EUREKA SPRINGS -- Things are going downhill in Eureka Springs.
Well, at least that's the plan.
The grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton are building six downhill mountain-biking trails on land in and next to Lake Leatherwood City Park, said Justin Huss, the Eureka Springs parks director.
The trails will feature sharp curves, steep banks and ramps designed to conspire with gravity to vault cyclists toward the sky.
Also known as "gravity-assisted mountain biking," downhill mountain biking is an extreme sport that sometimes necessitates the use of body armor. A helipad will be nearby so the injured can be helicoptered to a hospital.
Huss said the trails will attract young, adventurous tourists to the biggest downhill mountain-biking destination between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains.
"It's a high-speed downhill sport that will attract spectators," he said. "The town really sees it as an opportunity. Our visitor population is aging."
Eureka Springs has had at least a couple of golden eras, including its initial building boom in the 1880s and its highway-tourism heyday of the 1940s and 1950s.
For much of the 20th century, the Great Passion Play event was the primary attraction around Eureka Springs. But attendance there peaked in 1992 at 289,212 and now hovers around 50,000 a year.
A common refrain in the tourist town is that Eureka Springs needs a new ride, and preferably one that will attract the young.
Mayor Robert "Butch" Berry isn't soft-pedaling the new trails.
"This is the biggest thing that has happened to Eureka in a long time," he said.
In November, the city entered into an agreement with NWA Trailblazers to build the trails. Berry said things happened fast because the land was available along U.S. 62 and had to be purchased quickly. If the seller knew Tom and Steuart Walton were behind the project, the price would have "skyrocketed," Berry said.
According to the agreement, which was revised March 16, NWA Trailblazers would buy two pieces of land and construct more than 8 miles of new trails and/or upgrade existing trails. The city will kick in $50,000 toward the trail construction.
Huss said the entire project will cost almost $1 million.
He said the Walton brothers, through NWA Trailblazers, paid about $600,000 for 40 acres, and they plan to deed 35 acres of it to the city when the trails are completed. Some of the new trails are on that property, but Huss said the majority of trails being built are in Lake Leatherwood City Park, which already encompasses more than 1,600 acres.
In January, the Walton Family Foundation awarded two grants totaling $929,772 from Steuart and Tom Walton to NWA Trailblazers to build trails around Eureka Springs, said Luis Gonzalez, a spokesman for the foundation. He said the foundation often funds trail construction through NWA Trailblazers, which is based in Bentonville and has built more than 100 miles of trails in the area.
Huss said each of the six new trails is slightly over a mile long. After cyclists reach the bottom of the hill, they can be shuttled back to the top if they want to ride the trails again. Five of the trails should be finished in May and the sixth will be finished a month or two later, he said. The trails will be open year-round.
Eureka Springs already has one downhill mountain-bike trail. Huss said it was built at least 20 years ago, before Eureka Springs had its first Fat Tire Festival. The mountain-bike festival will be held July 13-15 this year.
Huss said he's expecting the new trails to draw tourists.
"We're expecting it to have a pretty dramatic impact once we get going," he said.
But some activists are annoyed.
Pat Costner of Eureka Springs said the Walton family hasn't been as transparent as it was when it built other trails in Northwest Arkansas.
"The project was set in motion much like a covert operation," she wrote in an email. "The Parks Commission didn't even hold a public meeting about it until after the contract was signed and construction was in process."
Costner told the Eureka Springs City Council on Monday that "the community was never given an opportunity to weigh in on this process."
"In a town -- a community -- this small, to have such a thing happen seems just inexcusable, almost unbelievable to me," she said. "So this is perhaps in some people's minds is an issue of trails. It's a much bigger issue than that."
Berry said some people just don't want things to change in Eureka Springs, and they're used to the slow pace of government.
"I understand some citizens' concerns about this thing happening so quick, but sometimes if you deal with things that aren't a bureaucracy, things can happen quickly," he said.
Activists in this Victorian hamlet fought against Walmart when the Bentonville retailer tried to put a store in Eureka Springs in 2011, and the company backed out.
"I am not a fan of Walmart," Ken Riley told the council Monday. "But if we take a look at what the Waltons have done for Northwest Arkansas, it's kind of hard to say no to it. It doesn't mean I have to go there and shop, but it's real hard to say no to it."
The Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville has provided $74 million to help build 163 miles of bike trails in Benton and Washington counties over the past decade. The foundation helped fund the $38 million Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile shared-use paved trail connecting Bentonville with Fayetteville.
Tom and Steuart Walton have provided grant money for other trail-building initiatives, including a 16-mile natural-surface trail system in Hot Springs, a bike and skate park in Fort Smith and a 12-mile natural-surface trail system at Camp Orr on the Buffalo River.
Bicycle trails often are cited in economic-development studies as evidence of a vibrant economy.
"I can't believe that there could be any negatives in this," Brian Watson, who works at Quicksilver Gallery, told the council. "There may be a tree or two that has to come down."
Diane Murphy said Eureka Springs has been trying to promote itself as a place for outdoor recreation.
"We have asked for the opportunity for new things to come into our town," she told the council. "And I'm feeling like the very first time that that opportunity presents itself, we are resisting it."
Even the Passion Play is getting into trails. Eighteen miles of hiking and biking trails are under construction at the 700-acre complex atop Magnetic Mountain overlooking Eureka Springs, thanks in part to funding from the Walton Family Foundation.
"We have about 5 miles planned to open on May 1," said Kent Butler, a spokesman for the Passion Play and one of two actors who plays Jesus. "The remainder of the 18 total miles of trails will be constructed this year and probably into next year as well."
He said the trails are a way to connect with the community.
"The trails are definitely meant to attract younger visitors and families," Butler said. "We are called the Natural State for a reason, and it's our biggest asset. I think that's one of the reasons that the play has been so popular over the years, because it is held outdoors. Our stars come out every night."
When asked if tourists will see Jesus pedaling his bicycle on the Passion Play trails, Butler said, "I have my bike here, but it is hard to ride with a dress on!"
Justin Huss, director of the Eureka Springs Parks and Recreation Commission, talks about the new downhill mountain-biking trails that will be added in and around Lake Leatherwood Park in Eureka Springs.
Bret Deutscher with Rock Solid Trail Contracting uses an excavator to build a new section of trail Wednesday, April 11, 2018, at Lake Leatherwood Park in Eureka Springs. The park is adding six new downhill lines.
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Print Headline: To go on upswing, city heads downhill; Extreme-biking trails next attraction