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OPINION | REX NELSON: Fairfield Bay's revival

by Rex Nelson | August 29, 2021 at 1:47 a.m.

I was a young sportswriter at the Arkansas Democrat in 1982 when the phone on my desk rang. A man on the other end of the line identified himself as Darrell Glascock and asked if I planned to cover the Fairfield Bay Tennis Classic.

During the school year, my beat was the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. Wally Hall assigned tennis as my summer beat, and it proved to be a fun few months. The senior national tournament on clay courts was held at the Country Club of Little Rock, and I was able to hang out with Bobby Riggs for a week. Talk about good copy.

I told Glascock that I had no plans to come to Fairfield Bay, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. He asked what my days off were, and I told him Monday and Tuesday. He knew I was young and low-paid.

"I tell you what," he said. "Come up on Friday, cover the tournament Saturday and Sunday, and I'll put you up in a condo through Tuesday. I'll also give you a card so that all your meals are free. You can use the pool and whatever you want on your days off at no charge."

Needless to say, the Fairfield Bay Tennis Classic got covered that summer. I had no way of knowing at the time how much colorful copy Glascock would provide me during my years as a political writer.

Glascock, who grew up in north Louisiana and learned politics from that state's famous Long family, formed a public relations firm in 1968, later ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Louisiana Legislature, and worked on one of George Wallace's presidential campaigns.

He was sent to Arkansas in 1976 to run a voter identification program for the Republican Party and wound up staying. He managed the successful congressional campaign of mercurial Pulaski County sheriff Tommy Robinson in 1984 and served until 1986 as Robinson's chief of staff in Washington. He returned to Arkansas in 1986 to manage former Gov. Frank White's unsuccessful comeback attempt against Gov. Bill Clinton.

Glascock, who died in late 2016, introduced me to Fairfield Bay and its many amenities. I worked in Washington for the Arkansas Democrat from 1986-89, met my wife there, and returned to Arkansas when we were married in October 1989.

In 1991, my wife and I returned to Fairfield Bay for one of those "free weekends" the resort once was famous for in its attempts to sell timeshares. We didn't have enough money for a real vacation, and I was confident I could tell the insistent salesman "no" after the required Saturday morning tour.

Fairfield Bay was the dream of three Fort Smith businessmen--George Jacobus, Neal Simonson and Randolph Warner--who decided to create a resort and retirement community on Greers Ferry Lake.

"Before the formation of the lake in the 1960s, the hills of what's now Fairfield Bay were covered with large hardwood trees," James White writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Logging of these immense oak trees for lumber, railroad ties and barrel staves supported the thriving communities of Shirley, Edgemont and Hidgen.

"Jacobus, Simonson and Warner hired a retired cotton broker named C.M. Owen to find a suitable location for their development. In his Jeep, Owen followed the logging roads to a high point overlooking the green valley that was being filled to form the lake. A new corporation, Fairfield Communities Land Co. (later to become Fairfield Communities Inc.) began purchasing land from Nebraska Tie & Lumber Co."

By 1965, 3,500 acres had been purchased. Lot sales began in earnest. To say that high-pressure tactics were used would be an understatement.

"All early activities were near the marina, which was built in 1966," White writes. "In 1967, more than 300 mobile homes were brought in to house prospective lot buyers. The Wild Boar Restaurant was built in 1967 on Arkansas 330. The second floor of the restaurant became the offices of FCI. A civic center was built in 1972 and was where social gatherings and community meetings were held."

The Wild Boar burned in 1980. FCI offices and businesses already had begun relocating by then to the Indian Hills Country Club area and a shopping center that had been built.

"The initial concept of timeshare purchases of individual weeks in vacation homes was started by FCI at Fairfield Bay in 1979," White writes. "The idea was to sell one-week-per-year occupancy in most units in order to bring the owners back to Fairfield Bay. FCI formed the Community Club in 1967 with the responsibility of collecting annual amenity dues and serving as a liaison between FCI and property owners.

"Lot sales peaked in the five-year period between 1980-85. By 2006, there were about 1,200 lots owned by Fairfield residents and another 7,800 lots owned by non-residents."

FCI's bankruptcy led to the formation of the city of Fairfield Bay in 1993.

Like other retirement communities across the state, Fairfield Bay suffered through a period of decline. More and more older Americans decided they wanted to retire near major medical facilities, cultural amenities and grandchildren. Until the onset of the pandemic last year, golf (the primary activity in most retirement communities) was in decline.

The pandemic changed everything. Many Americans realized they could do their jobs from anywhere with proper broadband. Suddenly, life away from crowded cities became more appealing.

I'm at Fairfield Bay's relatively new Cobblestone Inn & Suites visiting with an actual French chef, Yann Peron. He grew up near Paris and has a degree in classic French cooking from Lenotre and a bachelor's degree in hotel and restaurant management from Ferrandi Paris.

Peron was the lead line chef in a Michelin-rated restaurant at Versailles from 1984-90, then went to Paris to work for four years at the Four Seasons George V Hotel as the food and beverage outlet manager.

Peron moved to this country in April 1994 to manage one of the restaurants at a Ritz-Carlton Hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Dana Point, Calif. He later managed McCormick & Schmick's seafood restaurants in downtown Los Angeles and Beverly Hills before working at casinos. He was senior operations manager at the Commerce Casino & Hotel from 2010-14 and at Hollywood Park Casino from 2014-20.

What's he doing running food and beverage operations at Cobblestone's Bayside Restaurant after 30 years in California?

"When the pandemic started, they laid off almost 1,000 employees at Hollywood Park," Peron says. "I decided to open my horizons nationwide. I considered jobs in Chicago and at a resort in Idaho. I was invited to come here for a week last November. This place was a nice contrast to the big city. It was a chance to put together a team and do something special."

The conference center adjacent to Cobblestone was built in 1978. It was deeded to the city by its previous owner in 2011 after having been empty for almost a decade. Wilba Thompson, who has lived at Fairfield Bay since 1985, is the conference center director.

"Paul Wellenberger, who was then the mayor of Fairfield Bay, was successful at getting grants to restore the building," Thompson says. "We uncovered the former bar and restored the large fireplace in the lobby."

The conference center is the home of the North Central Arkansas Art Gallery. Thompson worked with her late husband Bob to reopen the facility in October 2013 after raising $208,000 from area businesses and residents for furnishings and equipment.

There are 21,000 square feet in the building and an aggressive sales director in Benny Baker, the former sales manager for the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa at Hot Springs. The Cobblestone booked its first rooms in May 2019. In addition to a French chef, it has a spa. In other words, Baker has plenty of amenities to promote as he books groups across the state.

Fairfield Bay, which I first visited almost four decades ago, certainly seems to have a new lease on life in 2021.

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

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