Help For Your Ugly Streets

Richard Mason

Help for Your Ugly Streets

Last January, my wife and I spent our wedding anniversary at the Alluvium Hotel in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the next day we continued on to Columbus to take care of some business. I’ve made the trip numerous times, usually driving straight across east Arkansas ending up still on Highway 82, when I arrived in Columbus. I guess I’ll always marvel at the Mississippi River’s Delta, and since I’m a geologist, I can visualize the vast amount of water from the melting Ice Age Glaciers that created the Delta.
January is bleak in the Delta, since the once great swamps have been drained, the trees cut, and the river has been tamed with levees to stop the flooding. The mile after mile of plowed dirt is as boring as any place I’ve ever been. However, some of the entrances to several Delta towns have been perked up by planting crepe myrtle trees along Highway 82 and by creating crepe myrtle tree-lined boulevards into their towns. Greenville, with its casinos and dead-as-a-sack-of-hammers downtown, has planted several hundred crepe myrtle trees along Highway 82 leading into town, and although their downtown is almost vacant, your first impression, as you drive into town, is extremely positive. There’s not enough space in this column to comment on their downtown except to say, “Needs work.” However, they are doing the right thing in planting the entrance-way crepe myrtle trees, and by letting them grow tall with only trimming the very lower branches—they look great.
We continued on across the Delta, stopping at Indianola where we stopped in their very nice, viable Main Street downtown and dined at the Crown Restaurant. Great restaurant, and I think, if it were Michelin rated, it would deserve a “Worth a Detour”. Again we found their entranceways and actually throughout the town, streets lined with tall, crepe myrtle trees. That was when it began to occur to us that, in general, folks in Mississippi don’t chop off their crepe myrtle trees like they do in most Arkansas towns. It seemed to me that it was 80% tall crepe myrtle trees and 20% chopped off semi-bushes, whereas El Dorado has 80% (or more) chopped off crepe myrtle trees, and many other Arkansas towns follow the same trimming as if crepe myrtles were bushes instead of trees. The difference is remarkable and extremely noticeable, and for once, at least some Mississippi towns have gotten it right. Of course crepe myrtle trees shouldn’t be chopped off, and that will change one day. However, folks will tell you that’s the way they’ve been doing it for years, but the Master Gardeners and every nurseryman or woman worth their salt, will tell you it’s the wrong way to trim crepe myrtle trees, so don’t commit, crepe murder by chopping them off.
I know taking a lesson from Mississippi would choke some folks, but let’s just do a “what if” here in my home town. Okay? What if the City of El Dorado actually tried to do something about the eyesore of South Arkansas, North West Avenue, the entrance-way avenue into town? How about making it a boulevard with a limited turn lane from Walmart to Locust Street and then plant crepe myrtles trees every 20 feet in about 75% in what is now the endless turn lane. Of course, while the City is at it, they could plant hundreds more along the City right-of-ways on both sides of the street. Yes, I’m dreaming again, and I know it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Well, that’s an example from El Dorado, but almost every town of any size has a “North West Avenue”, and yes, almost all of them could use an uptick. Hot Springs has Central Avenue, Little Rock has Broadway, and Fayetteville has Dixon Street.
If you have lived in Arkansas for very long, you’ll know how much ugly leafy trees cover up, and that’s exactly what a tree lined street will do. Actually, planting trees along a busy entryway street is the least expensive way to improve eyesore streets, and most of the time that street is the first impression street in your town. Every city owns the right-of-way and all they have to do is cut a three foot square hole in the sidewalk or pavement and plant a crepe myrtle tree. They don’t even have to worry about overhead power lines because a mature crepe myrtle trees won’t grow tall enough to get into the power lines.
A boulevard center is an area about the width of a turn lane and almost every progress city will have them planted with trees or bushes. A turn lane doesn’t have to be essentially endless to be effective. By reducing the spots available to turn you won’t create any traffic problems because leaving one turn lane per city block leaves plenty of opportunities to turn, and by taking around 75% of the turn lane and planting trees or shrubs, you have added measureable to the ambiance of your cities entranceway. I know, if we’re honest, we would agree almost all of our entrance-ways into our towns and cities a just bone ugly and desperately need anything that would enhance their looks, and when we consider how inexpensive the project is and how much it would add to the looks of those streets, you would think our city officials would be standing in line to plant crepe myrtle trees along the entrance-ways and along the sides those streets. Well, if you haven’t noticed, they are not standing in line to plant, and trying to get any action on tree planting along these entryway streets is like pulling teeth. There is something about tree planting on or in the median is a signal to get your back up if you are a mayor or a city engineer. A city street doesn’t have to be designed as a raceway to get cars and trucks through town as quickly as possible. By making the street pedestrian friendly by putting in sidewalks, crosswalks, and lining it with trees you are building up the towns quality of life, and that’s trumps the raceway every time.
And now an important announcement!
The Buffalo National River is in grave danger of being polluted by the factory hog farm. In my 35 years of working to protect and enhance Arkansas’ environment, this is the greatest threat I have ever encountered. If the Governor doesn’t force the re-location of the hog farm, I believe we will see the river damaged beyond repair. You can help: On December 4th you can join to flood the Governor’s office with letters and emails to relocate the hog farm and save the Buffalo. Please post this and share on Facebook, but don’t send anything until December 4th—or the 2nd if you are going to mail a protest.

250 State Capitol Bldg. Little Rock, AR 72201. Fax:(501)682-1382.
Tel:(501)682-2345 email:


The El Dorado Story

The El Dorado Story

El Dorado had a rather ordinary beginning, and from its founding in 1845, the town, slowly grew to where in January of 1921 the city could boast 3800 rather ordinary farmers, merchants, and woodsmen, who struggled to survive. The area’s virgin timber had been harvested and the sandy soil could barely produce enough cotton to pay the bank for the seed. It was a grim outlook these El Dorado folks faced as they started the New Year. However, at 4:00 P. M. on January 11th, 1921 there was a thunderous roar west of town and almost the entire population of the little village hurried to the edge of town where oil was roaring through the top of a wooden derrick. The Bussey # 1 Armstrong had come in as a gusher ushering in an oil boom unlike anything anyone in Arkansas had ever seen. Within five years hundreds of wells had been drilled and the value of the oil produced during those five years was greater than the entire appraised value of all the property in the state. In those five years Union County’s population mushroomed from 5000 to 100,000 and El Dorado’s population of 3800 soared to an estimated 40,000.
Almost all of the wood-frame downtown buildings, the three center of town churches, and the red brick Victorian Courthouse were scraped off, and in their place some magnificent buildings were built. Many of El Dorado’s city leaders of the 1920s had been in World War I and had seen the wonderful buildings of Europe, and with the oil boom money they did their best to emulate them. After the excesses of the oil boom settled out, El Dorado’s population stabilize between 28,000 and 30,000 in the 50s and 60s.
However, as El Dorado’s manufacturing base relocated to cheaper labor out of the country, the county and city steadily lost population until it dipped under 20,000 in 2010. When it became obvious that the manufacturing jobs that sustained the city would never return, different ways to reverse the downtrend in growth were considered. A group called 50 For the Future was formed and their mission was to turn the negative growth rate around, and once again have a growing expanding economy. After hearing Roger Brooks, a destination expert from Seattle, speak at a State Main Street meeting in Little Rock, he was invited to address the business community in El Dorado. He was so impressive that 50 For The Future and the City of El Dorado each put up $25,000 and hired Mr. Brooks to recommend how to turn El Dorado’s decline around.
After working on the project a year, he came back into town with a thick packet of recommendations. The key to his vision was to make El Dorado an entertainment destination. He called the project El Dorado! The Festival City of the South. Mr. Brooks is a destination expert, and his premise is the small to medium size towns must be a destination if they are to grow and prosper.
To become a destination is very simple, you must have something that will attracted people to visit your city, but it goes further than that. A town also must have the things the skilled professional people, who are anxious to leave the mega cities and all the traffic, noise, and pollution where they won’t just visit, they will move there. Actually, they want what all of us desire: entertainment, good restaurants, a safe, attractive downtown, and good schools.
In 2009 El Dorado’s restored downtown was selected at the top downtown out of over a 1000 Main Street communities under 50,000 in population, and Mr. Brooks used that foundation to build upon his recommendations.
Phase One of MAD, the Murphy Arts District:
The project is just a block off of the downtown square and it is centered around the 1929 Rialto Theater and the adjacent buildings. The Griffin Auto Building, a 1920 era building was built as a Ford Motor Company showroom. It is a huge, open steel-arched building that has been converted into a 2200 seat Broadway stage quality theater called the Griffin Music Hall. It also includes a cabaret restaurant, the Griffin, which opened with sold out performances each Thursday from the cabaret stage. It’s Thursday Night Live at the Griffin!
Adjacent to the Griffin building an 8000 capacity amphitheater has been constructed, and during opening weekend festivities, Brad Paisley filled it to capacity. Work continues on the MAD PLAYSCAPE, which will be the largest children’s play area in the state. It will feature state-of-the-art water projects and numerous other children’s play items.
Phase Two of MAD
The MAD Art Museum is the next major agenda item, and renovation of the 1920 era McWilliams Furniture Building will start within a few weeks. The museum will have three floors of display area, and connections with other regional and national museums to offer rotating art displays featuring top American and European artists. As this work progresses, one of the remaining 1920s Ritchie Grocery Buildings will be converted into a recital hall and small, black-box theater.
After the MAD Art Museum opens, work will begin on the crown jewel of the MAD, the 1929 art deco, vaudeville-movie house the Rialto Theater. This major project will restore the interior and exterior to exactly the condition it was when it opened in 1929, plus the addition of numerous attendee enhancements.
The facilities that are finished and those under construction are the items that will bring in skilled professionals to reverse the population loss and create jobs. MAD is creating exactly what these folks are looking for as they leave the mega-cities. In ten years, after MAD is finished, I predict several positive things will have taken place in El Dorado.
Well over 500 new jobs will be created, the new, empty Industrial Park will become a high-end residential subdivision, El Dorado’s population will pass 30,000, dozens of stores and restaurants will open, South Arkansas Community College will become a four year university, real estate values in the two shopping areas, North West Avenue and Downtown, will double, and Hot Springs couples will start buying condos in El Dorado.
Actually, since the initial opening of MAD, exceeded all expectations in attendance and job creation, and the ongoing multiple events have attracted such a large audience, the above projections very likely underestimate the final success of the completed MAD. At the present MAD has 310 full and part-time employees, and they are still hiring.
. That is exactly how you make a town a destination, which will stem the outflow of jobs and population. Well, the bottom line to all of this is very simple: The skilled workers who will grow a town must have the quality of life items they want, and the town wants or the skilled workers won’t come and the young people won’t stay. It’s up to the town to give both groups what they want, or face a continuing population loss.


Pine Bluff 101
“When the center of your city is a failure, then the perception is your whole town is a failure.” No, that’s not my original thought. It came from one of the community leaders in San Antonio, Texas in the mid-1960s as they started an effort to renovate and restore their downtown. I lived in Corpus Christi and visited San Antonio numerous times during the start of that effort, and open carry would have been an excellent idea if you visited downtown San Antonio after dark. Downtown was a rundown, drug-infested, boarded up place that desperately needed help. The help came after the community leaders banded together and in 1968 put on Hemisfair, a World’s Fair type exhibition confined to the Western Hemisphere. Hemisphere kicked off the restoration-renovation process where public and private money and a lot of hard working individuals banded together to produce a new-old downtown that is currently a showpiece for how to bring a city center back to life, and in doing so revive an entire city.
Pine Bluff is a 1960s San Antonio, and from all the press I read, it seems the city is getting ready to tackle the revitalization of the town. However, I don’t believe the focus of the initial work is directed at the root of the problem. I guess, paraphrasing a well-known politician, “It’s the Downtown stupid!”
Yes, I believe Pine Bluff is considered a failure because the downtown is not just a failure, it is an embarrassment to the entire state. I know that’s a little strong, but downtown streets closed for months because buildings are collapsing in the street? How do you get worse than that? You don’t!
I can remember growing up in the 50s and 60s considering Pine Bluff being Arkansas’s second city, but now? Well, it can be again, but until their downtown is once again the center of the town, and it is restored and vital, it won’t happen. You can increase traffics to downtown, but until you give someone a reason to go there, it’s no different than increasing the traffic to a cemetery.
The effort to restore Pine Bluff back to being the preeminent City in southeast Arkansas to be successful, must be focused in removing the negative image the downtown—bricks-in-the-street—has given it. Now, let’s look at the root problem confronting the town. Loss of population signals the skilled professionals who are critical to a town’s growth are not coming, they are leaving. Unless you can reverse that trend, the city won’t be revived. Skilled professional people are the one who create jobs and this high technological workforce is centered in mega cities, but many of them are looking to relocate because of congestion, pollution, and a raft of other big city problems. Attracting these skilled professional is the key to any medium or small town survival, and to attract them, you must give them what they want, and they don’t want jobs. They have jobs. They are job creators.
A town must have several key items all built around an attractive city center if that town is to grow. But first, before we get to exactly what these skilled professional people want, how do you get a vital, attractive center of the city? This first point is an absolute must: Your center city buildings, which are potential retail, restaurant, and entertainment venues, must be better or equal to any comparable real estate in the city. This is step one, and if you don’t complete step one forget steps one, two, three, etc. that is because step one is critical to the remaining steps. Of course, that means you must restore the Pines Hotel and the Sanger Theater along with most of the core downtown buildings. To attract the skilled professionals you must give them the items that want and that list of wants depends on quality real estate. These folks demand good restaurants, entertainment, and retail located in an attractive setting. Now let me suggest how city government and other community leaders can make step one happen. Either re-zone the center of the city to require properties to be upgraded, or give financial incentives to developers who will restore these buildings to meet today’s standards. Of course, the renovation of Pine Bluff’s center city will be a decades jobs, and it won’t be cheap. The 5/8s of a cent tax is just a drop in the bucket. If the city council is serious about seeing the city return to his preeminent position in the state, then they will have to raise at least five times that amount of money, and make step one, the downtown restoration, a must before launching into outlying projects. The worst thing the city can do is scatter shoot their funding, and wake up with their money gone and very little to show for it.
After step one is complete, the remaining work is primarily to present an attractive surroundings for these buildings, and of course that is adding almost everything you can imagine to the downtown. Brick sidewalks dozens of flower planters, information kiosks, and focus on everything starting or happening downtown. Of course, every holiday should feature something downtown, 5k races and pep rallies should be downtown, and the goal should be to etch in everyone’s brain that downtown is the center of the city, and when Pine Bluff’s downtown becomes the pride of the town, the community will have taken a giant step toward reviving.

Rewilding Arkanas


Rewilding Arkansas
Rewilding? Yes, rewilding is just what it says and means, and here in Arkansas it is a plan to restore a portion of our forests and some of its wildlife to what it was in the past. When we look back on our recent history, let’s say 200 years ago, I am confident that we wouldn’t recognize most of our state. We’ve essentially cut all of the massive, virgin timber, drained the great swamps near most of our rivers, and killed off at least 90% of the animal life. What now? Are we satisfied just to accept the disaster we have created? Or should we join a movement that has started in Europe called Rewilding Europe. This is the concept: Certain large forested and lightly inhabited areas of the European Continent would be selected to be rewilded. In other words, allowed to become as wild as possible. I know we think, if a program such as “Rewilding” was important, the United States would be leading the world in adopting it. Well, we’re not leading the pack. We’re not even in the pack. In fact very few Americans even know what ‘Rewilding’ is, so let me bring you up to date.
Rewilding is a movement to recreate an area or a species of wildlife as close as it was before it was inhabited by humans, and not just a National Park, but a woodland where as many of the original animals that inhabited an area would once again live there.
Of course, rewilding would be selective, and essentially that’s what many of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s programs are doing now, but it would be more extensive. Restoring the turkey and deer populations are good examples, but that’s only a starting point.
Arkansas was once the Bear State because bears were so plentiful, and I would venture a guess that bears were in every county in the state. Of course, the restocking and reestablishing of the bear population has started, but it is confined and limited, and with a bear hunting season, it seems as if the Game and Fish Commission is trying to only recreate a token bear population. Why not let the bear population increase until we reach a rewilding level equal to the turkey or deer population? I can’t see how, if it’s okay to have a bear population in a couple of Northwest Arkansas counties and one Southeast county, why wouldn’t it make sense to have bears in all 75 counties again? Of course, if there is nothing wrong with having more bears, having a bear season is a stupid way to achieve that. Eliminate the bear season until the bear population has a 300 to 500% increase. That would put the bear population at something over 75,000, and it would probably have a positive effect on reducing the feral hog population.
Well, while I’m writing about increasing an already small population of wild game, why not let the elk expand their range? What’s wrong with elk being in the Ouachita Mountains or along the Red River in southwest Arkansas? Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but having an elk hunting season to keep the herd along the Buffalo River at about the same size is just one step from having a hunting season at a petting zoo. Eliminate the elk season until we have substantial herds of elk throughout the state, and yes, a substantial statewide herd of elk would be in the hundred thousand range instead of a few hundred.
Next let’s talk about the harvesting of alligators in the state. How many 12 foot alligators are left in the state after that big one was killed last month? Ten maybe fifteen; and what is the alligator population in southern and eastern Arkansas? 1500 maybe 2000? Okay, maybe you’re not ready to see more alligators in south Arkansas, but how many beaver are there? Hundreds of thousands, and more are on the way, and the over-abundance of beaver has wreaked environmental havoc by flooding thousands of forest habitat acres. Of course, we are overrun by beaver because we have eliminated all the predators that prey on beaver, and guess what helps control beaver? Of course, it’s the alligators, especially the big ones! We should eliminate the gator season until we reach some equilibrium with the beaver population, and that would let the few thousand gators in the state expand to several hundred thousand.
Now before you start thinking I’m anti-hunting consider the effect of what I have proposed. By allowing the population of elk, bear, and alligators to expand until those populations are as plentiful as deer, would create a much better opportunity to hunt. When I grew up in South Arkansas deer were so scarce that just seeing a deer was a big deal, and now after rewilding the deer population, deer hunting is a huge part of the hunting season in Arkansas.
But just having more wild game is only part of the rewilding we need here in Arkansas. There is another large area of our state that needs more habitat restoration, and this area will surprise you. We should rewild a portion of the roadways and median right-of-ways especially on our Interstates and other major roads in the state. The Arkansas Highway Department, which has done a super job of road construction, is probably responsible for more habitat destruction than any entity in the state. I walk and jog on the 167 Bypass in El Dorado and the medians are mowed grass, and the cleared right-of-ways are 40 to 50 yards of mowed grass on both sides of the road. Multiply that extra unneeded right-of-way by a 5000 or 10,000 and you will understand the magnitude of the loss. I believe the right-of-ways could be reduced by at least 50% without any appreciable hazard to drivers. I have driven on dozens of interstate highways where the right-of-way were a third of Arkansas’s, and I have noticed the nationwide trend to plant trees and bushes in the medians and reduce the right-of-ways in surrounding states. Louisiana, Texas, and even Mississippi have tree planting programs to reforest medians and over-extended right-of-ways. Of course, by allowing part of the right-of-ways to have major vegetation instead of grass, it would save the state thousands of dollars in mowing expense.
Yes, Arkansas has already benefited immensely from rewilding, but if we will ramp up the process and rewild other species of wildlife and habitat, our state and our hunters will reap huge benefits.