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"No!" the woman in the back of the Ron Robinson Theater screamed as longtime Little Rock advertising executive Ben Combs tried to speak at a noon event last week.

Twenty-six years after Little Rock voters halted construction of a bridge across Jimerson Creek near the Arkansas River, passions still run high. Combs was part of a group of activists who worked through the courts and through a petition drive to challenge the city of Little Rock's plans to extend Rebsamen Park Road to Interstate 430 and Cantrell Road to the west. Considering the city's western growth since then, there's no doubt that the worst fears of the activists would have been realized. The extension would have become a high-speed Cantrell Road bypass, destroying the nature of the parks and trails along the river.

Combs worked with the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System, to plan a program that would commemorate the effort. He presented the Butler Center with a history of what became known as the Save the River Parks campaign. That history was written by veteran Arkansas journalist Ernie Dumas. Combs also revealed the major financial supporter of the effort--chicken magnate Don Tyson, who died in January 2011. Tyson had a Little Rock home next to Combs' home.

Dumas writes that Tyson "invited Combs over one day to sit on his deck and talk about the issue. Tyson lived in Springdale but spent so much time in the capital that he acquired a home with a panoramic view of the river valley, which he thought afforded him one of the loveliest scenes in the state. It was quiet back there except for the occasional rumble of a train along the bluff's base, or the horn and chugging of a tugboat approaching the lock at Murray Dam. Tyson thought it would be terrible if city bustle replaced the pastoral scene and chased away its habitues--hikers, bikers, dog walkers and bird watchers. Combs said litigation was likely to be long and costly and that Save the Parks didn't have the money. The same was true for a petition and election campaign. A few days later, Tyson came to Combs' home and, sitting on the deck, looking at the parks and river, said: 'Well, let's do both. If you'll shoulder the referendum costs, I'll pay for the litigation, whatever it costs, on one condition.'"

That condition was that Combs wouldn't talk about the contribution as long as Tyson was alive. Combs recently received permission from the Tyson family to reveal the name. The woman at the back of the theater screamed out something about "elitists" who simply wanted to protect golfers. Tyson indeed had worried that it would hurt the effort if it were known that someone whose primary residence was elsewhere was trying to influence the people of Little Rock. Eventual success in the courts and at the ballot box opened the door for the Arkansas River Trail, the Big Dam Bridge, the Two Rivers Bridge and more.

"If a river runs through it, a city may use that natural blessing to nourish commerce or human pleasure or, by ingenuity, both," Dumas writes. "For a quarter-century, Little Rock and North Little Rock have turned the blue waters, shores and ancient bluffs of the Arkansas River into a scenic and recreational paradise of parks, trails, spectacular bridges and museums. The cities exalt them in their promotions as offering their citizens a better quality of life. But it almost didn't happen."

Nancy Clark was walking her beagle along Rebsamen Park Road in February 1988 when she noticed orange pennants. She asked an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers what the pennants were for and was told that they were for a road that would run from Riverdale to Interstate 430. Clark, who was active in the League of Women Voters, quickly spread the news. Members of the League of Women Voters, the Audubon Society and others formed the Coalition of Friends to Save the Parks in order to do battle with the city of Little Rock, the state, the Corps of Engineers and wealthy business interests.

David Stricklin, who heads the Butler Center, noted at the start of last week's event that "the thing you have to like about this story is that people who were on opposing sides of it are still friends."

Dumas writes this about those who supported the road extension: "Hardly anyone, even among those who fought for the project, harbors any regret that it lost. Even without the commuter highway, and likely owing to its absence, transformative change came to the riverside, some of it in the form of development, but it became more of what it already was, an ecological and recreational sanctuary in the heart of the metropolitan region."

I can't point to a similar issue these days that requires litigation, but a problem comes to mind. It's one that should fire up those who care about quality of life in the capital city--the tall weeds and amount of trash along Little Rock's major thoroughfares. The Arkansas Department of Transportation and the city of Little Rock do an abysmal job maintaining rights-of-way on the roads for which they are responsible.

As the state's largest city, Little Rock should have the largest, most active chapter of the Keep Arkansas Beautiful program. There should also be a vibrant adopt-a-street program. Perhaps a new generation of activists can pressure the candidates for mayor to make this a priority. Just consider what happened in the early 1990s when a small band of Little Rock residents and one rich guy from Springdale decided to get involved.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/17/2018

Print Headline: Saving the river parks

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