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There were several hours remaining in the first Arkansas Pie Festival at Cherokee Village when someone ran into the room where I was helping judge pies from across the state.

The visitor cried out: "We're running out of pie."

It's spring, when seemingly every Arkansas community has a festival. In a state that loves dessert, however, there wasn't a festival devoted solely to pie. The folks behind the Spring River Innovation Hub decided to change that.

More than 700 people bought tickets to the festival on the day before Easter. The weather couldn't have been better, and that helped. This obviously was an idea whose time had come. Not only did the festival bring people to the Cherokee Village town center to spend part of the day, it also attracted statewide media attention for a retirement community that many people had thought was past its prime.

In 1948, West Memphis developer John Cooper Sr. purchased 400 acres along the Spring River. Few could have imagined at the time that this sparsely populated part of north Arkansas would become what Memphis historian G. Wayne Dowdy calls "one of the most innovative and popular retirement destinations in the United States."

Cooper called his property Otter Creek Ranch and first used it as a summer retreat for friends and family members.

"After purchasing additional land, Cooper formed the Cherokee Village Development Co. in 1953, divided the property into lots and constructed individual homes," Dowdy writes. "When the property was formally opened in June 1955, Gov. Orval Faubus declared it to be 'the coming mecca of the Ozarks.' By 1961, retirees from across the United States had relocated to the Spring River area, transforming Cherokee Village into a retirement center.

"Cooper's development company opened Bella Vista in northwest Arkansas in 1967 and three years later opened Hot Springs Village. The construction of these three communities established Arkansas as one of the most important retirement destinations in the United States. In addition to homes, the Cherokee Village Development Co. added two golf courses, seven lakes, three recreation centers, 350 miles of roads and a water system for its residents."

Bella Vista has benefited from being part of the booming northwest Arkansas region. Hot Springs Village has benefited from its proximity to Hot Springs and Little Rock. The more rural retirement communities such as Cherokee Village -- along with nearby Horseshoe Bend in Izard County, Holiday Island near Eureka Springs and Fairfield Bay on Greers Ferry Lake -- have had a much tougher time redefining themselves in an era when retirees want to be close to major hospitals and cultural amenities.

Fortunately for this area of the state, there's a group of talented young people determined to craft a future for a beautiful but isolated region.

One of them is Graycen Bigger, executive director of the Spring River Innovation Hub. Bigger has worked in the arts and education sectors as a lecturer and researcher. She became what's known as the director of placemaking for Cherokee Village, working to use the arts to spur economic development and improve the quality of life for residents of Sharp, Fulton and Izard counties.

Bigger has a master's degree in art business from Sotheby's Institute of Art in New York and wants to help artisans throughout the Ozarks earn a living. She says her efforts are about "supporting small businesses, entrepreneurship, innovation and creative ideas. Part of that is thinking of the next generation."

Proceeds from the Arkansas Pie Festival will go to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (commonly known as STEAM) programs sponsored by the innovation hub.

Another of the people behind efforts to revitalize this part of the state is Jonathan Rhodes, whose father Ron has been involved in real estate development at Cherokee Village for 48 years. Ron Rhodes grew up at Corning and first came to this area on dirt roads to attend Boy Scout camp. The Boy Scouts played a role in Cherokee Village's development.

"Less than 10 years after the town's founding, Cherokee Village had grown so much that additional land was necessary to satisfy the demand for new homes," Dowdy writes. "Adjoining land was occupied by the Memphis Boy Scout council's summer camp, Kia Kima. In 1964, Cooper approached the Boy Scouts and offered to give them a larger tract of land on the South Fork of the Spring River in exchange for their property. The organization relented after Cooper agreed to construct several buildings on the Boy Scouts' new property. The Kia Kima trade and other land purchases expanded Cherokee Village to 13,500 acres by 1980."

Jonathan Rhodes grew up at Cherokee Village.

"My parents settled in Cherokee Village and raised their family here," he says. "This is home. . . . It's our privilege to carry on what John Cooper started here more than 60 years ago."

Rhodes graduated from Hendrix College at Conway in 1998. He worked for U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Washington for seven years and earned a master's degree in urban and environmental planning from the University of Virginia in 2003. He later joined the United Nations World Food Program and worked in its Rome headquarters and in Sudan on a two-year assignment.

In 2012, Rhodes moved back to Cherokee Village to join the family real estate and property management business. He also put his master's degree to work as the director of community development for Cherokee Village.

In 2017, Rhodes, Bigger and others came up with the idea of the Spring River Innovation Hub. They received a grant from Delta Regional Authority and launched a small business incubator in Cherokee Village last year. The organization's mission statement notes that it will provide "a creative culture of innovation and entrepreneurship through an inclusive, collaborative network of diverse resources and opportunities."

An unused portion of Cherokee's Village's town center was transformed into a co-working space. Rhodes and Bigger hope the hub eventually will be viewed as a pioneer in rural development in the South. There are professional development opportunities, networking events, business counseling, mentorships, community programs, high-speed Internet, video-conferencing capabilities and more.

Just as John Cooper was an innovator in the 20th century, Rhodes and Bigger want to be innovators for the 21st century by creating a model that struggling rural communities across the region can emulate. In an era when most parts of rural Arkansas are losing population, it certainly beats wringing one's hands and reminiscing about the good old days.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 04/28/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Much more than pie

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