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OPINION | REX NELSON: A city takes off

by Rex Nelson | January 5, 2022 at 3:31 a.m.

One of my favorite features in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is titled "Other Days." It consists of excerpts from news stories on the corresponding date 100, 50, 25 and 10 years earlier.

In October, a listing from a decade earlier came from my hometown. The 2011 story read: "The city of Arkadelphia is working on a plan to draw college students into the downtown area and create a connector to the city's two universities. The plan would create an overlay district along the 10th Street corridor, updating zoning and making it easier for college student-friendly businesses and housing developments to fall into place along the major connector between Henderson State University, Ouachita Baptist University and downtown.

"The specifics of the overlay district are still being worked out, but without a solid funding source, it may take years to fully implement the city's vision of a bustling streetscape full of student apartments, restaurants, coffee shops and other businesses akin to those that line Dickson Street in Fayetteville."

Projects don't always move quickly in the south half of Arkansas, but a decade later things are happening along 10th Street. Ouachita purchased and then demolished a number of dilapidated structures. The school has begun work on a 144-bed, $12.6-million student apartment complex. It will include extensive landscaping that should significantly improve the look of the corridor.

This is the second phase of what's known as Project Foresight, which encompasses eight acres on the southwest edge of campus. The project was launched in 2018. The first phase included leasing land to children's specialty health-care company Pediatrics Plus. The company built an $8 million facility that now draws people to Arkadelphia from across southwest Arkansas.

Pediatrics Plus provides services to those with special needs, extends learning opportunities for undergraduates, and serves as a clinical placement site for those enrolled in the university's master of science degree program in applied behavior analysis, a leading therapy for autism.

"Three years ago, we began dreaming and planning to transform our campus," says Ouachita President Ben Sells.

Ouachita has a highly residential campus with 97 percent of students living in residence halls and apartments. The new apartment complex will feature two buildings divided into six houses each. Each house will have three stories.

At the annual Battle of the Ravine football game in November, Sells introduced me to Charles Ambrose, the new Henderson chancellor. Ambrose has an impressive resume and seems positioned to do a better job connecting Henderson to the city it calls home.

Ambrose previously served as president and chief executive officer of KnowledgeWorks, a national foundation focused on the future of learning.

Prior to that, Ambrose was president of the University of Central Missouri from 2010-18 and president of Pfeiffer University in North Carolina from 1998-2010. He was the recipient of the Missouri Governor's Economic Development Award as a result of his efforts to establish what was known as the Missouri Innovation Campus in partnership with the Lumina Foundation.

"Chuck was universally liked and admired by students, faculty and the community of Warrensburg," says former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. "I saw how his leadership delivered results and got folks working together."

Ambrose's move to Arkadelphia comes at a time when there's a sense of momentum across town. Such momentum is all too rare in the south half of our state. New businesses are opening, new public school facilities are on the drawing board and at least two large industrial prospects are giving the area a close look.

Sells and Ambrose, who've known each other for years, will form a strong economic development team with Arkadelphia Mayor Scott Byrd and City Manager Gary Brinkley.

Byrd, a 1984 Ouachita graduate, graduated from the Louisiana State University School of Dentistry in 1989 and entered the U.S. Army Dental Corps. He began his dental practice at Arkadelphia in 1996 and became active in civic affairs. The motorcycle-riding mayor took office in 2019 and enjoys widespread support.

A 2020 Democrat-Gazette feature story on Byrd was headlined: "Expect the unexpected with new Arkadelphia mayor."

In 2021, Byrd was one of 240 riders and support staff involved in the Motorcycle Cannonball, which takes place every other year. It's considered the most difficult endurance run for antique motorcycles. Arkadelphia was the Cannonball's only Arkansas stop.

Brinkley, a Baylor University graduate, once managed shopping malls in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. In 1998, he became general manager of Stockyards Station at Fort Worth and was instrumental in turning a former industrial area into a tourism destination. Brinkley helped create the Fort Worth Herd, a twice-daily cattle drive that attracted more than 750,000 visitors each year.

Brinkley, who also served 11 years as mayor of Saginaw, Texas, had decided to retire near the lakes in this part of Arkansas. In 2017, he saw that the job of city manager was open in Arkadelphia and decided to make the move sooner.

In 2019, Brinkley led an initiative known as Arkadelphia Forward, a one-cent tax designed to generate $10 million during a five-year period to improve municipal services and infrastructure.

"Everything is suddenly headed in the right direction," Byrd says. "Things are lining up for us. We're on the verge of really taking off."

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

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