The rain has stopped and the air has cooled. Deke Whitbeck and I step out of the truck on a Monday morning in Springdale. Already waiting for us in the parking lot of the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center is Bobby Martin, one of the state's top business executives.
Whitbeck heads the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation. Martin has served on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission since being appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in July 2016. He became the commission's chairman last week. Martin previously chaired the foundation board.
After 13 months off the road, I resumed my Arkansas travels two months ago when all members of my family had been fully vaccinated. Much of my time has been spent in northwest Arkansas since there's so much going on in this corner of our state. In recent weeks, I've toured the site of the new Walmart home campus in Bentonville, walked through the magnificent library expansion in Fayetteville, ridden around with chamber of commerce executives in multiple cities, and much more.
Of the projects I've seen, perhaps none is more important than this nature center. Like me, Martin believes that Arkansas' future rests in large part on the protection and enhancement of its natural attributes. In the knowledge-based economy, the key to economic development is attracting and retaining talented people. You do that through quality-of-life amenities such as outdoor recreational opportunities.
Arkansas is perfectly positioned to thrive due to an abundance of world-class spots for outdoor recreation. The state, though, is becoming more urbanized, which presents a challenge when it comes to educating Arkansans about nature.
No longer do most Arkansans grow up hunting and fishing with their dads as I did. A majority of our residents fail to realize just how important the outdoors is to the state's economy. The goal of the five nature centers the commission operates is to capture the hearts of young Arkansans so they will work to keep the Natural State natural once they become adults.
In November 1996, voters approved an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution that raised the sales tax one-eighth of a cent. Forty-five percent of the tax money went for capital improvements at state parks. The amendment has allowed us to go from a system where things were being held up with duct tape to perhaps the finest state parks system in the country.
Another 45 percent of Amendment 75 money went to the AGFC. That money allowed the commission to open nature centers at Pine Bluff in 2001, Jonesboro in 2004, Fort Smith in 2006 and Little Rock in 2009. For the longest, however, the state's economic engine (not to mention one of the fastest-growing areas of the country) didn't have a nature center.
In 2014, the city of Springdale donated 62 undeveloped acres of city property with a $3.2 million property value to the AGFC. That was followed by a $5 million commitment from the Hunt family. Construction began in December 2018 and the ribbon was cut in December 2020. The 32,000-square-foot facility has an interactive exhibit hall, three classrooms and an indoor marksmanship facility for archery and BB guns.
Following the Hunt gift, the foundation raised another $3,580,000. Federal grants for $2,797,039 were used. The commission then kicked in $2,127,000 from the sale of conservation license plates and $3,434,159 from its general fund. That's a total land and construction cost of more than $20 million.
The seven staff positions and operating budget came from streamlining the commission's existing education division.
The land is pristine, though traffic on busy Interstate 49 can be seen from the back of the property. Later this year, the nature center's trail system will connect to the Razorback Greenway, allowing cyclists to go directly to the facility.
"There are no gates," Whitbeck says. "We want people taking their morning walks out here at daylight. This place belongs to all the people of Arkansas. Once the cyclists start coming here, we'll introduce a whole new group to what the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission does."
Martin says he and Johnelle Hunt have talked about their shared dream: seeing the parking lot filled with school buses.
"There are thousands of schoolchildren a short ride away from here," Martin says. "This is right in the middle of the growth area. The people of northwest Arkansas are beginning to realize how important this place is. It's going to be a catalyst for education and family enrichment."
Martin served from 1993-99 as president of Walmart International, leading the development of the retail giant's international business. He began his career at Dillard's Inc. After leaving Walmart, Martin became an operating partner with the Stephens Group. He's among this state's smartest business leaders. Martin understands what it takes to recruit highly educated workers to Arkansas while retaining our best and brightest natives.
We walk to two pavilions that have been built as outdoor classrooms, talk about the native grasses that have been planted and discuss how the commission must serve more than just those who hunt and fish. AGFC manages tens of thousands of acres and must also take into consideration those who ride bicycles, hike, rock climb and take part in other outdoor activities.
"In 2021, a birdwatcher is just as important to us as a duck hunter," Martin says. "We have to do more to engage other conservation partners. This Springdale nature center gives us a hub from which to do that in this part of the state."
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.