Now comes word that the city of Little Rock has moved that tired ol’ stone that had languished all these years on the grounds of City Hall to a spot down by the river. It’s part of the excavation project that has been taking place off and on for months at the foot of the Junction Bridge.
In an incredible example of hyperbole, one can find this language in a “design narrative” on the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department website: “It has been noted that the second most asked question from visitors to our city is, ‘Where is the little rock?’ . . . It is anticipated that La Petite Roche will have a huge tourist impact.”
The second most asked question? Really? What’s the first?
I’m reminded of the place (no longer in business) near the intersection of Markham and University that for years advertised the “second coldest beer in town.”
Let me put it this way: I moved back to Little Rock from Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1989. During the past two decades, I’ve hosted numerous visitors from across the country. I’ve proudly given them tours of the city.
But I’ve yet to have anyone ask, “Where’s the little rock?”
What about you?
Perhaps my visitors weren’t the norm. But I just don’t see this having that “huge tourist impact” described in the narrative. A “huge tourist impact” would be people booking rooms by the hundreds at the Peabody Little Rock just for the chance to walk out the door and see a rock.
So let’s put aside the silly hyperbole and try to rationally examine the situation.
The Roy and Christine Sturgis Foundation, which has done a tremendous amount of good work across this state, awarded a grant of $250,000 to help fund the La Petite Roche project. The Riverfest organization, which uses the funds raised from its annual festival to support improvements to Julius Breckling Riverfront Park, threw in another $100,000. The city refinanced its park bonds, and $100,000 of that money went for the project. The city then supplied staff and equipment for what would add up to about a $1 million effort.
Back to the breathless prose in that January 2009 narrative: “La Petite Roche project aims to create an interpretive and hands-on experience to showcase the significance and history of our city’s landmark and namesake. The historical magnitude of La Petite Roche has motivated an inspired effort to see that the little rock is appropriately featured and interpreted as part of the city’s cultural landscape. … The ultimate outcome of the project will raise La Petite Roche to a level that is equal to its significance as the landmark and namesake of the city of Little Rock.”
The narrative went on to gush: “A combination of vertical stone walls and slopes to terraced, leveled areas will provide for a variety of spatial experiences and settings. Within these spaces will be the interplay of light and shadow against native plant material and stone boulders. The rock itself will be exposed with the use of native grasses and shrubs to soften its edges.”
Excited yet? You think the kinfolks in Des Moines are booking their trip?
The best I can figure, city employees began the excavation of the hillside near the Junction Bridge and just didn’t find much in the way of a rock outcropping to expose. So they moved that 4,700-pound boulder over from City Hall, where it had been the past 78 years (ever since the Little Rock Civitan Club donated it). Most of the rock at the base of the railroad bridge had been blasted away in the late 1800s in order to build the bridge.
Now, it’s time for the city to declare victory and go home. Thus the La Petite Roche plaza will be dedicated May 26. We’re told that signs explaining the rock formation’s history and importance to the city will be installed. I love history, and I hope these signs will provide a nice history lesson for visitors.
But why can’t I shake the nagging feeling that this whole thing has been quite the boondoggle?
I know. Much of the project was funded by a private foundation. A private foundation can do whatever it wants with its money.
Yet how much better, at this point in our city’s development, would it have been if all of this money, time and effort could instead have been devoted to the completion of the Little Rock portion of the Arkansas River Trail?
I sit at Bill and Skeeter Dickey Field at the Junior Deputy baseball complex along Cantrell Road on these spring evenings to watch my youngest son play baseball. As I look toward Cantrell from the stands, I never cease to be amazed by the large number of bicycle enthusiasts making use of the trail.
A major boost to the Arkansas River Trail is about to occur. Work is finally set to begin on renovating the Rock Island Bridge adjacent to the Clinton Presidential Center. It’s now time for Little Rock to complete work on its part of the 14-mile trail. Frankly, far more people will make use of this amenity than will ever go look at a boulder down by the river.
A 14-mile loop will be anchored by the Big Dam Bridge to the west and the Rock Island Bridge to the east. An extension eventually will connect the 14-mile loop to Pinnacle Mountain State Park and the 225-mile Ouachita Wilderness Trail. This is truly a project that will receive national attention when completed, setting Little Rock and North Little Rock apart from most metropolitan areas.
For now, there a couple of things that should be done:
1. Come up with unified signage to mark the trail, track the mileage and describe spots along the way. The signs should look the same on the north side and the south side of the river. Little Rock and North Little Rock have tended to work separately of each other (with North Little Rock usually running far ahead of its larger neighbor to the south when it comes to providing recreational amenities for youth and adults), but a unified look is important.
2. Update the website. Keep it updated. Do a better job of publicizing what already exists. If you Google “Arkansas River Trail,” the first link that comes up is the website www.rivertrail.org. Try this: Go to the website and click on Events. The most recent one listed? November 2004. Your read that correctly — November 2004.
What already exists of the Arkansas River Trail is, to borrow a word Houston Nutt liked to use on a regular basis, “special.” It’s about to become better.
As far as La Petite Roche, let’s just say I hope people visit the site and enjoy it.