planned golf resort in Feburary 2010. The state purchased the bank’s acquisitions and assumed management of the entire operation in June 2010.

It quickly was determined that it would be necessary to close the course for repairs and upgrades. The goal was to make the Ridges at Village Creek one of the best public courses in the state and get it on the Natural State Golf Trail.

Extensive enhancement work was done on the course. A mobile home serves as a temporary clubhouse until a permanent clubhouse can be built. The new clubhouse will cover 4,591 square feet and include a pro shop, offices, restrooms with dressing areas, a vending room, a dining room, a private meeting room and an outdoor terrace.

The state also plans to construct a restroom on the west nine and a golf cart storage facility that will house up to 72 carts. The clubhouse, cart storage facility and restrooms on the course should be completed by late summer 2013.

Hopefully, the state one day will move forward with its initial plans to build a lodge so golfers from the Memphis metro area, the Little Rock metro area and elsewhere can stay for several days adjacent to the course.

The renovated course should allow more people than ever to enjoy the charms of Crowley’s Ridge, which ranges in width from one to 12 miles and extends from southern Missouri to near Helena. Other state parks along or near Crowley’s Ridge include Crowley’s Ridge State Park in Greene County (which occupies the former homestead of Benjamin Crowley), Lake Poinsett State Park and Lake Frierson State Park.

Benjamin Crowley was the first European settler to reach what’s now Greene County in the 1820s. He had selected the site for his plantation home because of a spring that provided drinking water. Crowley was a veteran of the War of 1812 and strongly supported the 1833 creation of Greene County. He died in 1842 at age 84, and his gravesite is within Crowley’s Ridge State Park.

Neighbors named the 200-mile stretch of rolling hills “Crowley’s Ridge” as a way of honoring him. The rare geologic formation has served as a recreational retreat for those from the adjoining Delta for more than a century.

Because of the spring that provided fresh water and the many trees that provided shade, Crowley’s homestead became a traditional summer campground and gathering spot. Belle Hodges Wall, the secretary of the Paragould Chamber of Commerce, led the campaign to make Crowley’s Ridge the state’s fourth state park in July 1933.

In October 1933, Civilian Conservation Corps workers arrived. Most of them were young men from northern Missouri. A detachment of more than 200 workers built trails, bridges, cabins, picnic sites, campgrounds, roads, a bathhouse and a 300-foot earthen dam that formed a small lake. The CCC facilities were dedicated in June 1937.

In 1992, four CCC structures in the park were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“One of the unique features of Crowley’s Ridge is its natural vegetation,” Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Interestingly, many of the trees that make up the forest on Crowley’s Ridge are similar to those found in the western Appalachian Mountains. The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest, including oak, hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and the yellow poplar.

“Crowley’s Ridge also has areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the region onto the alluvial plain. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soils of Crowley’s Ridge. These soils need a protective vegetative cover of some type such as pasture grasses or forests to combat severe soil erosion.”

Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, the state’s first National Scenic Byway, merges six U.S. highways, nine state highways and even 11.5 miles through the St. Francis National Forest. The parkway stretches 198 miles over more than 500,000 acres. Crowley’s Ridge Parkway is one of  more than 125 scenic byways (the other two in Arkansas are the Great River Road and Talimena Scenic Byway) designated by the National Scenic Byways Program.

Now, you can add a first-class golf course to Crowley’s Ridge’s other attractions.

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Reopening Petit Jean’s Mather Lodge

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

One of this state’s most historic buildings — Mather Lodge atop Petit Jean Mountain — reopened last week after having been closed since December 2010.

Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, this centerpiece of Petit Jean State Park is better than ever.

The 1960s-era dining room has been replaced with a more rustic-style design.

The kitchen has been expanded.

A 50-person meeting room was added.

The guest registration desk was relocated.

A new swimming pool was constructed.

Public restrooms were attached underneath the pool.

“The renovated portion now mirrors the Adirondack-style park architecture of the 1930s original parts of Mather Lodge,” says Greg Butts, the state parks director.

Petit Jean is Arkansas’ first and most famous state park. The Arkansas Legislature passed a bill in 1923 that authorized the state land commissioner to accept land donations for state parks. Land around Cedar Falls on Petit Jean Mountain then was acquired by the state.

Back in April 1907, a party of officers and stockholders of the Fort Smith Lumber Co. had come to Fowler Mill to inspect the mill and surrounding timber areas. It was supposed to be a business trip, but company officials found themselves enjoying horseback riding and other activities.

One day was devoted to exploring the Seven Hollows region, which was owned by the company. The men decided that the company would lose money trying to log the rugged terrain. Someone suggested that it be offered to the federal government as a national park.

Dr. T.W. Hardison, the company physician and an amateur naturalist, headed a campaign for years to get a national park established on Petit Jean Mountain. Hardison spent two hours one day meeting with Stephen Mather, the director of the National Park Service. He showed Mather photos of the area and answered questions.

Mather said the property was too small to be a national park. He suggested that Hardison convince the Arkansas Legislature to turn it into a state park. When the bill was being considered by the Legislature in 1923, the secretary of the Fort Smith Lumber Co. said the board had voted to give the Seven Hollows region to the government as a national park. He said a resolution to offer it to the Legislature as a state park would have to be passed at the next board meeting.

Meanwhile, six men in Morrilton and two men in Pine Bluff offered to donate 80 acres on Petit Jean for a state park. The land surrounded Cedar Falls. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature without a dissenting vote, and the area around Cedar Falls was the first land acquired for state park purposes.

During the Great Depression, CCC camps were established at Arkansas’ first six state parks. CCC Company V-1781 was formed on Petit Jean Mountain on July 15, 1933. The company employed World War I veterans. A rock bridge crossing Cedar Creek was built, and Mather Lodge was constructed. Also constructed were roads, hiking trails, cabins and two recreational lakes.

Mather Lodge, which was completed in 1934, is the only CCC lodge in an Arkansas State Park. In 1939, the WPA constructed an architecturally compatible addition to the lodge.

The dining room and kitchen were added in the 1960s.

Here’s how the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism describes the recent work: “The renovation was designed to have minimal impact on the original CCC and WPA work from the 1930s while providing an updated modern facility. Now, a new entrance, lobby and dining room waiting area provide improved access and increase the lodge’s capacity to welcome guests and operate efficiently.

“The previous dining room and kitchen, built around 1967-68, were demolished and replaced by a new lobby, restrooms, offices and full-service dining room. The lobby and restaurant feature exposed log construction, use of natural materials and extensive glass window walls that provide a full view of the natural beauty surrounding Mather Lodge.

“The new dining room has seating for 104 people. The design takes advantage of the lodge’s setting on Petit Jean Mountain, providing diners with seating near windows that are open to expansive views of the natural terrain. The additional natural light enhances the lodge’s dining experience far beyond what was provided by the ’60s addition. … The new kitchen facility features upgraded utilities and new equipment.

“The renovation included the construction of a fullly accessible lodge swimming pool. Due to the proximity to one of the park’s most popular hiking trails, public restrooms were added as part of the pool complex.

“Parking had been expanded from 44 spaces to 81, including four ADA accessible spaces. A new barrier-free walkway connects the parking area to the lodge’s new entrance.”

The cost of the project was $4.32 million.

Mather Lodge and a number of other structures at Petit Jean State Park were added in 1992 to the National Register of Historic Places.

After lodging upgrades in the 1950s and 1970s, state parks personnel decided in 1994 to begin an architectural investigation of the structure to determine what original materials existed. Work was done during the winters of 1994-95 and 1995-96 to restore the rustic charm of the lodging section.

The recent improvements to Mather Lodge add to the attractions atop Petit Jean Mountain. I’ve already written extensively on the Southern Fried blog about the wonders of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, the educational institute and conference center on 188 acres of Gov. Rockefeller’s former ranch.

When Winrock International moved its headquarters to Little Rock in 2004, the property reverted to the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust. The trust, in turn, leased the facility to the University of Arkansas System while pouring more than $50 million into a massive renovation of the facilities.

In January 2010, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas honored the institute for outstanding new construction in a historic setting. You can spend the night at either the institute or Mather Lodge. Regardless of where you stay, a trip to the institute’s outstanding gift shop and the museum section honoring the life of Gov. Rockefeller is warranted.

Just down the road, the Museum of Automobiles continues to operate.

“When Winthrop Rockefeller made Arkansas his home in 1953, he developed Winrock Farms on Petit Jean Mountain,” Young Orsburn writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1961, he purchased a collection of fine antique and classic cars from the James Melton Museum of Hypoluxo, Fla. He had a building constructed on Petit Jean Mountain to house the cars and named it the Museum of Automobiles. He opened the museum on Oct. 18, 1964, with 33 cars on display, some of them his own, along with others from the Rockefeller family.”

Following Rockefeller’s death in 1973, more than 4,000 people attended a memorial service in his honor at the Museum of Automobiles.

“The museum was closed in the fall of 1975, and the remaining cars, with the exception of the governor’s personal vehicles, were sold to Harrah’s Museum in Reno, Nev.,” Orsburn writes. “The 1951 Cadillac that Rockefeller drove to Arkansas when he made the state his home, his 1967 Cadillac limousine with a Santa Gertrudis bull sterling-silver hood ornament and his 1914 Cretors popcorn wagon all remain in the present museum collection.

“On June 6, 1976, the museum was reopened by 10 men, all Arkansans and antique car buffs; on June 16, 1976, they formed a nonprofit organization that leased the building from the state of Arkansas. This group became the board of directors, which manages the museum. Members of surrounding antique car clubs lent 33 of their cars for a new collection to exhibit at the museum. Herman ‘Buddy’ Hoelzeman, who had previously served as director of the museum under Rockefeller, was again appointed director.

“The museum is a magnificent building that is handicapped accessible. The roof, suspended by cables, provides an unobstructed view across the entire interior. Water fountains gracing the front of the building blend with the natural surroundings. The automobiles rest on a white graveled floor surrounded by carpeted isles. A placard by each car gives the precise history of that vehicle.”

Petit Jean Mountain long has been a special place in this state.

With the more than $4 million just spent at Mather Lodge, it has become even more special.

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Endangered Arkansas

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

The Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas uses the month of May each year to release its list of the state’s most endangered places.

In the previous Southern Fried blog post, the inclusion on the HPAA’s list of the Medical Arts Building on Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs was discussed.

May is the release date for the annual list because it’s Arkansas Heritage Month. The Packet House on Cantrell Road in Little Rock, which is being transformed into an upscale restaurant, was the site of this year’s announcement.

“The 2012 list highlights distinctive historic places throughout Arkansas that represent important aspects of Arkansas’ history and heritage,” says Vanessa McKuin, the HPAA’s executive director. “In each instance, these places are integral to the communities where they are located, yet they are in immediate danger of disappearing from the landscape.

“By calling attention to these sites now, we want to encourage local action while there’s still time. It is our hope that inclusion on our list will provide those who care for these sites with the support and momentum to take their preservation efforts to the next level.”

The HPAA began releasing the list in 1999 to raise awareness of the importance of historic properties and the dangers they face from encroaching development and neglect.

Places that were on past lists include the Johnny Cash boyhood home and Dyess Colony administration building at Dyess, bluff shelter archaeological sites in northwest Arkansas, the Rohwer and Jerome Japanese-American relocation camps, the William Woodruff House in Little Rock, Magnolia Manor in Arkadelphia, Centennial Baptist Church in Helena and the Saenger Theatre in Pine Bluff.

There has been progress made on some of these endangered places, while others continue to suffer from neglect.

A major success story is the work being done in Dyess by Arkansas State University and the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative.

Magnolia Manor in Arkadelphia is also a success story thanks to my friends Bill and Sherry Phelps.

Other success stories include the Selma Rosenwald School in Drew County (now a community center) and the Westside Junior High School building in Little Rock (now the home of loft apartments).

In addition to the Medical Arts Building in Hot Springs, this year’s list includes:

– County courthouses statewide: According to the HPAA, decades of “tight county budgets and deferred maintenance are taking their toll, resulting in leaking roofs, crumbling masonry and outdated environmental systems. As a result, some county governments are seeking to move to newer buildings, while others continue band-aid approaches to their buildings’ problems. … The alliance hopes to call attention to the lack of adequate funding for historic courthouses’ maintenance and repair and to encourage devotion of greater resources for these irreplaceable historic buildings so that they can continue to serve in their capacity as the seats of county government and the historic centers of their towns.”

– The 1926 Bigelow Rosenwald School in Perry County: Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears Roebuck & Co., created a foundation in 1917 to support the education of black youth. The fund he established aided the construction of more than 5,000 schools across the South. There once were more than 300 Rosenwald schools in Arkansas. Fewer than 20 of these buildings have survived in the state. The Bigelow Rosenwald facility was used as a school until 1964 and then became a community center. It is now threatened by a lack of maintenance and a lack of funds for preservation.

– The Coker Hotel at Warren: The hotel was built in 1914 by Philip and Fannie Coker and served the timber industry as Warren boomed during the 1920s and 1930s. The building is now vacant and suffers from years of neglect. The elderly owner of the building lives out of state and has no plans for the hotel. Community leaders view it as a key piece in their plans to revitalize downtown Warren.

– The Holloway House at Hiwasse in Benton County: Hiwasse, which was located on the Frisco railroad line, once was a hub of the state’s apple industry. The two-story Holloway House was part of a homestead established in 1859. By 1898, A.J. Nichols had constructed an eight-room house with three rooms that could be rented by overnight guests. Nichols served for a time as the postmaster. The house, also known as the Pioneer House, has been abandoned for many years and is deteriorating.

– The Holman School at Stuttgart: A Rosenwald school on the site was replaced by a masonry building in the 1940s. A second building and a gym were constructed in 1955. Named after teacher John Holman and his wife, the school operated for black students until the 1970 desegregation of the Stuttgart School District. The facility was acquired by the Holman Heritage Development Corp. in 1996 for use as a community center. A storm did serious roof damage in 2008, and repairs are still needed.

– Monte Ne and the Oklahoma Row Hotel in Benton County: The resort community of Monte Ne was founded in the early 1900s by William “Coin” Harvey. At 316 feet long and 50 feet wide, the Oklahoma Row Hotel was believed to be the largest log hotel structure in the world. The majority of Monte Ne was flooded when Beaver Lake was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, the remaining three-story tower of the hotel still stands alongside the lake. The Corps of Engineers has considered demolishing the site unless partner organizations agree to take over its maintenance.

– The New Hope School in Cross County: The building was constructed in 1903 and was expanded prior to 1930 to a two-room school. Classes were held there for almost 50 years before consolidation sent students to Wynne. Situated atop Crowley’s Ridge, the building is vulnerable to high winds and the elements. The Cross County Historical Society’s restoration committee is trying to raise the funds to renovate the building as a museum and gift shop along the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway National Scenic Byway.

– The Palace Theatre at Benton: The Palace opened its doors in March 1920, but the builder was forced to sell it within months. The building changed owners several times during the next decade. After World War II, the Palace was operated as a youth recreation center. It closed in 1953. For a few years in the early 1960s, it operated as the Panther Den. The city eventually bricked up the windows and installed an arched entrance and a white vinyl facade so it could be used as the Saline County Library. The library operated in the building from 1967-2003. The horrible vinyl facade was removed in 2005. The building, which has a leaking roof, is now used for storage.

– The V.C. Kays House at Jonesboro: This house was built by the first president of Arkansas State University in the English Tudor style. The Kays family occupied the home from 1910-43. ASU purchased the house from the Kays Foundation in 2004 and recently announced plans to construct sorority houses on the site. After strong opposition to the home’s demolition arose, the ASU adminstration announced that it would give proponents of saving the Kays House one year to raise funds for preservation and maintenance. The administration stated that no university or foundation money is available for preservation.

Founded in 1981, the HPAA is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the state’s architectural and cultural heritage. The most endangered places list is released each year in an effort to:

– Raise awareness of the importance of the state’s historic places.

– Generate support for saving endangered properties.

– Provide a tool for evaluating and prioritizing preservation needs in the state.

– Make endangered properties eligible for technical and financial assistance.

– Support the goals of Arkansas Heritage Month and National Preservation Week.

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Saving the Medical Arts Building and downtown

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

The Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas released its annual list of the 10 most endangered places in the state last week. On that list was one of my favorite structures, the Medical Arts Building at 236 Central Ave. in Hot Springs.

Constructed in the Art Deco style by G.C. Gordon Walker in 1929, the Medical Arts Building was the tallest structure in Arkansas until 1960 when Winthrop Rockefeller completed the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock.

The Medical Arts Building was designed by John Parks Almand, who also designed Little Rock Central High School.

Here’s how the HPAA describes the situation in downtown Hot Springs: “Since the 1980s, city policy has exempted vacant upper stories of multistory buildings from meeting code requirements, and all utilities must be disconnected from vacant floors of the building. This code exemption contributes to underutilization and decay of structures like the Medical Arts Building, which has been vacant above the first floor since approximately 1987.

“The vacant building’s iconic status has attracted ‘urban explorers,’ some of whom have vandalized parts of the building. The Medical Arts Building is quite large and has multiple owners, complicating factors to the redevelopment of this landmark.

“Despite the fact that it is currently vacant, the Medical Arts Building maintains a prominent presence on Central Avenue in Hot Springs. Located across from the Arlington Hotel and Bathhouse Row, redevelopment of the Medical Arts Building is key to revitalization of Hot Springs.

“Listing on the National Register of Historic Places makes the Medical Arts Building eligible for state and federal historic investment tax credits, which are strong financial incentives for preservation. The alliance hopes to bring attention to the importance of the Medical Arts Building, the impediments for its redevelopment and the great potential for rehabilitation of this exceptional building.”

I’ve written at length on the Southern Fried blog about the situation in downtown Hot Springs. I love that stretch of Central Avenue and continue to believe there’s tremendous potential to make it one of the top attractions in the South.

There was an encouraging development last month when Dave Byerly, the president of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Mayor Ruth Carney that proposed sweeping changes to the city’s building code in an attempt to spur redevelopment downtown.

“As a community, we all recognize the need for Hot Springs’ downtown core to be a vibrant and productive center of commerce, culture and entertainment,” Byerly wrote. “We also can agree that the topic of downtown is one that needs to be on all of our minds and a focus of everyone’s efforts toward building and preserving a piece of our community that is irreplaceable.

“We are grateful that the importance of downtown Hot Springs is now at the forefront of our community’s discussion. Now that it is here, let us seize the opportunity to embrace this community discussion toward a better and safer downtown.

“Downtown may never return to the role as the economic heart of the community; however, none can dispute that a downtown is a reflection of the community’s soul. And, although there is an important and productive role for downtown to play in our economy, the attention to our collective soul demands our focus and commitment.”

Byerly added: “At the heart of downtown’s condition is building code compliance. Current rules, policies and assumed practices that are out of date, out of touch and originated as temporary stopgap measures decades ago create a barrier to the city’s ability to enforce code in downtown Hot Springs in a manner that protects the public and protects private property owners’ investments.

“These barriers have led to a reputation that code is altogether absent from all or much of downtown. In the absence of code enforcement, public safety is put at risk, a property owner’s investment is not protected, a neighbor’s investment is not protected and new investment is discouraged.

“The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce believes it is time for our organization and our community’s elected officials to make some tangible and meaningful commitments to this community’s downtown.”

The chamber requested that the Hot Springs Board of Directors:

– Implement a downtown inspection code that gives the city authority to annually inspect buildings for fire safety and code compliance.

– Commission a thorough assessment of the city’s building code to ensure that requirements are relevant.

– Eliminate the vacant building code that allows certain structures to be exempt from the rules by which others must abide.

– Commission a fire and code compliance study of downtown.

– Have the city’s Historic District Commission conduct a study of properties in the district.

Byerly told The Sentinel-Record: “The chamber was certainly looking for a positive role to play in downtown. As it began studying some of the root-cause issues that were impacting downtown, code was an issue that rose to the top pretty quickly.”

He said Hot Springs has an “inventory of historical and contributing property that is unmatched anywhere in the southern United States.”

“The protection of those properties, the investment made in those properties and the public around those properties should be our key focus,” Byerly told the newspaper. “That’s where we wanted to begin our position statement in trying to bring this issue to the communtiy’s discussion table.”

I was encouraged earlier this week when The Sentinel-Record reported that the city of Hot Springs is flexing its muscles when it comes to the former Majestic Hotel, which I refer to as the bleeding sore at the end of Central Avenue.

Don Thomason wrote: “The former Majestic Hotel has major structural defects that must be corrected, city officials have told the building’s owner. In an April 11 letter to building owner Park Residences Development LLC, neighborhood services administrator Bart Jones and chief building inspector Mike Scott said the building is in violation of the city’s vacant structure ordinance.”

Jones told the newspaper: “You can actually see wood structural members that are deteriorated and collapsing in the roof section, and as that leakage comes down each floor … there is a stairwell that is leaning because of certain collapse in some part of it.”

It’s a huge scar that takes away from the rest of Hot Springs and sends a negative message to tourists.

The Majestic closed in October 2006 after 124 years of operation. The Arc Arkansas had hoped to convert the building into apartments with retail businesses on the first floor. Incorporated in 1957, The Arc Arkansas specializes in providing housing for those with disabilities and their families.

“We were hoping to hear back from them on which direction they wanted to go — can they submit their development plan or do they want to secure the building and take care of the violations, because they’re going to have to do one or the other,” Jones told the newspaper. “If it continues like it is, it will keep deteriorating, and there are going to be some major health hazards next to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts.”

Perhaps the get-tough policy on the Majestic signals a new interest on the part of the city in dealing with the other downtown buildings that have been neglected for far too long, scarring what should be among the most beautiful urban stretches in America.

The HPAA’s inclusion of the Medical Arts Building on its 10 most endangered list draws additional attention to the dire situation in downtown Hot Springs.

“Now is the time to make commitments to preserving and improving our community,” Byerly wrote in the conclusion of his letter to the mayor. “These are not the only necessary steps needed for downtown to return to greatness. This only represents our approach to begin addressing those problems in a manageable and logical manner. … Protecting that asset must be our community’s first priority.

“We recognize that this stance may present short-term discomfort for some of our community’s businesses and may prove altogether unpopular with some of our organization’s membership. We all must be prepared for the uncomfortable discussions that come with intervention.”

The time has come to seriously address a situation that has an impact on the entire state and its tourism industry.

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Running for the roses

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

As I drove past the airport on my way out of Louisville on Sunday morning, the private jets still covered almost all available space in the general aviation area.

The millionaires, it seems, were sleeping in.

My wife and I, however, were on the road back to Arkansas. This was my eighth Kentucky Derby but my first in 23 years.

When Melissa and I were engaged but not yet married in the spring of 1989, we drove west from Washington, D.C., to stay with a group of friends at a Lexington hotel, making the short trip to Louisville for Derby Day.

We were young and adventuresome, sitting on the infield for what turned out to be the second coldest Derby in history. There was sleet that morning, and the temperature never made it out of the 40s as Sunday Silence held off Easy Goer in the Run for the Roses.

Two weeks later, Melissa and I made quick drive from Washington to Baltimore on a much warmer day to watch Sunday Silence and Easy Goer square off in the Preakness Stakes. Despite Sunday Silence’s victory in the Derby, the bettors in Maryland had made Easy Goer, the son of Alydar, the favorite.

In what some racing experts rank among the top 10 thoroughbred races of all time, Sunday Silence won the Preakness by a nose after a duel down the stretch. Pat Day was aboard Easy Goer. Patrick Valenzeula was aboard Sunday Silence. It was a race for the ages as Sunday Silence became the 23rd Derby winner since 1919 to complete a Derby-Preakness double.

Three weeks later, Easy Goer won the Belmont Stakes to deny Sunday Silence the Triple Crown.

I was determined that this Derby trip would be a more civilized experience for Melissa than the one in 1989 had been. Having been appointed a Kentucky Colonel by the governor of Kentucky when I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, we were able to purchase what’s known as the Colonels’ package for Oaks Day on Friday and Derby Day on Saturday. It was my Christmas present to myself.

Along with two grandstand seats outside, we had two seats each day at a table inside the Kentucky Derby Museum, where there was a full buffet and no lines at the windows or the restrooms. If you’ve ever seen the lines outside, you realize how important that is.

As always, Arkansas was well represented on Derby Day.

The winner of the first race on the 13-race card was Atigun, owned by Arkansas’ John Ed Anthony.

Joe and Scott Ford of Little Rock had a horse running later in the day.

And when I began going through The Courier-Journal’s Derby special section Sunday morning, there on the fashion page was Keeley DeSalvo of Hot Springs (owner of the famed Pancake Shop on Central Avenue), resplendent in a yellow outfit and matching hat.

As I’ve written previously on the Southern Fried blog, Arkansas — a state with no NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB teams — is only in the major leagues of professional sports in one area. That sport is thoroughbred racing.

Being a newspaper junkie, I picked up the Thursday edition of The Courier-Journal as soon as we arrived in town. The lead story on the front page concerned the previous day’s post-position draw. There in the second paragraph were the words “Arkansas Derby” since Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister was the Kentucky Derby favorite.

I flew our state’s colors in a sense, wearing Arkansas Derby ties to the Colonels’ reception on Thursday night, the Oaks on Friday and the Derby on Saturday.

Arkansas native Kane Webb is now the editor of Louisville magazine. We had dinner with Kane and his wife Fran on Friday night at a place called Jack Fry’s on Bardstown Road.

Derby Eve in Louisville is like New Year’s Eve in other cities, so Kane had made the dinner reservations back in January. There was bumper-to-bumper traffic along Bardstown Road. We’re both former newspapermen, and Kane knew Jack Fry’s would be my kind of place. It was established by Jack Fry and his wife Flossie in 1933.

Here’s how the restaurant’s website describes him: “Fry was known as a rambling, gambling kind of guy who loved amateur boxing and the ponies. As a result, Jack Fry’s became a sportsman’s hangout, as evidenced by the numerous historic photographs that fill the walls of the current Jack Fry’s.

“He was also known to conduct his bookmaking and bootlegging affairs discreetly from the back room. He was a much-loved character who often gave a free meal to a needy friend. Jack closed his business in 1972. After 10 years of renting this space as Por Que No, a Mexican restaurant, it was re-established as Jack Fry’s. Susan Seiller bought the restaurant in January 1987, the same year that saw the death of Jack Fry.”

After returning to the hotel from dinner, I was asleep within minutes. The Oaks and the Derby only take about two minutes each, but the days are long.

Oaks Day features a 12-race card with the first race beginning at 10:30 a.m. and the final race going off at about 6:30 p.m.

Derby Day features a 13-race card with a 10:30 a.m. post time for the first race and a 7:50 p.m. post time for the final race.

On Friday, a day when the infield had to be emptied at one point due to afternoon thunderstorms, the second-largest Oaks crowd ever showed up.

On Saturday, it was the largest Derby crowd in history as 165,307 people packed Churchill Downs.

The irony is that the Derby is bigger than ever  — truly among the classic American events — at a time when thoroughbred racing is suffering nationally.

A Courier-Journal editorial put it this way: “We hope, as the Stephen Foster lyrics say, the sun will shine bright on Churchill Downs for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. But the forecast for the future of horse racing in Kentucky remains cloudy.

“A bill aimed at allowing expanded gambling in Kentucky — a measure supporters have tied to the health of Kentucky’s signature horse industry — again has died, this year in the Kentucky Senate. The measure would have let voters decide whether the state constitution should be changed to allow expanded gambling.

“Supporters say expanded gambling is essential to make Kentucky’s $4 billion horse business viable with other states that allow gaming, such as casinos, and where proceeds are used to fatten purses and draw more horses to racetracks.”

Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs is one of those tracks that’s actually increasing purses on a regular basis.

The tie between Arkansas racing and Kentucky remains strong.

Providing commentary Saturday on NBC was Hot Springs native Randy Moss.

Guarding the door to the jockeys’ room as a Churchill Downs media relations volunteer was Hot Springs native Greg Fisher. I got to visit with Calvin Borel briefly Friday, telling him we’re proud to have him as a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. 

My mother’s oldest brother moved to Louisville soon after the end of World War II to work for Belknap Hardware, a company that no longer exists but at one time was among the largest hardware distributors in the world. Uncle Bill Caskey had a box at Churchill Downs, and I began attending the Derby as a college student.

William Burke Belknap had founded the company in 1840 along the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville. He produced iron products such as horse and mule shoes, nails and spikes. The company was in a brick building at the corner of Third and Main with three employees.

When Belknap Hardware celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1940, there were 37 buildings covering 37 acres. The complex had underground passages and covered bridges. The 1940 company catalog had 3,000 pages with more than 75,000 items. By 1957, the catalog had 90,000 items listed.

I remember visiting that old Belknap complex. It was like something out of Dickens. Belknap went bankrupt in 1986 (my uncle had long since retired, ending his career as one of the company’s top executives) and closed its doors.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Sarah seemed to know everyone who was anyone in Louisville. Though he was a native of Des Arc, my uncle had become a fount of knowledge about the Derby and its traditions.

After college, I covered the Derby for several years as a sportswriter, always staying at my aunt and uncle’s home while bringing other writers along.

In 1982, when I was a young sportwriter at the Arkansas Democrat, Wally Hall and I made the trip to Louisville in my car, staying for almost a week at my aunt and uncle’s place in northeast Louisville.

Others who would make the drive with me in later years included Bob Wisener of The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs, the late Kim Brazzel of the Arkansas Gazette and Harry King of The Associated Press (now with Stephens Media).

The memories of those trips are rich.

So I’ve watched the Kentucky Derby from the press box, the tunnel where the horses enter the track, the infield, my uncle’s box and now the Colonels’ section of the grandstand.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have covered the Super Bowl, college bowl games too numerous to mention, the NCAA Tournament in basketball and much more.

The Kentucky Derby remains my favorite sports event.

I can assure you I won’t wait 23 years this time before going back.

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