Archive for June, 2017

Portland of the South

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Though Brooklyn gives it a run for the money these days, you would be on safe ground if you were to describe Portland as the Hipster Capital of America.

The website Thrilllist once wrote of Portland: “Any heir to the city’s handcrafted, free-range throne must have these qualities: A substantial food and drink culture, an emphasis on artisan shops and a considerable number of eccentrics.”

The television sketch comedy series “Portlandia” is filmed on location in Portland and is set in a feminist bookstore. It’s a hipster favorite.

CBS News once said it looks for four attributes that it believes hipster cities have in common. To quote CBS:

“Young people. Hipsters can be any age, of course, but they’re more likely to be between 20-34.

“Education. A high percentage have a bachelor’s degree.

“Cafes. Where else would you debate the best method for brewing pour-over coffee?

“Yoga studios. Because apparently hipsters and yoga are BFFs.”

David Frasher, who has been the Hot Springs city manager since the spring of 2016, came to Arkansas after 11 years in Oregon. Six of those years were spent in the Portland area.

Frasher hails from the Kansas City area. He wanted to be back in this part of the country to be closer to his parents, who are in their 80s. He has a young daughter, and he wants her to spend time with her grandparents.

But more than family considerations brought Frasher to Arkansas. He saw in Hot Springs — especially its historic downtown — tremendous potential; the Portland of the South perhaps. It’s much smaller than Portland, but there’s the chance for that same type of outdoorsy, coffee-fueled, bicycle-friendly, craft brewery-filled buzz that attracts young, talented people.

“I looked at the photos in the job listing,” Frasher says. “There was this downtown tucked in the middle of a national park. It was unique. The descriptions of the place made it sound like Lake Wobegon.”

It’s far from Lake Wobegon.

There’s a contentious brand of politics that finds the city and county governing bodies at each other’s throats on a regular basis.

The mayor at the time of his arrival often was at war with fellow members of the Hot Springs Board of Directors.

The rubble of the burned-out Majestic Hotel was at one end of Central Avenue.

The Arlington Hotel was in a serious state of decline.

Large downtown structures such as the Medical Arts Building had stood empty for years.

Yet where others saw urban decay, Frasher saw potential.

Want to see the future of downtown Hot Springs?

Walk into Kollective Tea+Coffee, a trendy spot at 110 Central Ave. It’s a place that attracts the type of young entrepreneurs who might someday live in buildings such as the Medical Arts or the Velda Rose.

Frasher gets that. He also understands that this particular demographic wants things such as hiking trails and bicycle paths.

“There was a group that demanded those types of amenities when I was in Portland, and the city responded by providing them,” Frasher says. “I saw that the formula works, though you can’t lose your identity in the process. Everything can’t be new or you’re no different than some suburb. There are things you can do to attract people without losing your historic character.”

The Hot Springs Board of Directors recently authorized Frasher and his staff to seek a major grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to add a level to the Exchange Street Parking Plaza along with an entrance to the deck from Central Avenue. Some street parking downtown will go away so what are known as bump-outs can be built in front of Kollective, the Ohio Club, Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe, the Craft Beer Cellar and a stretch from the Porterhouse restaurant to a new restaurant known as the Vault. This will allow sidewalk dining at those locations. That should further spur the ongoing revitalization of downtown Hot Springs.

Frasher speaks of cities with a “Disneylike, contrived authenticity” (think Branson and Gatlinburg) and says he will work to make sure that downtown Hot Spring doesn’t turn into that.

He notes that city managers often stay below the radar, doing administrative work in relative obscurity. That hasn’t been the case in Hot Springs. He’s impressed that many people in Hot Springs have given money to build a park honoring David Watkins, his predecessor as city manager. Watkins died on Aug. 17, 2015, following a fall at his home. Watkins, an Alabama native, was a former city manager in Auburn, Ala., and Bryan, Texas, who took Hot Springs by storm after accepting the city manager’s job in 2012. He took on the old power structure of downtown Hot Springs. These men had allowed historic structures they owned to deteriorate. New fire codes were instituted. They required those property owners to make long-overdue improvements to their buildings.

“Adoption of the Thermal Basin Fire District in late 2013 continues to be a catalyst for downtown building safety,” Frasher said in his most recent State of the City address. “To date, 28 occupancies have been properly separated and protected within the 24 multistory downtown structures identified as unsafe. Sprinkler system installation, means of egress improvements, building sales, remodeling, stabilization and demolition have all occurred as a result of enforcement efforts within the district. The Hot Springs Fire Department continues to work with downtown property owners through the district to preserve legacy structures when possible while protecting public health and safety.

“In 2016, $14.8 million in real estate sales generated 25 new downtown businesses with an overall downtown capital investment exceeding $18 million. These numbers reflect a sharp increase compared to $8 million in real estate transactions generating 18 new businesses downtown in 2015. … The jewel of downtown is the newly opened Waters Hotel in the historic Thompson Building. The 62-room boutique hotel is situated in the heart of downtown, directly across from Bathhouse Row. It features The Avenue, a new restaurant with an award-winning young chef.”

Frasher spent much of his first year on the job listening to Hot Springs residents.

In an interview with The Sentinel-Record soon after taking the job, he said: “It’s important for the city manager to be engaged in the community. The first year is about making relationships. You can’t listen too much in that first year. I’m going to try to spend my first six months to a year just getting to know the values of the city. The challenge is to understand the value dynamic and make sure recommendations are consistent with those community values. As soon as you understand the values, you can give much better advice.”

Frasher listened.

Then the city’s often controversial mayor, Ruth Carney, resigned suddenly in March.

Everyone now seems to be pulling in the same direction at City Hall.

Of the current members of the Hot Springs Board of Directors, Frasher says: “They like each other, and they work well together. It’s full steam ahead for the city of Hot Springs. The potential here is incredible.”

In his State of the City address, Frasher noted: “Redevelopment projects continue to be stimulated by the city’s building permit fee holiday extension. … The gateway intersection of Malvern Avenue and Convention Boulevard was transformed after the former Austin Hotel was extensively renovated and renamed the Hotel Hot Springs. Across the street, the new Regions Bank building was dedicated along with a historic water trough fountain in an expansive plaza that punctuates this downtown gateway. The plaza and fountain exemplify the visionary planning and partnership between Regions Bank and the city.

“To further the transformation of this area, the Embassy Suites Hotel completed a major remodel at the other end of the Hot Springs Convention Center. Increased nighttime lighting along with the completion of the Wayfinding Trail linking the Hot Springs Greenway Trail with the National Park Service’s Grand Promenade augment the safety and connectivity of this intersection to the surrounding area.”

Four big things now need to happen for downtown to achieve its full potential:

  1. The new owner of the Arlington Hotel must do a complete renovation, which likely will cost more than $50 million. Any halfway effort is doomed to fail. This is the most iconic privately owned building in Arkansas, and it’s in bad shape. The Arlington should be to Arkansas what the Greenbrier is to West Virginia, the Homestead is to Virginia, etc. — our grand ol’ Southern resort. People will flock there it if includes rooms along the lines of the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, a first-class spa, hip bartenders and a well-known chef working in an updated version of that beautiful dining room known as the Venetian. Room upgrades also are needed at other hotels downtown.
  2. The city must find the best use for the former Majestic site. The spot where Central, Whittington and Park avenues meet is among the most high-profile locations in the state. How the city develops that property will help determine the trajectory of downtown for decades to come. I’m among those who favor a series of outdoor thermal pools to highlight the hot waters. People would be allowed to play in them and take photos with steam rising in the background. Test wells are now being drilled at the site, and a series of public meetings will soon commence so Hot Springs residents can provide input. Frasher says: “This place is named Hot Springs for a reason. You can’t forsake your name. When you do this project, it had better be special. You only get one chance to do it correctly.”
  3. What’s known as the Northwoods Urban Forest must be properly developed. This property of almost 2,000 acres has three lakes that once provided drinking water. The pristine area is within walking distance of downtown hotels and restaurants and eventually will include mountain biking and hiking trails, a bike shop and a watercraft rental facility. It will be a bit of outdoorsy Oregon come to Hot Springs. A November feasibility study by Pros Consulting Inc. noted: “The site, if developed, would contribute significantly to the quality of life and tourism in Hot Springs. The strategic recommendations contained in this document provide a road map for the future of Northwoods, where outdoor adventure recreation opportunities will enhance and promote environmental stewardship and natural resource management. The Northwoods property has enormous potential to be a local, regional and even national leader in outdoor adventure recreation while preserving its beautiful natural setting. The proposed development would provide Hot Springs with a unique site that balances recreation and environmental stewardship and would serve as a valuable asset that attracts users from across the country.” Frasher says there are 44 miles of possible trails. And these days, it’s important to note, Walton family money often follows the development of mountain biking trails.
  4. More downtown residents through the development of apartments and condos in large, empty buildings such as the Velda Rose, the former Howe Hotel and the Medical Arts Building. That will give the neighborhood a 24-hour vibe, making it even more attractive to tourists while drawing additional restaurants and boutiques.



Civil discourse on Petit Jean

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

I can understand why the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller loved it so here.

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m the only person at Stout’s Point, the easternmost tip of Petit Jean Mountain. It’s quiet. I listen to the oak leaves rustling in the wind and a couple of crows who insist on making their presence known.

This also once was known as Nelson Point. Daniel Nelson (who’s not an ancestor as far as I can tell) built his home here in the early 1890s and planted apple orchards. Those orchards later failed, and the Nelson land was sold. The name Stout’s Point honors William Cummings Stout, who in 1849 had become the first ordained Episcopal priest in the state. There was a hotel here — the Hotel Petit Jean — at one time. It became part of a YMCA camp in 1920. That camp ceased operations in the 1940s, and the land was purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, which now operates Camp Mitchell atop Petit Jean and lets the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism use Stout’s Point as a park.

“Petit Jean claimed 100 family farms by 1900,” Donald Higgins writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “For perhaps 75 years, small farm agriculture and orchards flourished on Petit Jean Mountain. By the late 1920s, however, a crash in cotton prices, droughts, blight and insect infestations, combined with poor soil management practices, took a toll on family farms. Petit Jean’s population decreased, making land available for other uses.

“Petit Jean’s Dr. T.W. Hardison had bigger ideas and in 1921 influenced Congressman Henderson Madison Jacoway to introduce House Resolution 9086 in the U.S. House of Representatives, creating Petit Jean National Park with the mountain’s rugged Seven Hollows area as its foundation. The action failed, but shortly thereafter, in 1923, Hardison led an effort by a group of local businessmen to donate land in Cedar Creek Canyon to become Arkansas’ first state park by Act 276 of the Legislature.

“Depopulation during the Great Depression and World War II struck hard at the mountain community, but as farming diminished, new residents and recreation enthusiasts took up the slack. The Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed park infrastructure drew increasing numbers of visitors, and various commercial enterprises blossomed.”

In 1953, Rockefeller began purchasing what essentially was worn-out scrubland that once had been used to raise cotton. Locals found jobs that paid far better than what they could get elsewhere in Conway County. It was unusual for working-class whites to take orders from a black man in the early 1950s, but Rockefeller foreman Jimmy Hudson quickly earned the respect of those who worked for him.

Land was cleared, grass was planted, fences were erected and an irrigation system was installed. Rockefeller brought the famed Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle to Arkansas. The tropical beef breed had been developed in south Texas. The breed was named for the Spanish land grant in south Texas where Richard King established the King Ranch. When the breed was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1940, it became the first beef breed to have been developed in the United States.

In his 2004 book “Winthrop Rockefeller, Philanthropist,” former aide John Ward wrote: “Winrock Farms was on the world stage as far as cattle breeding and research were concerned, and this was just what Rockefeller intended. From its inception, Winrock served to provide education, expertise and guidance to the many people who came in contact with it. Rockefeller was especially proud of the quality of the operation, from the scientific to the utterly practical, and the farm’s contributions to development of better beef cattle was widely known and appreciated.

“His annual cattle sale at the farm attracted buyers and interested participants from throughout the world who needed fine Santa Gertrudis breeding stock. … Representatives of the King Ranch were regular buyers at the sale, as was Rockefeller at their sales in Texas. To some degree, Rockefeller buying King Ranch stock at high prices and King Ranch doing the same at the Winrock cattle sale was a bit of public relations, but it was a source of amazement to those who watched prices of $40,000 to $50,000 being paid for outstanding bulls.

“Winrock had intern programs for youth and other opportunities for young and old alike to gain knowledge and experience, and it pleased him to see the acceptance and continuing development of the livestock and science surrounding it he so carefully husbanded at the farm.

“From that operation evolved the Winrock International Livestock Research and Training Center, established in response to Rockefeller’s request in his will that trustees of his estate be venturesome and innovative in creating and supporting institutions that would help people help themselves. A decade later, a larger entity was created from combining with Winrock two other organizations also rooted in the philanthropic tradition of the Rockefeller family. One was the Agricultural Development Council, which grew from an organization founded by Winthrop’s eldest brother, John. It was designed to stimulate and support economic training related to human welfare in rural Asia. The other was the International Agricultural Development Service, created with initial support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Its aim was to provide services to developing countries that wanted to strengthen their agricultural research and development programs. Together they became the Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development. The Winthrop Rockefeller Trust put more than $85 million into it during its first decade of existence.”

Marion Burton, who has long helped manage the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, said the late governor viewed Arkansas “as a place where he could make a difference. I think he was frustrated with where he had been living. I think he simply got tired of the routines.”

More than anything, Rockefeller wanted his ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain to be a place where people would come, discuss ideas and have time for contemplation in a relaxing setting away from their offices.

Former journalist and Rockefeller friend Dorthy Stuck said Rockefeller “found a certain amount of peace right here on this mountain. The big task now is to keep his legacy alive.”

That job has fallen to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, which the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust and the University of Arkansas joined forces to create when Winrock International moved its offices from Petit Jean to Little Rock’s Riverdale neighborhood. More than $20 million was spent to create a world-class conference center atop the mountain. A gallery and interactive theater tell the story of the Rockefeller years in Arkansas. The gallery is titled “Winthrop Rockefeller: A Sphere of Power and Influence Dropped Into a River of Need.”

Those involved in the institute’s creation have shared with me from time to time their frustration in finding a focus. In its early years, WRI tried to be all things to all people and met with limited success. In 2011, the chief operating officer of the Paley Center for Media in New York City, Christy Carpenter, was hired and tasked with increasing WRI’s national profile. Carpenter brought along her husband, actor Robert Walden, a New York native best known for his role as Joe Rossi on the television series “Lou Grant.”

Carpenter’s parents were two Washington-based journalists, Les and Liz Carpenter of the Carpenter News Bureau. Liz Carpenter went to work for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and was with LBJ on that November day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was Liz Carpenter who wrote the short statement Johnson released after being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One at Love Field.

Christy Carpenter seemed to have the pedigree needed to advance WRI. But by the spring of 2013, Carpenter — a city girl at heart — had tired of the remoteness of Petit Jean Mountain. Back at square one, the WRI trustees decided this time to go with an Arkansan who might stay around awhile. In December 2013, it was announced that Marta Loyd of Greenwood, the vice chancellor for university advancement at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, had been hired as WRI’s executive director.

Loyd worked at UAFS for 17 years. A dozen of those years were as vice chancellor. She had headed the school’s foundation since 2002 and helped raised the money needed to transform Westark Community College into UAFS.

During a luncheon speech last year, Loyd said: “I put very little serious thought into my future when I was young. I wanted to be a dental hygienist because I could work part time, make a good wage and be a wife and mother. I accomplished all of that by the age of 26.”

In a story about the WRI executive director, Jeff LeMaster wrote: “Her opportunity to step into higher education came when Westark was hiring a part-time continuing education program coordinator. The job requirements were a bachelor’s degree and organizational experience. Citing her organizational experience from church committees and the school PTA, Marta got the job. Not too long after, she was approached about helping to start a dental hygiene school at the college. She took that on for no extra pay but proved herself and made connections with key people in the college’s administration.

“Along the way, the university earned her loyalty by giving her an opportunity to stay home and care for her son after he was involved in an accident that almost claimed one of his eyes. Marta had to take off two weeks to care for him, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. It fell right when she was supposed to finish and submit an application for the new dental hygiene school, and her taking off the two weeks meant a six-month delay in the project. But the college’s president at the time, Joel Stubblefield, didn’t hesitate in telling Marta to take the time off. … She has never forgotten that. In her own words, Marta determined then ‘that if I ever became a leader, I would do all I could to make sure people didn’t have to choose between work and family.’

“After returning to work and successfully starting the dental hygiene school, Marta was hired to work in development. The vice chancellor for university advancement at the time, Dr. Carolyn Moore, brought Marta under her wing, promising her she would teach her everything she knew about development and that someday Marta could take her job. Moore also encouraged Marta to pursue advanced degrees, first her master’s in educational leadership and then her doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis.”

Loyd has proved to be a good fit at WRI, where she has raised staff morale and found ways to use the mountaintop property to its highest potential. She also has ensured that the Winthrop Rockefeller legacy is never forgotten.

“It’s ingrained in the culture here,” LeMaster, WRI’s director of communications and marketing, says. “There’s nothing we do that doesn’t recognize the impact he had on this state. We’re always mindful of his legacy.”

Janet Harris, WRI’s director of programs, puts it this way: “You can feel Gov. Rockefeller’s presence here. He chose Arkansas as his home and believed so strongly in the potential of this state. We want people to come here and see the possibilities for what Arkansas can be.”

Rockefeller loved it when national and world leaders would visit his ranch and say, “I had no idea there was anything like this in Arkansas.”

Loyd says she now smiles when she hears WRI visitors express amazement at how nice the facility is.

LeMaster says that one of the best things about Rockefeller is that he built the Republican Party in Arkansas while at the same time forcing the Democratic Party to modernize. Because of that, both Republicans and Democrats claim his legacy.

Loyd, LeMaster and Harris say Petit Jean is a place where people can unwind and think. It’s a place where partisan Republicans and Democrats can get together, debate issues in a thoughtful manner and decide on a path forward for the state.

“It’s quiet here,” Harris says. “It forces people to get to know each other.”

I wrote a post on this blog back in May 2010 that closed this way: “Arkansas needs a place such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, a secluded spot where we can gather to examine our past, debate our current problems and design our future. I can’t help but believe WR would be proud of what has become of the ranch he called home for almost two decades.”

There have been bumps in the road in the more than seven years since that was written. But I still believe WR would be proud, especially now that the institute that bears his name has found its focus.


Pine Bluff proud

Friday, June 16th, 2017

I’m proud of the people of Pine Bluff.

On Tuesday, they went to the polls and approved by more than a 2-to-1 margin a sales tax initiative designed to stem the loss of population in southeast Arkansas’ largest city.

Nothing is ever easy in Pine Bluff with its us vs. them, rich vs. poor, black vs. white style of politics.

Loud-mouthed demagogues have too often held sway in that city through the years. Indeed, there was organized opposition to this initiative and people (including at least one member of the Pine Bluff City Council) made outrageous claims.

This time, though, a majority of those who voted said “enough.”

Enough of the race baiting.

Enough of the scare tactics.

Enough of the politics of division.

They realized that this was the last chance to truly turn Pine Bluff around before it was in a death spiral.

During 2016, about 100 Pine Bluff residents participated in a planning process funded by the Simmons First Foundation. The effort is known as Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, members of the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force unveiled a 27-point plan for revitalization covering everything from education to infrastructure.

How to fund the implementation of those recommendations?

The five-eighths of a cent sales tax approved last week is expected to produce about $4 million annually for the next seven years.

Go Forward Pine Bluff officials have said that they will raise another $20 million in private funds to give the city a pot of almost $48 million to implement the recommendations.

There were plenty of business leaders across the state who were prepared to write Pine Bluff off for good had the initiative failed.

Now, there’s hope.

But it’s going to take a lot more than $48 million to revitalize Pine Bluff, which has been bleeding population in recent years. Additional private capital is needed.

A Yankee just might be what this bastion of the Old South needs.

Meet Tom Reilley.

Reilley is the entrepreneur who brought a wood pellet plant to Pine Bluff.

He lives in New Hampshire and began his career with the investment firm Bear Stearns. He was transferred to London by the company in 2002 to establish a wealth management division. Reilley left the company in 2007 to form a private equity company known as Kalan Capital.

While searching for the ideal place to locate the Highland Pellets facility, Reilley fell in love with the people of Pine Bluff.

He also came to appreciate the potential of the old building downtown that once housed the Hotel Pines.

More on that in a moment. First, a bit more about Highland Pellets.

There’s a growing demand in Europe for wood pellets, which are used as fuel for power plants. The United Kingdom and countries in the European Union are trying to phase out coal-fired plants.

In a statement last year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said: “I believe that this renewable resource can help play a role in the global shift toward clean and more sustainable energy sources. … As governor of Arkansas, I aim to maintain both the vitality of Arkansas’ forests as well as the wood energy trade between Arkansas and nations within the EU.”

EU member states are assigned national renewable energy targets.

Plans for the $229 million Pine Bluff wood pellet plant were first announced in August 2014. The initial employment is 68 people, and the facility is expected to create hundreds of indirect jobs in south Arkansas as it helps revitalize the timber industry in that part of the state. The facility will use about 1.4 million tons of wood annually, most Southern yellow pine. Pellets will be transported by Union Pacific to the Port of Baton Rouge in railcars and then loaded onto ships in order to make the trip to Europe.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission estimates the financial impact of the facility will be more than $86 million annually.

The Pine Bluff plant delivered its first pellets in April. It’s expected to be fully operational by the third quarter of this year.

According to the Highland website: “All fiber supplied to these sites will be sustainable with a significant proportion coming from residual waste wood (shavings and sawdust) from local sawmills.”

Highland Pellets is a privately held company with veterans from the wood pellet, finance and energy markets involved.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant last fall, Hutchinson said: “Highland Pellets’ leadership is passionate about this new facility and the impact it will have on Jefferson County’s economy. They are determined to have a lasting effect, not only on their employees but also also on the entire community.”

Arkansas has more than 18.8 million acres of forestland, providing plenty of raw materials for the plant. Reilley also took into consideration competitive utility rates and a good transportation infrastructure.

He didn’t count on becoming obsessed with rebuilding Pine Bluff.

Reilley was instrumental in the formation of a grassroots group known as Pine Bluff Rising that works to complement the efforts of Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, Pine Bluff Rising purchased the Hotel Pines for $1 from previous owner Elvin Moon.

At the time of the purchase, Reilley said: “Pine Bluff Rising is undertaking a thorough investigation of the structure as well as the challenges and opportunities that may exist.”

He told me in January that he didn’t know if the building could be saved but was willing to spend whatever was necessary to find out.

“The Hotel Pines was conceived and built to attract more business to the section of Main Street that lies to the south of the city’s railroad tracks,” states the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “As such, it provides a glimpse at one effort to alter a city’s main business and shopping area in the early 20th century. This classically designed hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 10, 1979.

“Since the area north of the tracks was a thriving commercial district, the city’s Main Street property owners believed that the presence of a modern hotel would lure business south of the tracks. Many of Jefferson County’s leading citizens became stockholders in the new enterprise. Architect George Mann, who designed the state Capitol and the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, was selected to plan the new facility. Paul Heerwagen of Fayetteville was hired to decorate the interior. Heerwagen’s experience included work on hotels such as the Piedmont in Atlanta. Gov. George Washington Hays delivered the principal address at the Nov. 6, 1913, opening.

“When it opened, the Hotel Pines was regarded as one of the finest hotels in Arkansas. Located near Union Station, the hotel offered porter service to carry baggage to and from the station. It also was the location of society balls and dances, banquets and business and civic meetings. … Hotel Pines operated continuously for 57 years. When passenger rail service to Pine Bluff ended in 1968, the hotel lost its primary clientele, closing in the spring of 1970.”

What once had been a symbol of Pine Bluff prosperity came to symbolize Pine Bluff’s decline.

Reilley knows that symbolism is important. He understands that a revived Hotel Pines will send a message statewide that Pine Bluff has reclaimed its status as the regional capital for the southeast quadrant of Arkansas.

Reilley thinks it will take at least $35 million to renovate the building. He plans to utilize a combination of state and federal historic renovation tax credits, New Market tax credits, charitable contributions and private capital to get the job done. He brought in WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock, East Harding Construction of Little Rock and interior designer Kaki Hockersmith to come up with a plan to show potential investors.

Writing in The Pine Bluff Commercial, Knowles Adkisson related what has gone on with the building the past few decades: “The property has changed hands many times over the years, usually with promises from the buyer to restore the hotel to its former glory. None have yet comes to pass, and it has presented a conundrum: Too expensive to rebuild yet too expensive to tear down. The city first inspected the hotel during the 1970s with plans to renovate it, according to Luther Drye, a former building inspector for the city. However, the city was never able to come up with the funds, he said. By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair.”

Drye told the newspaper: “It was substandard. The city has codes covering existing buildings. It was dilapidated, windows falling out, hitting the sidewalk below, stuff like that. There was a bad roof in the northwest corner. … The basement stayed full of water. That didn’t help.”

A nonprofit organization called Citizens United to Save the Pines purchased the property but couldn’t come up with the funds to restore it. Moon, a Los Angeles resident who grew up in Pine Bluff, bought the hotel in 2008 but also failed to find funds for renovations.

Pine Bluff Rising announced in early June that it will move forward with renovation efforts. The group released a statement that said: “Some have asked why we are doing this. The answer to us is clear: We wish to help rebuild the economic, social and cultural heart of downtown Pine Bluff through an asset the community can … point to with pride.”

I sometimes compare Pine Bluff to an old boxer who has been knocked down many times but is trying to make a comeback. I find that people across the state are now rooting for Pine Bluff rather than making jokes about Crime Bluff.

Reilley wants a building that will have people coming and going at all hours since it will include doctors’ offices, dentists’ offices, floral shops, beauty shops and the like in addition to hotel rooms. He dreams of restaurants, craft breweries and live music venues up and down the street. He wants to see the day when people from places like Dumas, McGehee and Warren will no longer need to drive all the way to Little Rock for a night out.

Reilley has been especially impressed by the city’s new mayor, Shirley Washington, a former educator.

“Think of her as a no-nonsense principal,” he says. “That’s exactly what Pine Bluff needs.”

He’s an optimist in a town where it had become hard to be optimistic.

Reilley, who bought a home in Pine Bluff, explains his efforts this way: “I’ve never been to a place with such a deep sense of community. People who could have left Pine Bluff long ago refused to do so because they love the place so much. And I fell in love with those people. Last year, even though I was extremely busy lining up financing and hiring a Highland management team, I started asking questions that people had a hard time answering. I wanted to know how a place with such a storied history — a place filled with people who love it — could have gotten into the shape Pine Bluff is in now.”


Driving through the south Arkansas pines

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

I had spoken at a funeral service in my hometown of Arkadelphia on a Saturday morning in June. Since the rest of my family was in Texas, I decided to spend the afternoon driving through the pine woods of south Arkansas.

The goal: To visit all three of the small state parks that mark Civil War battles that occurred during the Camden Expedition of 1864 — Poison Spring in Ouachita County, Marks’ Mills in Cleveland County and Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County.

Historian Derek Clements explains the expedition this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Part of the Red River Campaign, the Camden Expedition resulted from Union Brig. Gen. Frederick Steele’s orders to strike south from Little Rock and converge with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ column in northwest Louisiana before marching to Texas. Because of poor logistical planning, horrible roads and strong Confederate resistance, Steele abandoned this plan to occupy Camden instead. Losing battles at Poison Spring and Marks’ Mills, Steele became unable to supply his army and retreated toward Little Rock. The Confederates caught Steele while he was crossing the Saline River, engaging in the last battle of the campaign at Jenkins’ Ferry.”

Textile mills in the North were starved for cotton by 1864. The thought was that with Banks coming up the Red River in Louisiana and Steele marching south through Arkansas, the two forces could capture prime cotton-growing land in east Texas.

Those who know me best realize that I love visiting all parts of Arkansas. Days spent in the Delta or the Ozark Mountains usually are pleasurable days. But south Arkansas is where I was raised, and I’m most at home when driving through the pine tunnels of the Gulf Coastal Plain. I took U.S. Highway 67 south out of Arkadelphia to Gurdon, passing the spot at Gum Springs where a Chinese company hopes to build a $1.3 billion pulp mill that will use the pine timber that dominates the southern part of our state.

At Gurdon, I headed south on Arkansas Highway 53, crossing the Little Missouri River as I made my way from Clark County into Nevada County, where I picked up Arkansas Highway 24. That highway will take you through Chidester and Bragg City in Ouachita County on the way to Camden. I turned off before reaching Chidester so I could cross White Oak Lake for the first time in many years. The land flooded by the lake was acquired by the federal government during the Great Depression as part of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937. The act was designed to provide land ownership for tenant farmers. The state acquired the property in 1957, and White Oak was constructed in 1961. Six years later, a state park was opened on the shores of the lake.

I reached Poison Spring a few minutes after crossing the lake. It was quiet in these pine woods with only one other car parked there. The small park, which includes a short hiking trail, was established by the Legislature in 1961 at a time when Arkansans were beginning to mark the centennial of the Civil War. The trail leads through the sand hills that mark much of this part of Arkansas, a reminder of a time millions of years ago when the Gulf of Mexico covered the area.

I remember camping here more than four decades ago as a member of Boy Scout Troop 24 of Arkadelphia.

On April 18, 1864, Confederate troops ambushed a Union foraging expedition that had been sent by Steele from Camden to find food.

“On April 17, Steele sent a force of more than 600 men and four cannon under Col. James M. Williams with 198 wagons to seize 5,000 bushels of corn that were reportedly stored west of Camden,” writes Mark Christ of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. “Marching to White Oak Creek some 18 miles from Camden, Williams sent his troops, which included the First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment, into the surrounding countryside to gather corn at area farms and plantations. Though Confederate cavalry had managed to destroy about half of the corn, the Yankee troops gathered the remainder, as well as other plunder, and regrouped at White Oak Creek. Williams was joined the next morning by a 501-man relief force of infantry, cavalry and two additional artillery pieces.

“Confederate Brig. Gen. John Sappington Marmaduke, meanwhile, positioned about 3,600 Rebel cavalrymen backed by 12 cannon between Williams’ column and Camden, blocking the Camden-Washington Road near Poison Spring. In addition to Arkansas, Missouri and Texas horsemen, his force included Col. Tandy Walker’s Choctaw Brigade from the Indian Territory.”

The fight ended in a Union retreat with Williams having had 301 men killed, wounded or missing. There were fewer than 145 Confederate casualties.

After reading the markers, I got back on Highway 24 and headed into Camden, which was among the state’s leading cities at the time of the Civil War with a population of more than 2,200 people.

“During the 1850s, Camden served as the supply center for several counties and was the mercantile center for a radius of 100 miles,” Daniel Milam writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “During this time, as many as 40,000 bales of cotton were shipped from its wharfs in a single year. As a steamboat river port, Camden had the accommodations and transportation to service the planter-provisioning trade to New Orleans. … After the Civil War, cotton production remained important to Camden. Much of it was accomplished by sharecropping.

“Steamboats continued to navigate the river, but railroads were coming. Trains opened up markets for Ouachita County’s pine and hardwood forests. Though they were challenged by the railroads, the steamboats continued to serve Camden until the 1930s.”

Camden flourished during the first half of the 20th century.

Oil was discovered in Ouachita County in the 1920s, allowing some of the county’s residents to become wealthy.

International Paper Co. constructed a large paper mill at Camden in the late 1920s.

Camark Pottery and Grapette sodas became well-known brands that came out of Camden.

The Camden Army Air Field opened in 1942. The Shumaker Naval Depot was constructed just across the county line in Calhoun County. The depot closed in 1957, but the land was transformed into the Highland Industrial Park, which attracted several defense contractors.

The city’s population soared from 3,238 in 1920 to 15,823 in 1960.

The population has been falling steadily since the early 1980s and was down to 12,183 in the 2010 census. The biggest of the body blows came when IP closed its mill in 2000.

Camden is filled with beautiful old homes such as the McCollum-Chidester House. As I entered town, I noticed that the parking lot of the Camden Country Club (I once watched the Belmont Stakes on a television in the bar there while attending a wedding reception) is packed. It’s the weekend of the four-ball golf tournament, still an important social event in south Arkansas.

I looked at the other side of the highway where the Gay’s Steak House stood. It was a favorite stop of my parents when we would go to Camden to watch Arkadelphia High School play football and basketball games at Camden High School (which no longer exists) and Fairview High School.

I headed downtown and made my way to the White House Cafe for lunch. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in Arkansas, having been established in 1907 by a Greek immigrant named Hristos Hodjopulas. It was next to the depot, serving those aboard the many trains coming in and out of Camden. The founder sold the restaurant to a cousin named James Andritsos. Camden was so busy in those days that Andritsos made it a 24-hour diner. The restaurant is now open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.

From Camden, I followed U.S. Highway 278 through Locust Bayou, Hampton (stopping to read the Civil War marker on the grounds of the Calhoun County Courthouse), Harrell and Banks on my way to Warren. Unfortunately, it was a bit too early in the summer to find Bradley County tomatoes for sale on the side of the road. Still, I enjoy driving those brick streets on the square around the beautiful Bradley County Courthouse.

I then got on Arkansas Highway 8 and passed through one of my favorite small towns in Lower Arkansas — New Edinburg. Though empty, the buildings that once housed several of the old stores that served those who lived in that part of Cleveland County still stand. It’s like a movie set.

“New Edinburg was initially dubbed Edinburg, with a post office under that name beginning in 1876,” Paula Reaves writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “John Fowler was the first postmaster. By 1891, the town had been renamed New Edinburg, as suggested by John H. Cherry. At that time, there were two churches, a livery, several mercantile stores, grist mills, gins and blacksmiths. The Saline River Railroad, which passed through the town, was chartered in 1897 and was running by 1898. It was a spur of the Cotton Belt.

“In 1904, the Bank of New Edinburg was organized with E.M. Attwood as the founder and president. During the Great Depression, it was the only bank in the county that remained open. By 1936, there were several merchants in New Edinburg as well as cafes and a beauty shop. One building housed both the central telephone office and the Knight Theater, which showed matinees at noon for children on their lunch break from school and also had shows after school and on Saturday night.

“New Edinburg was known for having a tree in the middle of the road, which traffic had to go around. The tree had to be cut down when the road was paved and became a state highway in July 1940.”

Soon after leaving New Edinburg, I came upon Marks’ Mills State Park and stopped to read the markers. The battle here took place on April 25, 1864, as Confederate troops ambushed a Union supply train.

“With supplies dwindling, the acquisition of rations became important to the Union troops,” Clements writes. “The arrival of provisions from Pine Bluff on April 20 convinced Steele that more materials could be obtained there. Three days later, he dispatched Lt. Col. Francis Drake with more than 1,200 infantrymen, several pieces of artillery and cavalry support with 240 wagons to obtain supplies at Pine Bluff. An unknown number of white civilians and 300 black civilians accompanied the Union force to safety. On the morning of April 25, 150 cavalrymen from Pine Bluff met Drake, increasing the Union column to almost 1,800 combatants with 520 troops trailing the column at some distance.

“Learning of Drake’s departure from Camden, Confederate Brig. Gen. James F. Fagan positioned his more than 2,000 cavalrymen near the juncture of the Camden-Pine Bluff Road with the Warren Road, cutting off Drake’s route. Setting an ambush, Fagan order Brig. Gen. Joe Shelby’s division to the east on the Camden-Pine Bluff Road to block possible escape toward Pine Bluff. Brig. Gen. William L. Cabell’s division was to attack from the southwest.”

The overwhelming Confederate numbers won the day.

“Cabell’s command suffered 293 casualties (41 killed, 108 wounded, 144 missing) while Union casualty estimates ranged from 1,133 to 1,600 with most being captured and an estimated 100 killed,” Clements writes. “The Confederates captured about 150 black freemen and are believed to have killed more than 100 others. The defeat of Drake’s command had a significant impact upon Steele’s position at Camden. Coupled with the defeat at Poison Spring, the loss at Marks’ Mills prevented Steele from obtaining much-needed supplies for his army. Already on reduced rations and with reports of Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith’s command marching northward from Louisiana, Steele’s position became untenable. With all possibility of supporting Banks’ campaign on the Red River gone, the Union Army silently slipped over the Ouachita River on the night of April 26, abandoning Camden and beginning a desperate race back to Little Rock.”

I made my way to Kingsland so I could say I had been in the birthplace of Johnny Cash (there’s only one small marker there). Kingsland was created in the 1880s when what would later become the Cotton Belt railroad was completed across the county.

“Seventy-five people, mostly engaged in the timber industry, lived near the railway station when Austin Gresham applied for a post office for the community in December 1882,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His first selected name, Arkatha, was refused by the postal service, as was his second choice, Cohassett. Kingsland was his third choice, and it was approved in June 1883. The second-class city was incorporated in 1884. At the time, it contained three steam-operated sawmills, a planing mill, several stores, two hotels, a druggist, a livery stable and a blacksmith. A Methodist church was begun in 1884, followed by two Baptist churches the following year.”

By 1889, there were nine sawmills in the area. The Cleveland County Bank opened that year, and a brick factory went up the next year. Cash was born near Kingsland in 1932, but his family headed to the new resettlement colony at Dyess in northeast Arkansas when he was 3. I drove from Kingsland to Fordyce and then headed north on U.S. Highway 167 to visit Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County.

The battle at Jenkins Ferry occurred on April 29-30, 1864, as Steele and his troops made their retreat to Little Rock.

“On April 29, Steele’s column arrived at the Saline River,” Clements writes. “Without delay, engineers began building pontoons across the swollen river, and soldiers began constructing crude battlements. … Marmaduke’s troops arrived and began skirmishing with the rear guard of Brig. Gen. Frederick Salomon’s division, stopping as darkness fell.”

The fight resumed at daylight the next day and lasted until 12:30 p.m. when the Confederate attack was called off.

“After conferring with Steele, Salomon moved his men across the river to safety,” Clements writes. “Union troops destroyed what could not be easily carried, including the pontoon bridge, and continued marching to Little Rock. The Confederates turned to gathering the wounded and reforming their shattered ranks. … The Confederates claimed losses of 86 killed, 356 wounded and one missing, and the Union troops claimed 63 killed, 413 wounded and 45 missing. Most historians think the numbers were greater because some units did not file official returns.”

My south Arkansas excursion wasn’t quite finished. Before returning to Little Rock, I took a slight detour to Prattsville (the Grant County community that produced Arkansas business titans Witt and Jack Stephens) for a fried catfish dinner at that classic restaurant known as The Whippet.

Dr. Everett Slavens

Monday, June 5th, 2017

I had the honor of speaking Saturday in Arkadelphia at the memorial service for one of my college professors, Dr. Everett Slavens. Here are my remarks:

The older I get, the more I realize how blessed I was as a boy.

I grew up in a college town. Not only was it a college town, it was this town — Arkadelphia — a place small enough for everyone to know and care for each other.

I took it for granted as a boy, but because of the existence of two four-year institutions of higher education, the Arkadelphia in which I was raised in the 1960s and 1970s was far different from other towns its size in south Arkansas.

What’s now Ouachita Baptist University began developing the wooded hills near the Ouachita River in the late 1950s for faculty housing. My family moved into that neighborhood when I was just a year old, and Ouachita Hills was the only neighborhood I knew growing up. Most of those in the neighborhood were faculty members at Ouachita with a few Reddies from what’s now Henderson State University sprinkled in.

My mother and father were Ouachita graduates, yet we were different from our neighbors since my parents ran a business downtown rather than being employed at Ouachita or Henderson. Our family friends included a noted composer, a talented playwright, a famous basketball coach, a well-known football coach, writers, philosophers, theologians and even the state’s lieutenant governor.

You couldn’t get that in a Malvern or a Camden.

It was just a short walk to the Ouachita River and Mill Creek, where I could wade and throw rocks. There was a pond across the street to fish in and an old barn to hide in. Ouachita had cattle and horses in the pasture across the street from our house in those days. So even though we were inside the city limits, it was like living in the country, albeit a country filled with highly educated, articulate and interesting people.

Dr. Everett Slavens was a piece of the tapestry of my blessed boyhood. He was an integral part of a special place at a special time.

In a story published shortly after his death last month, Dr. Randall Wight, a current Ouachita faculty member, described him as “a profile in courage, a figure of lore.”

Dr. Wight went on to say: “He arranged his life so that nobody felt sorry for him. For generations of students and colleagues, his name conjures a Ouachita not lost in the mists of time.”

One of the things that characterized those talented men and women on the Ouachita faculty was a sharp wit and a brilliant sense of humor. Dr. Slavens’ wit was razor sharp.

Yes, Everett Slavens was blind, but indeed we never felt sorry for him because he didn’t feel sorry for himself. His blindness, in fact, was not something I really noticed as Dr. Slavens would walk through our neighborhood.

At least I didn’t pay much attention to it until my freshman year at Ouachita when both Johnny Wink and Tom Auffenberg — two other witty members of the Ouachita faculty — somehow convinced gullible new students that Dr. Slavens really could see.

“It’s all an act,” Auffenberg would state flatly. “Watch how easily he makes his way around campus. No one truly without sight could do that.”

One Ouachita professor might pull my leg.

But two?

Surely both Wink and Auffenberg wouldn’t both joke about such a thing.

And surely Dr. Slavens wouldn’t be in on the joke, refusing to provide a straight answer to anyone with the courage to ask.

My doubts increased one warm spring afternoon on the first floor of the former World War II-era barracks that only Ouachita could pass off as a classroom building. My friend Wayne Fawcett from Cabot — now the public school superintendent at Paris — decided he would show up to answer the roll and then quietly climb out the window so he could be at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs that afternoon in time to take advantage of a hot tip on the third race.

With Wayne halfway out the window, Dr. Slavens tilted his head in that direction and said: “Mr. Fawcett, if you need to leave, you’re free to use the door.”

Embarrassed, Wayne sat back down in his seat and never missed class for the remainder of the semester.

I understand that type of thing happened more than once through the years.

What a teacher he was, this man who refused to let blindness be an obstacle.

I might have been a communications major, but all of my electives were in history and political science. It was an all-star cast of historians at Ouachita in those days — Cole, Coulter, Granade, Auffenberg, Slavens. In baseball, that would be known as depth on the mound. Schools five to 10 times the size of Ouachita couldn’t claim such depth in their departments. I soaked up every opportunity to hear their lectures. And I’m a better person because I did so.

As one of Everett Slavens’ former students, I’m here today to tell you that Johnny Wink and Tom Auffenberg were right. He could see.

Here’s what Dr. Slavens could see:

He could see the potential in his students, many of whom came from small towns in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana and had never really been exposed to the wider world around them.

He could see that opening up these new worlds to them would improve their lives in the decades ahead.

He could see that forcing them to defend their positions and rely on facts rather than emotions would make the world of work an easier place for them to navigate.

He could see that he was truly making a difference in their lives.

With each passing year, we lose more and more of those men and women who were so influential in the first 22 years of my life, the years I spent in Arkadelphia.

I’ll always appreciate what they did for me and thousands of others.

Well done, Dr. Slavens.

Well done, good and faithful servant.