Archive for March, 2018

Bill Clinton, Ricky Norton and me

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

I’ve loved this time of year since I was a boy — basketball tournament time.

My father, a sporting goods dealer who called on high schools across the state, would take me to state tournaments with him. I recently ran across a letter postmarked in March 1980. It reminded me again just how long I’ve been watching, broadcasting and writing about tournament games.

Jimmy Carter was the president, Bill Clinton was in his first term as governor and I was a sophomore at Ouachita Baptist University that spring.

In addition to carrying a full load of classes in college, I had two full-time jobs — sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald and sports director of radio stations KVRC-KDEL. Ricky Norton from tiny Okolona High School in Clark County was one of the most highly recruited high school players in the country that year. In fact, he was one of the few Arkansas players that the University of Kentucky had ever come after in a big way. Basketball Weekly had Norton on its list of the top 25 prep prospects in the country.

Because of the attention Norton was receiving, we decided to broadcast all of Okolona’s postseason games on KVRC-AM, 1240, in Arkadelphia. I would serve as the play-by-play announcer.

I was in the small gymnasium at Emmet describing a district tournament game when L.D. Hoover broke in from the studio to say: “Rex, there has probably never been a hockey score given on this station, but you might be interested to know that the United States just defeated the Soviet Union in the Olympics.”

The date was Feb. 22, 1980.

Most of the country was interested in the Miracle on Ice that day. I was more interested in making sure I had Norton’s stats right.

Okolona eventually would move on to the Class B state tournament on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

There’s no longer a Class B, and there’s no longer an Okolona High School.

But there’s still an Okolona, though its population fell from a high of 525 in the 1940 census to just 147 people in the 2010 census.

“Okolona served as a regional agricultural and transportation hub in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before slowly fading into obscurity,” David Sesser writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The earliest known inhabitants of the area were Caddo Indians, who constructed a mound that is today located near Main Street. The first white settlers arrived in the Okolona area in the early 1830s. They named their new community after their hometown in Mississippi. In 1858, a post office was established in the town, and by the 1860s several general stores had been opened in the area.

“The earliest settlers founded schools, and education would continue to play an important role in the town for many years. The first school began in 1833, and a new school opened in the town in 1857. By 1871, the Okolona Male and Female Institute was founded in a two-story wooden building where the former 1857 school had been. The local Masons, who owned the building, used the second floor for meetings. When Okolona High School was built in 1890, the institute became known as The Academy. Other notable institutions of learning in the town included a Rosenwald school, constructed in 1928 to serve African-American students. It was consolidated with Okolona High School in 1969.”

By the late 1800s, there were five cotton gins in or near Okolona. The first fair held in Clark County was at Okolona in 1875. The first Okolona newspaper was published and the railroad reached reached the town in 1885.

“By 1899, about 10 businesses made up downtown Okolona, and the town was incorporated in 1902,” Sesser writes. “By the 1920s, Okolona was declining in population. Many residents traveled to Arkadelphia or Gurdon to conduct business, and the cotton market collapsed. The town made some improvements during this period, however, including the installation of a city water system in 1973 and the construction of a station for the volunteer fire department in 1982. But by 1987, the Okolona schools were closed and consolidated with adjoining districts.”

This is the tiny southwest Arkansas town that produced the finest pure shooter I’ve ever seen at the high school level. Yes, Ricky Norton was that good as a high school player.

At the Class B state tournament, the state’s young governor showed up unexpectedly for the semifinal game between Okolona and Wilmar. He was with Eddie Sutton, the University of Arkansas head coach who was recruiting Norton.

After the game, I was approached by an angry Nelson Catalina, who at the time was an assistant for Marvin Adams at Arkansas State University. Catalina, who hailed from Turrell in the Arkansas Delta, had played college basketball for the legendary Bill Vining at Ouachita and was my favorite college basketball player when I was growing up. He graduated from Ouachita in 1972 and was an assistant for Vining before joining Adams at ASU. Catalina later would serve as ASU’s head coach from 1984-95, compiling a 188-139 record.

Catalina, who still lives at Jonesboro, had known Norton since the Okolona product was a junior high student attending basketball camps in Arkadelphia each summer. Catalina thought he had a chance to sign Norton and was furious that Clinton had gone to the dressing room with Sutton.

Catalina, his face red, said to me: “The last time I checked, he was the governor of the entire state. We’re also a state school. The governor has no business taking sides.”

I assured Catalina that I would blast Clinton in a newspaper column. After all, I thought to myself, the governor will never see a column written by a 20-year-old sports editor in Arkadelphia.

My Daily Siftings Herald column the following Monday was headlined “Guv Bill is out of his field.”

Here’s what I wrote:

“Once again, Okolona High School’s Ricky Norton drew the major college basketball coaches to The Pit on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Monticello for the Class B state tournament.

“In the quarterfinals on Wednesday, the list of VICs (very important coaches) had included Joe B. Hall of the University of Kentucky (the B. stands for basketball when he’s winning and for something else when he’s losing), Marvin Adams of Arkansas State and assistants from the University of Arkansas, Memphis State and elsewhere.

“Minutes before the start of Friday’s semifinal game against Wilmar, the list suddenly became even more impressive. In walked head Hog Eddie Sutton followed by a group of assistants and friends. And among that group was none other than the governor of the state of Arkansas, proud papa and noted sports car driver Bill Clinton.

“I’d remembered Clinton attending the overall championship game between Parkdale and Marmaduke last year in Conway. But this trip came as a surprise to everyone. Quickly it became apparent that it is an election year with the governor pressing every palm in sight.

“While Clinton received congratulations on the birth of his first child, Sutton received numerous condolences for the way his Arkansas team had been slaughtered the night before by Kansas State University in the first round of the NCAA playoffs. Sutton made no excuses in answering each word of sympathy, saying, ‘We didn’t deserve to win. We just played horrible. I don’t think I’ve ever had a team play that bad.’

“But it was obvious the trip to Drew County wasn’t to keep up his image. Sutton is hot on the trail of Norton. The Razorbacks have wooed the Bear senior heavily, especially after word leaked out that he might be leaning toward Arkansas State. With the recruiting so intense, one can’t help but wonder if Clinton was at the game simply because he loves high school basketball. Several sources told me that Clinton said in effect, ‘We need to get Norton in the hills.’

“Kentucky assistant Leonard Hamilton, a person I’ve come to trust and respect during his recent recruiting trips to the state, told me: ‘I’m not sure the exact words, but the governor did say something about getting Norton to go to Arkansas.’

“If that’s the case, Clinton has made a serious mistake. As governor of the state of Arkansas, he represents not only the school in Fayetteville but also Henderson State, Arkansas State and all other state institutions. ASU assistant Nelson Catalina and Henderson head coach Bobby Reese, who were at the game, have a right to be mad at the governor’s actions. Sports and politics should never mix. It’s shades of Huey P. Long and his dealings with the LSU football team.

“We have no objections at all to the governor attending athletic events and rooting for a certain team. But helping that team recruit is another matter, even though he used to teach at Arkansas. Just as it’s best for people like Lou Holtz and Sutton to stay out of politics, Clinton should make it a point to stay out of athletic recruiting. It would seem this state has enough problems without him creating more.

“We’ll all be better off when we realize that the UA is not the only college in the state. Razorback assistant Bob Cleeland, thinking I was covering the tourney for the Gazette, chastised me for giving so much coverage to Hall’s visit. I didn’t write the article, but I would respect Ricky no less if he went to Lexington. In fact, it might prove to be a wise move. I have, however, lost a lot of respect for our governor after his intrusion into the recruiting war. He owes an immediate and sincere apology to all other coaches in this state.”

Several days later, a handwritten note arrived at our office addressed simply “Rex Nelson, Sports Editor, Daily Siftings Herald, Arkadelphia, Ark.”

No address was needed. The note was on governor’s office stationery. The letter was dated March 15.

Clinton wrote: “I know this may be impossible for you to believe, but I came to Monticello to watch a basketball game, not to recruit Ricky Norton for the U of A. By coincidence, I was talking to Eddie Sutton about other matters, learned he was flying down and asked if I could go because (a) I hadn’t been out since my daughter was born; (b) I love high school basketball and want to support it; (c) we needed to complete our discussion of unrelated matters.

“Contrary to rumors you have have heard, I was very careful about what I said to the Norton family and to the press and to everyone else. As for my shaking hands, I always do that, even in non-election years. Those who attended last year’s state championship game can attest to that.

“By the way, I would have been at the state championship tonight rather than here writing to you, but I had to stay home and babysit — something I love even more. If I gave any ASU fan or anyone else the wrong impression, I’m truly sorry. But it was a great game, and I’m glad I went.

“P.S. I do hope Mr. Norton elects to stay and play in our state, and I know you must feel the same way.”

Chelsea Clinton had been born Feb. 27, just 16 days earlier.

Bill Clinton would lose to Republican Frank White that fall in perhaps the greatest upset in Arkansas political history.

Our paths would cross countless times in the years that followed during my later stints as Washington bureau chief for the Arkansas Democrat and political editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Norton, meanwhile, signed with Arkansas. The Razorbacks won two Southwest Conference regular-season championships and one Southwest Conference Tournament championship during his four years as a Hog. Arkansas made it to the NCAA Tournament in each of those four seasons and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1981 and 1983.

In an interview several years ago with, Norton said: “My mom fell in love with Coach Sutton. He just blew her away. Of course, Coach (Pat) Foster did the heavy recruiting, and he and I formed a great relationship. All of of sudden, Kentucky pops up in the picture. I take a recruiting trip to Kentucky. I’m going to tell you, you take a trip to Lexington and it’s kind of hard to come away unsigned. It was a great trip.

“The night before signing day, I was in Little Rock at my aunt’s house, and we were having dinner. All of the family members were gathered around, and they said, ‘OK, where are you going to go to school?’ I said, ‘I’m going to the University of Kentucky.’ We had about 30 or 40 people there, and we had all been laughing and carrying on. And it got silent. I’m like like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I look at my mom and I said, ‘Mom, you look sad. You look disappointed. You told me during this process that you wanted me to be happy and you wanted me to make the decision because I’m the one that has to live with it. That’s what you told me, correct?’

“She said, ‘Yes, baby, that’s what I told you. But you know darn well I want you to be a Razorback.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So I went through some soul searching and talking with my mom. I called Coach Sutton and told ¬†him that I was coming to the University of Arkansas.

“I have no regrets. People ask me all the time, ‘If you had to do it over again, would you have gone to Kentucky?’ I say, ‘No way.’ Arkansas is home. I love Arkansas. I love the people of Arkansas, and the university was great to me. If I had to go through the process again, even knowing what I know now, I would go to the University of Arkansas and be a Razorback.”

One final note about the Norton interview: There was no mention of Bill Clinton.

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Downtown Little Rock: Some thoughts

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

Downtown Little Rock is close to becoming a really nice place for entrepreneurs to live and work; so very, very close.

I guess that’s why I find the things holding the neighborhood back frustrating.

If Little Rock is to grow in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, it must have a downtown that’s viewed by young, talented people as one of the best neighborhoods in the South. These are folks who like to walk or take their bikes to work and to the places they hang out after work.

Downtown Little Rock is much closer to achieving that “wow factor” — with the kinds of amenities that draw entrepreneurs to places such as Austin and Nashville — than most of us realize.

Let’s start with the positives:

The Clinton Presidential Center and Park and Heifer International gave new life to neighborhoods on the other side of Interstate 30. The Lost Forty and Rebel Kettle brew pubs have now come along. It didn’t happen as quickly as people had hoped. The Clinton Center was dedicated on a rainy day in November 2004. Heifer International dedicated its headquarters in March 2006. In June 2009, Heifer added the Murphy Keller Education Center, a facility with interactive exhibits designed to educate visitors about self-sufficiency initiatives in countries around the world. For a time, Little Rock’s leaders envisioned a nonprofit corridor, but nothing along those lines developed. Heifer International never built what had been described as “a Third World version of Epcot Center,” and Lion World Services for the Blind never moved to the neighborhood. But now Cromwell Architects Engineers is putting its headquarters in what once was a paint factory. Loft apartments are part of the mix. Donnie Ferneau and Kelli Marks are set to open a restaurant later this year known as Cathead’s Diner, and it’s already receiving a tremendous amount of buzz. And eStem Public Charter Schools is transforming a 112,000-square-foot warehouse into a second campus for students from kindergarten through the ninth grade. The school eventually will serve 1,300 students. So instead of a nonprofit corridor, we’re about to have a 24-hour neighborhood with a public charter school, offices, restaurants, loft apartments and craft breweries. It’s exciting to watch the transformation.

The River Market District has grown up. It has the variety of restaurants, bars and live music venues needed to be a true entertainment district. Thanks to Bobby Roberts, the visionary who headed the Central Arkansas Library System for 27 years before retiring in 2016, there’s also a cultural aspect to the district. Roberts believed that a new main library in what had been a hardware warehouse would ensure that the River Market District would be about more than after-dark activities. It also would be the place to go during the day. Roberts not only moved the main library into the old Fones Brothers warehouse, he created an entire campus that includes the Cox Creative Center and what once was the Arkansas Studies Institute. Fittingly, the CALS board recently renamed the ASI after Roberts. It’s now the Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art. It’s the home of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Center for Arkansas History & Culture, the Arkansas Humanities Council, part of the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service and 4 Square Gifts. The complex combined new construction with the renovation of the 1882 Porbeck & Bowman Building and the 1914 Geyer & Adams Building. CALS then built the beautiful Ron Robinson Theater as part of the new Arcade Building. Add to this mix the fact that the Museum of Discovery and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center are in the River Market District.

Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker are still hard at work. Those of us who love downtown Little Rock will be quick to tell you that neither of these two men are allowed to retire. They had a vision for what downtown could be when no one else did. They continue to build the new residential complexes that are necessary to make downtown a 24-hour neighborhood. They’re responsible for several new hotels in the River Market District along with a hip bowling alley and a soon-to-open beer hall. Unlike many of the so-called developers who have set their sights on downtown Little Rock through the years, Moses and Tucker actually finish the projects they announce.

Dr. Dean Kumpuris is also still hard at work. The longtime member of the Little Rock Board of Directors has treated Riverfront Park as if it were his front yard. In fact, you can find Kumpuris every Saturday working in the park. He has seen to it that the park now includes everything from sculpture gardens to splash pads. A number of people have had a hand in the revitalization of the riverfront, which for decades was little more than an industrial wasteland. But no one has been quite as dedicated as Kumpuris.

Warren Stephens is still ensuring that the Capital Hotel is one of the finest hotels in America. The hotel itself, the restaurant One Eleven and the Capital Bar & Grill have the feel of something you would find in a city much larger than Little Rock. As long as we have the Capital, people will have a reason to come downtown.

Development has expanded to areas other than Markham Street/Clinton Avenue and is headed south on Main Street. One block on Main Street soon will have six restaurants — Samantha’s Taproom & Wood Grill, Bruno’s Little Italy and Soul Fish Cafe do good business on one side of the 300 block. On the other side of Main Street on the 300 block, Brewski’s opened last fall and apartments above that sports bar now are being marketed as Mulberry Flats. The adjacent Rose Building, a 1900 design by noted Arkansas architect George Mann, soon will be the home of a restaurant known as Ira’s and a downtown location of Asian restaurant A.W. Lin’s, which already does business at the Promenade in west Little Rock. On the other side of Capital Avenue, Main Street is the new home of Three Fold, a popular Asian restaurant that serves noodles, dumplings and steamed buns. It has added life during the day to a block that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre keeps busy at night. Meanwhile, the Virginia-based limited partnership that bought the 92-year-old Donaghey Building on Main Street for $5.7 million in November has announced that it will convert the 170,000-square-foot structure into 152 apartments. Work is expected to begin in the second quarter of this year and conclude in November 2019.

Anita Davis, the godmother of the South Main District, is still hard at work with her Esse Purse Museum and other projects. Jack and Corri Sundell, who opened The Root restaurant in June 2011 after three years of planning, continue to knock it out of the park. So do Matt and Amy Bell at South On Main. Midtown Billiards has reopened following a devastating fire, Raduno may be the most upscale pizza restaurant in the state and Phil Brandon has moved his Rock Town Distillery to what’s known as SOMA. It all adds up to one of the funkiest, most eclectic stretches of street in the state.

The $70.5 million renovation of downtown’s old Robinson Auditorium was an unqualified success. Unlike a lot of government projects, this one came in on time and on budget. What’s now known as the Robinson Performance Hall opened on Nov. 10, 2016, after having been closed since July 1, 2014. The facility was built in 1939 as a WPA project and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. An adjoining conference facility overlooking the river can accommodate 530 people. The performance hall is now at least equal to what can be found in other cities this size and superior to most.

The Arkansas Arts Center is about to embark on a $70 million renovation. Studio Gang, which has offices in Chicago and New York, is the project’s lead architectural firm. Todd Herman, the Arts Center’s executive director, calls the design “transformational” and “inspirational.” Arts Center officials hope to expand the facility by one-third its current size, upgrade existing elements and better tie together the various parts of the complex. In February 2016, Little Rock voters approved the sale of $37.5 million in general obligation bonds for this project. Funds come from a 2 percent tax on hotel and motel stays in the city. More than $1 million in work is also being performed on the adjacent MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History. The Arts Center renovation should make the MacArthur Park neighborhood more of a draw for potential residents.

The early success of the Little Rock Technology Park bodes well for the future. A consortium of banks came forward with a $17.1 million loan, and work on Phase 1 of the tech park began in April 2016. The grand opening was a year later. The 38,000-square-foot incubator on Main Street connects three existing properties. Discussions about a technology park had begun a decade ago, and the city of Little Rock, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences signed on as sponsors. Little Rock taxpayers are contributing $22.5 million as part of a 2011 sales tax initiative. The cost of the first phase was $12.6 million for property acquisition and $6.8 million for renovations. The park’s board is planning Phase 2, which will consist of construction on what’s now a parking lot between the current complex and the KATV, Channel 7, studios. The new facility will include not only office space but also labs for research. Brent Birch, the tech park director, says: “The research stage is when you’ll see UAMS and UALR enter the picture in a big way. They’ll be seeking grants to pay for the research they do here. We’re discussing strategies to raise capital for Phase 2. We plan to pay off the debt on the first phase during the next five years. We don’t intend to keep piling debt on top of debt.”

As you can see, there are a lot of positives downtown. Here are the steps that must occur to tie it all together and make sure that downtown Little Rock truly flourishes:

An expanded police presence. The problem with aggressive panhandlers in downtown Little Rock has become worse, and the shootings in the summer of 2017 at the Power Ultra Lounge gave downtown a black eye that will take time to heal. We’re about to have a heated race for mayor of Little Rock, and that’s a good thing. It will focus attention on issues such as this that must be discussed. The No. 1 issue for each candidate (there’s not even a close second in my mind) is to come up with a plan to fill the many vacancies in the Little Rock Police Department and then keep all of those positions filled going forward. This should allow the LRPD to increase the number of foot patrols downtown. Such a presence will make it a more appealing place for both visitors and residents. If Little Rock is to grow in the next decade, downtown will have to be the goose that lays the golden egg. Want to kill the goose? Refuse to put those foot patrols on the streets, let the panhandling continue to increase and watch momentum cease.

An expansion of what’s known as the ambassadors program of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. In February 2017, the private group announced the start of this program. Two employees walk the streets, help visitors and report various maintenance issues. The initiative needs to be expanded, and every business with a presence downtown should be willing to put money into it. Gabe Holmstrom, the executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, says: “It’s going to take money, but I would love to see the program expand. Kansas City has 75 ambassadors downtown. They do everything from picking up trash to removing graffiti to walking people to their cars.”

The renovation of the Boyle Building at the crucial intersection of Capitol and Main. We’re coming up on four years now since the Chi family of Little Rock announced that it would transform the building into an Aloft Hotel. The signs went up, and then they came down. Almost eight months ago, it was announced that owner Jacob Chi was considering 96 apartments for the building, whose condition continues to worsen. Everyone I speak to about downtown Little Rock says the Boyle Building is the key to future investors taking an interest in other projects on Main and Capitol. The perception of downtown as a place that hasn’t fully taken off won’t change until something has happened with this building. In a statement on my Facebook page recently, Jacob Chi said: “Plans for the Boyle Building’s redevelopment have been procured, redone and further refined nine times just in the time since my family purchased the building. There are structural modifications that need to be made to the building. Essentially the Boyle Building has to be rebuilt from the inside out. That takes time and money. But it also takes care, dedication and commitment to the structure instead of taking the easy way out and cheapening the end product of the development. … I will not under any circumstance allow the reconstruction of the Boyle Building to be cheapened or for corners to be cut. There are active plans for the Boyle Building, and they are being continuously developed.”

Additional¬†projects on Main Street that must move forward. The condition of the aforementioned KATV building has become an embarrassment. KATV’s corporate parent — Sinclair — must make a decision whether to go ahead and sell the building or renovate it if the station is going to stay put. The status quo is unacceptable. Further south on Main, the renovation of the Donaghey Building also needs to happen.

The downtown revival moving west down Capitol Avenue. Good news came last week when it was announced that the renovation of the Hall-Davidson buildings on Capitol by VCC Construction of Little Rock will result in an AC Hotel by Marriott. There will be 112 rooms, a bar and an upscale restaurant that should bring new life to the intersection of Capitol and Louisiana. The five-story Hall building was built in 1923, and the three-story Davidson annex was constructed in 1947. Both structures are on the National Register of Historic Places. This hopefully will be the impetus for the development of what’s being called the Financial Quarter. Architects and planners have been meeting since 2015 and talking about about transforming this part of town, especially what Tucker calls the “mausoleum lobbies” of large bank towers. Glen Woodruff of Wittenberg, Delony & Davidson Architects told the Arkansas Times last year: “We’ve watched the street die in the sense that there’s no activity. We can be guilty of this. We drive up in the parking deck and come into our tower, and we might go downstairs for lunch or we might not. Then we’ll get back in our cars in the parking deck and drive home and literally never step on the street in downtown Little Rock. And we’re not alone in that.”

Holmstrom says: “There’s an unmet demand for places to live downtown. The city will soon complete the streetscape work on both sides of Main Street. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to walk from the River Market District all the way to South Main Street with plenty to do along the way. The gaps are slowly but surely being filled in. By January 2020, I think we’ll be close to having a true 24-hour downtown. Everybody loves to talk about what the millennials want, and the top thing they want is a walkable city. But they aren’t alone in that. We find that everyone from law school and medical school students to empty nesters want to live downtown and be able to walk to work, restaurants, concerts, museums and other attractions.”

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