Archive for April, 2014

Arkansas Delta food tour: Part Two

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

This post picks up where we left off in Part One with the Good Friday food tour of the Arkansas Delta. You’ll recall that I was joined by Jason Parker, Jordan Johnson, Gabe Holmstrom and Denver Peacock. We left Little Rock at 8 a.m. We were back by 8:30 p.m. In less than 13 hours, we covered more than 400 miles and made 10 food stops. We ate so much barbecue — all of it good — that at times we were afflicted by what we called the “meat sweats.” When we left you at the end of Part One, we had departed Blytheville and were headed for Dyess in the southern part of Mississippi County.

It was quiet at Dyess on Good Friday afternoon.

We pulled up to the Dyess Colony administration building to view the work being done there. A few years ago, Arkansas State University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with the city of Dyess to begin promoting the heritage of Dyess Colony. The renovation of the 1934 administration building is almost complete, and work continues on the façade of the adjoining theater (the rest of the building is gone), which was built in 1940.

We looked through the front window of the administration building and could see that some interpretive displays are already in place. I can’t wait for the day when buses out of Memphis are filled with tourists wanting to learn more about the place where Johnny Cash grew up. For the first time, they will have somewhere to go at Dyess. Funds for the restoration effort have been received from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival and other sources.

What was once only a dream is close to becoming a reality in this remote corner of northeast Arkansas.

“The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932 led to new programs that worked to pump life into the nation’s economy, especially in places like Arkansas, which was among the states hardest hit,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Such agencies as the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration tried to ease the poverty of destitute farmers and sharecroppers. William Reynolds Dyess, a Mississippi County plantation owner, was Arkansas’ first WPA administrator. He suggested an idea to Harry Hopkins, special adviser to Roosevelt, in which tenant farmers could have a chance to own their own land. FERA would purchase 16,000 acres of uncleared bottomland in Mississippi County, which was rich and fertile though also swampy and snake infested, and would open the land, with $3 million in federal aid, as a resettlement colony to homesteading families, who would each have to clear about 30 acres of land for cultivation.”

Almost 1,300 men, whose names were taken from relief rolls across Arkansas, began construction of the colony in May 1934.

“In the autumn of 1934, the first of about 500 families arrived and began clearing the land,” Hendricks writes. “They cut down trees and blasted stumps to farm cotton, corn and soybeans, along with maintaining a pasture for livestock. In time, along with the administration building, the town center included a community bank, beauty salon/barbershop, blacksmith shop, café, cannery, cotton gin, feed mill, furniture factory, harness shop, hospital, ice house, library, theater, newspaper, post office, printing shop, service station/garage, sorghum mill and school.”

In June 1936, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Dyess. She gave a speech and ate supper at the café.

Ray Cash, Carrie Rivers Cash and their children were among the five families selected to move to Dyess in 1936 from Cleveland County in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Their son, listed as J.R. in his high school yearbook, graduated from Dyess High School in 1950. He was the class vice president.

Members of the Cash family have helped with restoration of the family home, which is several miles from the administration building. Furnishings have been gathered based on descriptions given by family members. The home, which was in danger of falling in just more than a year ago, has been completely renovated, down to the wooden walls and linoleum floors.

After our visit to Dyess, we moved on to Poinsett County, which includes the incorporated towns of Harrisburg, Marked Tree, Trumann, Lepanto, Tyronza, Weiner, Fisher and Waldenburg.

Like many Delta counties, the high-water mark as far as population for Poinsett County came in the 1950 census prior to the widespread mechanization of agriculture. There were 39,311 people in the county that year. By the 2010 census, the county’s population had fallen to 24,583.

Harrisburg has been the county seat since 1856. The town was named after Benjamin Harris, who gave the land where the courthouse was built and was the son of the first county judge.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, a large part of what’s now eastern Poinsett County sunk, resulting in what locals simply refer to as “the sunken lands.”

Poinsett County was harder hit by the Great Flood of 1927 than any other Arkansas county. More than 200,000 acres were covered by water at one point. Thousands of sharecroppers were forced to flea from the lowlands to Crowley’s Ridge.

During World War II, there were German prisoner of war camps at Harrisburg and Marked Tree.

At Harrisburg, we circled the square and looked over the courthouse and the newspaper office that houses the Modern News. Both buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse, designed in the classical revival style by Pine Bluff architect Mitchell Selligman, was built in 1917.

The next stop was tiny Waldenburg, which has one of the best food intersections in Arkansas where Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 meet.

There’s the D-Shack, a dairy bar with great hamburgers.

There’s Crossroads Country Café, where I had a nice lunch back in the fall.

And there’s the original Josie’s, where I’ve enjoyed fine steaks on Saturday nights through the years following afternoon college football games in Jonesboro. There has been a better-known, bigger Josie’s on the banks of the White River in Batesville since 2004, serving lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. But the original Josie’s (dinner only on weekends) is in Waldenburg and has long been a favorite in the late fall and winter for those who flock to the duck camps in the area.

I remember stopping at Josie’s with my youngest son following an Arkansas State football game several years ago. It was during duck season. He looked around the big room and whispered to me, “We’re the only ones in here not wearing camouflage.”

The fourth dining spot at the intersection is the trailer from which the town’s mayor, William “Woody” Wood, sells barbecue. That’s where we stopped on Good Friday afternoon.

Woody and his wife Cecelia began selling barbecue in 1985 in the months when things were slow for Woody’s crop-dusting service. There was such a demand, not only for the smoked meats but also for Woody’s sauces and rubs, that the couple began selling barbecue on a full-time basis in 1992. Woody’s sauces and rubs are now available across the state. He also caters.

The stand in Waldenburg — there are a couple of picnic tables to eat on — is open on most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

From Waldenburg, we drove south on U.S. 49 to Woodruff County, which is among the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint (Calhoun County in south Arkansas is the least populated county, in case you’re wondering). The population in Woodruff County fell from 22,682 in the 1930 census to just 7,260 in the 2010 census. Famous natives of Woodruff County include Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant, bluesman Peatie Wheatstraw (his real name was William Bunch) of Cotton Plant, football star Billy Ray Smith of Augusta, high school coach Curtis King of Augusta and high school coach Joe Hart of McCrory.

Denver Peacock hails from McCrory, so we had to drive through downtown before heading a bit south to Gregory to visit with George Eldridge at his Tamale Factory, which is a restaurant in the barn between the Eldridge family home and the Eldridge family cemetery.

George is best known these days as the owner of Doe’s Eat Place in downtown Little Rock, but The Tamale Factory on his family land (where the tamales for Doe’s are made and where dinner is served on Friday and Saturday nights) is a labor of love for him.

In a highly positive review of Doe’s last week, the Arkansas Times summed up George’s career this way: “Veteran restaurateur George Eldridge (chronologically: Band Box, Sports Page, Buster’s, Doe’s, Blues City Café in Memphis, The Tamale Factory in Gregory) loved the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., and worked a deal to open the world’s second Doe’s on West Markham a little west of the Little Rock Police Department headquarters. Eldridge, like many high-profile Arkansans, was buddies with the governor who would become president, and during the 1992 campaign the famed Rolling Stone interview with Bill Clinton was conducted at Doe’s. Bill has been back, and the stories and pictures live on (check the Annie Leibovitz shot of Eldridge with chef Lucille Robinson before the inaugural ball).”

We had tamales at Gregory, of course. We had fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We hadn’t saved room for George’s steaks.

We did, however, save room for one last stop, the Bulldog in Bald Knob in neighboring White County, where Denver’s parents had met decades ago.

Bald Knob was named for the outcropping of stone that was a landmark in the region. Development in the area took off with the completion of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in 1872. The bald knob was quarried for railroad bed ballast. The quarry also furnished ballast for Jay Gould’s Bald Knob & Memphis Railroad. In the 1920s, it furnished the stone used to build some of the buildings on the Rhodes College campus in Memphis (which ranks among the most beautiful college campuses in America).

William Leach of the White County Historical Society explains the importance of the strawberry to Bald Knob: “The sandy, upland soil was ideal for the fruit, which was introduced in neighboring Judsonia in the 1870s. The first strawberry association in Bald Knob was organized in 1910. In 1921, Benjamin Franklin Brown, June ‘Jim” Collison and Ernest R. Wynn organized The Strawberry Co. They built the longest strawberry shed in the world, a three-quarter-mile structure parallel to the tracks of the Missouri Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific).

“In the peak year of 1951, Bald Knob growers sold $3.5 million worth of strawberries. Bald Knob became the Strawberry Capital of the World, which described the city until the 1960s when berries ceased to be a major crop because of changing market and labor conditions.”

Though raising strawberries is no longer a top industry in the area, the tradition of strawberry shortcakes at the Bulldog continues each spring. People drive from miles around when the word gets out: “The shortcakes are here.”

There was a traffic jam in front of the restaurant last Friday night.

It was time to get back to Little Rock.

Ten food stops down. And dreams of doing it all over again next spring.

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The great Arkansas Delta food tour

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

The troops gathered at 8 a.m. on Good Friday in the parking lot of the Clinton Presidential Center along the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock.

The goal: To sample as much Delta barbecue as possible in one day with some catfish and tamales thrown in for good measure.

I was joined by Denver Peacock, Gabe Holmstrom, Jordan Johnson and Jason Parker for an excursion that would take us more than 400 miles and allow us to eat at 10 places before dusk. Yes, we did it all in one day.

We began with the fried catfish at the Wilson Café in the unique Arkansas community of Wilson in southern Mississippi County.

We warmed up for the barbecue part of the agenda at the Hog Pen along the Great River Road — U.S. Highway 61 — a couple of miles south of Osceola.

We then headed to Blytheville, the barbecue capital of Arkansas, to sample pig sandwiches (that’s what they call them in Blytheville) from five places — the Dixie Pig, the Kream Kastle, Penn’s, the trailer in the parking lot of the Hays store (that’s how everyone in Blytheville refers to it — I don’t think it has a formal name) and the Razorback carryout trailer.

The next barbecue sandwich was from Woody’s at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 at Waldenburg, another east Arkansas dining hot spot.

We made our way from there to The Tamale Factory at Gregory in Woodruff County to visit with George Eldridge (best known as the owner of Doe’s in downtown Little Rock) while sampling tamales, fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We had no room left for George’s steaks at that point.

Our final stop was at the legendary Bulldog in Bald Knob for strawberry shortcake, which is only served in the spring. Cars were lined up onto the highway that Friday night as people from all over White County waited to purchase shortcake.

In between all of the eating, we managed to:

— Walk around the former company town of Wilson

—  Read the historic markers and drop by the museum on the courthouse square at Osceola

— Head out to the banks of the Mississippi River at Armorel

— Visit Dyess to check on the restoration work being done there by Arkansas State University

— Check out the beautiful Poinsett County Courthouse at Harrisburg

Back in January, the town of Wilson was featured in The New York Times due to the efforts of Gaylon Lawrence Jr. to restore it to its past glory.

“The little farm towns here in Delta cotton country spin by, each rusting grain silo and boarded-up discount store fading into the next,” Kim Severson wrote. “Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes Wilson, a collection of Tudor-style buildings with Carrara marble on the bank counter, a French provincial house with Impressionist paintings hanging on the walls and air-conditioned doghouses in the yards. Wilson was once the most important company town in the South. It sits amid 62 square miles of rich farmland, most of which was once controlled by Lee Wilson, a man almost everyone called Boss Lee. He built his fortune off the backs of sharecroppers and brought Southern agriculture into the modern age.

“For 125 years, the Wilson family owned this town. It ran the store, the bank, the schools and the cotton gin. For a time, the Wilsons even minted their own currency to pay the thousands of workers who lived on their land. Bags of coins still sit in the company vault. After the town incorporated in the 1950s, a Wilson was always mayor. But now the town — home to 905 people — is under new management, which plans to transform the civic anachronism into a beacon of art, culture and education in one of the poorest regions of the state.”

Lawrence, a native of nearby Sikeston in the Missouri Bootheel, owns more than 165,000 acres of land in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois.

He owns citrus groves in Florida.

He owns five banks.

He has the largest privately owned air conditioning distributor in the world.

In other words, Gaylon Lawrence Jr. has the wherewithal to make Wilson as good as he wants it to be.

Lawrence, who was described by Severson as a “can-do kind of man who prefers to check his fields and watch the sunset than speak with reporters,” bought the land from the Wilson family for an estimated $110 million in 2010.

Of the town of Wilson, he told the Times: “At first you are thinking, ‘How can I get this off my back?’ But then you look around and think how can you be a catalyst? I can’t really say I am the boss. I say I am here to help. This town has so much character we don’t have to make it up.”

The buildings on the Wilson square have been repainted, and the majestic hardwood groves (which include some of the largest cottonwood trees in Arkansas) have been cleaned up. A private school is planned along with a new building to house the Hampson collection of pre-Columbian pottery and other artifacts. Wilson will host British car shows and art shows in an attempt to attract visitors from Memphis, the Bootheel and northeast Arkansas.

In addition to sampling the excellent catfish at the Wilson Café, we visited with chef Joe Cartwright, whose food is attracting people from miles around. The recently reopened restaurant on the square serves lunch from Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and serves dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday nights feature fried catfish, shrimp, frog legs and oysters. Saturday is prime rib night.

Cartwright grew up at West Memphis and attended college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, where he worked at Lazzari Italian Oven.

“I was in college for music education, and I started washing dishes at Lazzari,” Cartwright told an interviewer several years ago. “And then one night we were a man down on the line or something. This chef put me up on the line and one thing led to another, and I never really looked back. It got ahold of me, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Cartwright later moved to Memphis, where he became the chef at Spindini on South Main Street and The Elegant Farmer.

The restaurant in Wilson reopened on Dec. 20.

Locals refer to the Wilson Café as The Tavern (and indeed Cartwright informed us that he has just received a wine and beer permit).

Cartwright even packs box lunches for farmers and construction crews (he’s hoping the construction of a steel mill just up the road at Osceola will help that part of the business), and he plans to offer fresh vegetables from the Wilson community garden during the summer. This is a quality of food you do not expect in a town this small.

We headed north on U.S. 61 after leaving Wilson. The plan was to begin the barbecue portion of the tour at Blytheville. That’s when we saw the Hog Pen on the right side of the road (the river side, in other words) south of Osceola. We decided to sample its barbecue, which was quite tasty. The piles of hickory out back let us know that this place takes its barbecue seriously. We ate outside on a picnic table. Inside, the walls feature memorabilia from Cortez Kennedy, who played his high school football in Wilson at Rivercrest High School and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago. Kennedy, who now lives in Florida, eats at the restaurant on visits home.

Kennedy played college football for the University of Miami and spent his entire pro career with the Seattle Seahawks. He participated in the Pro Bowl eight times, earning a spot in the game in just his second NFL season. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s. Kennedy was an iron man, completing seven seasons without missing a game and playing in at least 15 games 10 times during his career. He was just the 14th defensive tackle to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the cotton country around Rivercrest High, which has a rich sports tradition, playing football was the thing to do.

“Where I grew up, there was nothing else to do,” Kennedy once said. “We used to throw rocks at each other for fun.”

The next stop was in downtown Osceola for a view of my favorite Arkansas courthouse. Until 1901, Osceola was the only county seat. Blytheville and Osceola then were named as dual county seats. The southern division courthouse at Osceola was built in 1912 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was designed in the classical revival style by John Gainsford and is known for its copper dome, its baked stone tiles and the fact that the first floor has no windows (in case the Mississippi River flooded).

Downtown Osceola was booming at the time of the courthouse’s construction. There were electric and water utilities, two ice plants, two bottling works, a wagon factory and even an opera house. Six passenger trains a day stopped at the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad depot. The Osceola Times building, constructed in 1901, is still home to a newspaper that first was published in 1870. It’s the oldest weekly newspaper in eastern Arkansas.

We also read all of the downtown historical markers, which tell of famous musicians who once lived in the area and performed in the clubs along U.S. 61 (known as the Cotton Highway). We even went into the Mississippi County Historical Center and Museum. That facility is located in what was the Patterson Dry Goods Store. Fred Patterson purchased the lot that the building sits on for $250 in 1901 and built his store, which opened a year later. He purchased an adjoining lot in 1904 to construct another building for expanded operations. Patterson Dry Goods operated until 1987.

“The store was famous for cotton pick sacks, shoes and hats for men, women and children as well as work clothes,” the museum’s website states. “Through the years, Mr. Patterson’s store was the only place to purchase certain items. Customers came from not only the Osceola area but all of Mississippi County, surrounding counties and the Missouri Bootheel. The trademark of the store was shoes sitting outside at the entrance to announce the store was open. Fred Patterson may have had five or six styles outside at once, but they were never stolen. They were all for the same foot.

“Henry Patterson (Fred’s son) would have only a single shoe sitting out to indicate he was open for business. It is a practice continued today by the museum. The store became the loafing place for Henry’s retired contemporaries with time on their hands. The chairs around the potbellied stove held both men and women who managed to solve the problems of the world.”

The first stop in Blytheville was the Dixie Pig, the only Blytheville restaurant where we actually ate inside.

We picked up sandwiches from the other four establishments and took them out by the river behind the Nucor-Yamato plant at Armorel.  We laid them out on the hood of the vehicle, sampled them and watched the barges move down the Mighty Mississippi while enjoying the nice spring weather.

Armorel was founded in 1899 by R.E.L. Wilson (Boss Lee). The name of the town represents Arkansas, Missouri and the first three initials of Wilson’s name.

The town is the home of the Armorel Planting Co., whose chairman is 82-year-old John Ed Regenold, the current chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission. Regenold had served on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission before being appointed to the Highway Commission in January 2005 by Gov. Mike Huckabee. Regenold also served for a number of years on the St. Francis Levee Board, which is in seven northeast Arkansas counties. Those familiar with the Delta understand just how powerful levee boards are.

Back in Blytheville, we drove around the downtown business district and the city’s older residential neighborhoods, which were filled with blooming azaleas and dogwood trees. Like many Delta towns, Blytheville has bled population in recent decades. It has gone from 24,752 residents in the 1970 census to 15,620 residents in the 2010 census. At its peak, Eaker Air Force Base employed 3,500 military and 700 civilian personnel. The base closed in 1992. Some of that economic blow was softened by the 1988 opening of Nucor-Yamato Steel (which expanded in 1992) and the 1992 opening of Nucor Steel Arkansas (known locally as Nucor Hickman).

Another bright spot was the 1976 opening by Mary Gay Shipley of the Book Rack. The store’s name was changed in 1994 to That Bookstore in Blytheville. Located in a 1920s building on Main Street, it gained a reputation of being one of the top independently owned bookstores in the country, attracting the likes of John Grisham, Pat Conroy and Bill Clinton to sign books. Shipley retired and sold the store to a young man named Grant Hill, who soon tired of running the business. Enter Blytheville native Chris Crawley.

Crawley had moved from Blytheville after high school, living in Wisconsin and California. He moved back to the city in 2012.

“Mary Gay has been like my big sister for about 30 years,” Crawley told the Courier News at Blytheville. “I kind of got the bug years ago watching Mary Gay. … This was like my playground. I would read whole books while in the store.”

In visiting with Shipley after his return to Blytheville, Crawley found out that she was “still so passionate about the store, and that passion was infectious. Once I came in the space, it was just so welcoming. We believed that the legacy was something that was valuable.”

He and partner Yolanda Harrison purchased the store from Hill late last year.

Leaving Blytheville behind schedule, we made our way to Dyess.

Dyess, Poinsett County, Woodruff County and the strawberries of Bald Knob will have to wait for Part Two.

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Examples for the Spa City

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the shame of this entire state.

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

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

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

Change is never easy.

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

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

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

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

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

There was Mayor Bob McCaslin of Bentonville.

There was private developer Richard Mason of El Dorado.

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

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

Sound advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Streets were improved downtown. There was extensive landscaping done.

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

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

Of course it helps to have the Walmart headquarters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing life back to a dying downtown.

Conway did it.

Bentonville did it.

El Dorado did it.

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

Who will be the Richard Mason of the Spa City?

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

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

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