The retirement state

It was 1948 and World War II veterans were starting families and buying homes after having attended college on the G.I. Bill.

In the flat cotton country of east Arkansas, a West Memphis businessman named John A. Cooper Sr. had an idea.

Cooper looked to the west — to the Ozark foothills to be exact — and purchased 400 acres near where Otter Creek runs into the Spring River. At first, he used his Otter Creek Ranch as a family retreat. But Cooper had a bigger plan in mind. He began to buy up other land in Sharp and Fulton counties, and in 1953 he formed the Cherokee Village Development Co. with the idea of selling lots to people in Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Gov. Orval Faubus attended the dedication of Cherokee Village in June 1955 (it was Faubus’ first year in office) and declared it to be the “coming mecca of the Ozarks.”

Cooper eventually built two golf courses, seven lakes, 350 miles of roads, a water system and three recreation centers.

“Less than 10 years after the town’s founding, Cherokee Village had grown so much that additional land was necessary to satisfy the demand for new homes,” Wayne Dowdy of Memphis writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, adjoining land was occupied by the Memphis Boy Scout Council’s summer camp, Kia Kima. In 1964, Cooper approached the Boy Scouts and offered to give them a larger tract of land on the South Fork of the Spring River in exchange for their property. The Memphis youth organization relented after Cooper agreed to construct several new buildings on the Boy Scouts’ new property. The Kia Kima trade and other land purchases expanded Cherokee Village to 13,500 acres by 1980.”

Dowdy writes that the development of Cherokee Village “had a profound impact on Arkansas. The retirement community industry became an integral part of the state’s economy as the older Americans who flocked to Cherokee Village transformed the state into one of the most innovative and popular retirement destinations in the United States.”

In the 1960s, Cooper set his sights on Bella Vista in northwest Arkansas, which had a long history as a resort.

John Spurgeon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “William S. Baker, a Benton County Presbyterian minister, and his wife Mary decided in 1915 to develop a summer recreation area in Benton County. Damming Sugar Creek created a large lake suitable for swimming. The Bakers’ plans called for adjacent tennis courts, golf links and nearly 400 lots selling at $100 each. A contest was used to select the resort’s name with the winning entry being Bella Vista. Business was not lucrative, however, and by 1917 the resort was offered for sale.

“Samuel and Mary Linebarger and their three sons moved in 1900 to Bentonville for a change in climate following Mary’s diagnosis with tuberculosis. After she died two years later, the family left Arkansas. The Linebarger Brothers Realty Co., founded by Samuel’s three sons, returned to purchase Bella Vista along with adjoining acreage, seeking a new investment. Initial expansion plans called for a pavilion suitable for dancing, a 30-room lodge and a dining hall. A nine-hole golf course was added in 1922, a large swimming pool in 1924 and the 65-room Sunset Hotel in 1929. In 1930, the brothers developed a cave into a nightclub, calling it Wonderland.

“The resort retained the Bella Vista name and opened from June to Labor Day, renting rooms by the day or the week, selling lots and building cottages. Bella Vista amenities included swimming, golf, tennis, fishing, camping, horse rides, rowing, games and dances with orchestral music. The Linebargers catered to wealthy, urban families who could spend the entire summer on vacation. Under the leadership of Clarence A. Linebarger, the youngest Linebarger brother, summer business progressively improved. The Great Depression, World War II and changing vacation concepts — with automobiles and highways allowing people to venture to new and distant places — resulted in the resort’s decline.

“Elzy Lloyd Keith, who operated the Lake Keith Resort in Cave Springs, purchased Bella Vista in 1952, billing it as ‘Bella Vista the Family Resort, the Beauty Spot of the Ozarks.’ Keith transitioned Bella Vista into a family resort, substituting roller skating for dancing, and added a restaurant, grocery and motel. … Keith closed the Sunset Hotel after one year, giving it to a Baptist minister to start a school. Within five years, the school also closed.”

Cooper moved in, quickly buying up land and dividing it into lots. During the next 35 years, more than 37,000 lots were sold. Almost 13,000 of them have been developed. A study in 1987 showed that 16.5 percent of all Benton County tax revenues and 45 percent of the property tax revenues for the Bentonville School District were coming from Bella Vista. The Bank of Bentonville reported in 1992 that 34 percent of its deposits came from Bella Vista residents.

The population of Bella Vista soared from 2,589 in the 1980 census to 9,093 in the 1990 census to 16,582 in the 2000 census to 26,461 in the 2010 census.

On Nov. 7, 2006, residents voted by a two-to-one margin to incorporate it as Arkansas’ newest city. With the explosive growth of northwest Arkansas, Bella Vista can no longer be considered a retirement community. It’s instead a growing municipality.

In 1970, Cooper set his sights on southwest Arkansas as he began to develop a 20,000-acre tract in Saline and Garland counties into Hot Springs Village.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes: “Cooper had been approached separately by two people with the idea of creating a retirement community, state Sen. Bud Canada and Peter D. Joers, the president of the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. After touring the property by air, Cooper realized the potential of the land and immediately bought 20,000 acres from Dierks Forests Inc. His plan was to create a peaceful retirement community in a natural setting that would offer all modern-day conveniences without the hassle of living in an urbanized city. Unlike his other two communities, Hot Springs Village was created as a gated community in order to provide security for its residents and as an experiment to see if the gated community would result in more residents than the non-gated communities.”

The population grew from 2,083 in 1980 to 6,361 in 1990 to 8,397 in 2000 to 12,807 in 2010.

There were smaller retirement communities in the Arkansas hills built by developers other than Cooper.

Horseshoe Bend — located in parts of Izard, Sharp and Fulton counties — was developed along the Strawberry River.

“In the late 1950s, Bill and Dick Pratt sold 200 acres of land to a group of developers from Texas,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “The brothers — businessmen from Little Rock and Newport respectively — had purchased abandoned land for a retirement community. The Texas developers began selling lots, but they then defaulted on their business loans, and the Pratts regained control of the community. Purchasing additional land, they continued selling lots, as well as creating streets and utilities for the new houses. Where the woods reportedly once hid a whiskey still, an airport was built.

“Creeks that flowed into the Strawberry River were dammed to create several lakes. Cedar Glade Lake failed to fill with water as was intended; engineers discovered that the water was emptying into a previously unknown cave. They spent more than $100,000 plugging holes in the bottom of the lakebed. … A feature called Gobbler’s Knob, frequented by local hunters, was converted into the Turkey Mountain Golf Course. Construction began in 1961, and the first nine holes were open to the public in 1963; the remaining nine holes were finished in 1971.

“The Pratts employed a sales team that at one time had 100 employees. In all, they created 56 subdivisions on 14,000 acres, and by 1974, they had sold 12,000 lots. Many of the houses were prefabricated. More than half of the new residents were from Illinois (which accounted for a quarter of the residents), Missouri, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin. The city was incorporated in 1969, creating a city government and a police force, as well as guaranteeing oversight of the city’s utilities. Various new churches were formed, including Lutheran, Episcopal and Roman Catholic. Each was the first of its denomination in Izard County.”

A film and television producer named Albert Gannaway came to town in the late 1960s with the idea of creating a theme park to be known as Ozarkland. A replica frontier homestead at Ozarkland was to be the set for a televised music program known as “Ozarkland Jamboree.” The park and the television program were both financial failures. East Arkansas music promoter and developer Gene Williams bought Ozarkland in the early 1970s with the idea of creating an amusement park to be called Frontierland. That effort also failed.

“In spite of these failures, the development of Horseshoe Bend provided jobs for residents of the area,” Teske writes. “Retired farmers and business professionals opened shops and restaurants, and roughly half the sales staff of the development hailed from Arkansas. Construction jobs also employed workers whose previous income from farming had been considerably less. Not only did Horseshoe Bend bring the first golf course and first public swimming pool into the region, it also introduced the first Kiwanis Club and the first legal drinking establishments.”

The Pratts decided to sell their holdings in 1974 to a group known as Gulf South Advisors. It turned out to be a corporation involved in questionable activities. Millions of dollars intended for the further development of Horseshoe Bend were lost. A lengthy bankruptcy case put a halt to growth. Former salesmen for the Pratts became independent real estate agents, and a municipal improvement district took over the golf course and lakes.

Meanwhile, just north of Eureka Springs along Table Rock Lake, Robert McCulloch (a Missouri entrepreneur known for McCulloch chainsaws and for purchasing the London Bridge and reassembling it in Arizona) began work on a 4,500-acre retirement community known as Holiday Island in 1970.

“The developers donated one acre of land to Grace Lutheran Church, which was formed in 1972 by 26 Lutherans,” Teske writes. “A Presbyterian church was formed in Holiday Island in the 1990s. There are also two Baptist churches and a community church. In addition to building homes, the developers created two golf courses, a marina, a shopping center and a recreation center. … The area also has two assisted living facilities, a campground and motels and rental properties.”

In Van Buren and Cleburne counties, three Fort Smith businessmen — Randolph Warner, Neal Simonson and George Jacobus — decided in the early 1960s to buy land on the north shore of what would become Greers Ferry Lake for a retirement community.

“They hired a retired cotton broker named C.M. Owen to find a suitable location,” James White writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In his Jeep, Owen followed the logging roads to a high point overlooking the green valley that was being filled to form the lake. A new corporation — Fairfield Communities Land Co. — formed by Jacobus, Simonson and Warner (later to become Fairfield Communities Inc.) began the purchase of land from the Nebraska Tie & Lumber Co., which owned the timberlands on the north shore of the lake. By 1965, the first 3,500 acres had been purchased by Jacobus and his partners. Lots were sold, and the price included a small annual amenities fee for the recreation facilities.

“All early activities centered near the marina, which was built in 1966. In 1967, more than 300 mobile homes were brought in to house the prospective lot buyers. The Wild Boar restaurant was built in 1967 on Highway 330. The second floor of this restaurant became the offices of FCI. The Civic Center building was built in 1972 and was where many of the social and community meetings were held. … Before and after the Wild Board restaurant burned in early 1980, the FCI offices and other businesses began moving to the present Indian Hills Country Club and the mall area.”

In addition to selling lots, the company began pushing timeshares in vacation homes in 1979. By 2006, about 7,800 lots had been sold (only 1,200 of them have houses on them). The number of residents was about 2,400, but there were an estimated 20,000 annual timeshare visitors. FCI later filed for bankruptcy, and the property owners association known as the Community Club assumed control. The city of Fairfield Bay was incorporated in 1993.

The development of these retirement communities established Arkansas as one of the most important retirement destinations in the country. Cooper, who was born at Earle in 1906 and received a law degree from the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., had a keen understanding of people who had been raised poor during the Great Depression before climbing into the middle class. He guessed correctly that some of them would want to retire in places where the cost of living was low and the winters weren’t as harsh.

The 1960s and 1970s were the boom period. Arkansas retirement developments advertised free vacations in markets across the Midwest. Couples would come to the state and spend a few days enjoying the amenities in exchange for participating in a “tour” with a real estate agent that was actually an intense sales pitch like something out of the David Mamet play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Male high school teachers and coaches often would spend their summers as salesmen. The good ones could earn more money in three months of selling lots than they had earned in nine months of teaching.

The problem for the rural Arkansas retirement communities (Bella Vista is an exception since it’s now part of an urban area) is that the Baby Boomers are different from their parents. Fewer of them want to live by a golf course in a rural area during their retirement years. They tend to prefer urban areas with amenities such as fine dining, live theater, symphony orchestras and sports events.

College towns also have proved to be popular retirement spots due to the number of events they offer.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at how these Arkansas retirement communities are now trying to reinvent themselves.

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