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A chilly rain is falling outside, but I'm dry inside Rivertowne BBQ in downtown Ozark as members of the Rotary Club gather for their weekly meeting. This is my busiest time of year, but I find it hard to say "no" to Vernon McDaniel. Now in his 80s, McDaniel grew up here and returned after having taught at colleges in several states. He later served as Ozark's mayor, still writes for the weekly newspaper and is the unofficial historian for Franklin County.

McDaniel invited me to speak to the club. The most important reason for being here, though, is a chance to see what McDaniel says is $56 million in building projects that recently have taken place in a town of 3,600 residents.

Little Rock-based Bank OZK has finished its fourth operations building in downtown Ozark with plans to create more than 130 additional jobs during the next five years. The four-story facility added 36,761 square feet of office space and additional parking. The Ozark campus houses Bank OZK (formerly Bank of the Ozarks) operations centers and backup data facilities.

George Gleason, the banking genius who serves as the company's chairman and chief executive officer, purchased an Ozark bank in 1979. It had been founded in 1937 as the Bank of Ozark. At the time, he was the bank's 28th employee. The bank now employs almost 2,500 people in more than 250 offices in 10 states. It's building a massive headquarters facing Arkansas 10 in west Little Rock. Gleason hasn't forgotten the bank's roots. He says the bank's "culture of excellence was born in Ozark, it continues to thrive here and it goes with us as we grow."

Arkansas Tech University, which has a campus at Ozark, has developed special courses to prepare employees for careers at the bank.

Just down the street, workers are busy completing a headquarters for Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative. The current headquarters building was dedicated in 1961 when the cooperative had 61 employees and 13,300 members. The number of employees has doubled since then, and the number of members has quadrupled.

"How many cities with fewer than 4,000 people do you know of that are completing two four-story office buildings?" McDaniel asks. "We also have a new 104-prisoner jail that cost $8 million along with a $5.3 million expansion and renovation of the hospital. Two churches have added family life centers, we've renovated the city hall and we built a new junior high school and fine arts center. There's a lot going on."

The Ozark High School Hillbillies are even having a good football season.

McDaniel takes me to a former industrial facility that opened as the Ozark Community Center in December 2017. It features basketball courts, a walking track, an indoor pool, meeting rooms and more.

Hannah Williams wrote in a blog for Nabholz Corp. of Conway, which handled the renovation project: "Unused buildings are an eyesore and carry negative connotations for the whole town. At the beginning of this project, people in the area knew the spot as the old Garrison Building. At one point, the warehouse was even used as a haunted house. The dramatic transformation awed citizens of Ozark. The owner was perhaps the most shocked at the renovation. Having worked in the building before the transformation and having seen the water leaks and mold, the owner had built up mental images of the building that were then blasted away."

When my son (now 22 and in law school) played high school basketball in Little Rock, his team competed in a state tournament at Ozark. We were there almost every evening for a week. It addition to the city having a beautiful arena, the pride that Ozark residents take in the town was evident. While many towns this size across the state are losing population in an era of urbanization, Ozark holds its own.

Ozark was founded in 1836, the same year Arkansas became a state. The first post office opened on July 3, 1837, and Ozark was named the Franklin County seat. The first courthouse was completed in 1840, and the city incorporated in 1850.

"Ozark eventually established itself as one of the leading horse and cattle trading centers in the Arkansas River Valley," McDaniel writes in a history of the city. "The railroad reached Clarksville in 1873. Track was being laid on a roadbed to the west, which would have missed Ozark. Overnight, this route was abandoned and rerouted through Ozark. Supposedly, the chief engineer fell in love with an Ozark girl and was persuaded to run the track through her town. By 1888, four passenger trains ran daily through the city. In 1891, Ozark received telephone service with the first line installed at the post office."

Ozark got its first industry in 1888 when a vegetable canning factory opened.

McDaniel says candidates for county judge would promise voters that they would build a second courthouse in Charleston, which is south of the Arkansas River from Ozark. Because crossing the river was difficult before a bridge was built at Ozark, Charleston was designated as a second county seat in 1901. Franklin County is one of 10 Arkansas counties with dual county seats.

Ozark now attracts a number of visitors who come to see the wineries in nearby Altus and Wiederkehr Village. Swiss and German farmers were lured to the area by investors who were building a railroad between Fort Smith and Little Rock in the 1870s. The railroad advertised in countries where anti-Catholic sentiment was strong. Old grape-growing families with names like Post and Wiederkehr remain prominent in the area.

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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 11/09/2019

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