Clark Wetlands: Better late than never

An announcement has been scheduled for noon Monday on the west side of the Rock Island Bridge in downtown Little Rock. At that time, we’re supposed to learn the construction timetable and final design plans for a long-awaited wetlands project along the Arkansas River.

For those who love downtown Little Rock, this announcement hopefully will answer questions that have lingered for more than two years.

You see, the wetlands project initially was unveiled on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. It was reported at the time that “construction will commence this winter.” That would have meant by at least March 2008. More than two years later, there’s no evidence of construction.

Former President Clinton was in town for the 2007 announcement that a wetlands park would be named for the late Little Rock contractor Bill Clark. I liked Bill Clark a lot. He told it like it was and didn’t mince words, traits this city could use in more of its leaders. He was just 63 when he died of cancer in May 2007.

Clinton said on that fall day in 2007 that the wetlands would be “just as important as the library.” For years, this land has been little more than a storm water drainage pool along the river.

The $2 million project (which was the initial cost announced in 2007) is to stretch from the Clinton Presidential Center to the Interstate 30 bridge. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in October 2007 that the goal is to “transform a trash-strewn eyesore into a wildlife haven for blue herons, bats, bobcats, freshwater mussels and other animals.”

The 13-acre project, which will feature elevated walkways and boardwalks, was jump-started with a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Private donations were to pay for the rest. One can only guess (since there has not been much in the way of progress reports the past two years) that the Great Recession slowed the collection of those private donations.

In a tribute to Clark on the city of Little Rock website, it is written that the hard-driving contractor “always loved the outdoors and devoted much of his time to preserving and enjoying it. An avid hunter and fisherman, Bill spent many sunrises and sunsets overlooking the Arkansas River and wetlands, enjoying nature. Bill Clark was respected and beloved throughout Arkansas for his leadership, generosity, candor, humor and ability to make things happen. Throughout his career, he transformed many landscapes, and the transformation of the wetlands is a tribute to him personally. It is also a major, environmentally sensitive addition to the riverfront of Little Rock.”

The wetlands project will serve as a nice complement to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Central Arkansas Nature Center just to the west.

“He loved building things and loved leaving Mother Nature alone,” Clinton said of Clark in 2007. “Last year, I saw a fox on our wetlands site. … We couldn’t have done anything that would have made Bill Clark happier.”

Some of the aspects of the project outlined at the initial announcement were:

— A sandbar habitat restoration and demonstration area

— Channel development

— Bat boxes

— Wildlife viewing areas

— Concrete walks with railings, boardwalks, overlooks and the planting of native trees

— A storm water filter and trash collection demonstration project

Word that there’s about to be progress on the Clark Wetlands comes just a couple of weeks after it was announced that the federal Economic Development Administration has come through with $2 million to help the Clinton Foundation finally complete the conversion of the Rock Island Bridge.

Talk about better late than never. The Clinton Foundation had promised way back in 2001 to renovate the bridge. For several years, there has been a website (www.buildourbridge.com) devoted to the issue.

In addition to the $2 million from the Obama administration, the bridge project will utilize almost $1 million from the city of Little Rock, $4 million from the Clinton Foundation, $2.5 million from the state, $750,000 from the city of North Little Rock and $250,000 from donors.

We’re being told that construction on the bridge project could begin as early as this summer and is expected to take 18 months.

So hopefully we’re about to see progress on both fronts — the Rock Island Bridge and the Clark Wetlands. They indeed will be nice amenities, adding to the critical mass that has developed along both sides of the river during the past decade. I’m still drawn back, though, to the description of Bill Clark as someone known for “candor” and his “ability to make things happen.”

One lesson here is to be realistic with timetables when projects are made public and then communicate frequently (and, yes, candidly) with the public when it becomes evident that those timetables simply aren’t achievable. We at least owe that much to the memory of a man known for bringing construction projects to conclusion on budget and on time.

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