One of the things I love about Arkansas is the fact that natives tend to remember where they're from.
For example, I can name a number of Pine Bluff natives who now live in Little Rock but are active in efforts to revitalize their hometown, which has fallen on hard times in recent decades.
What's going on in my hometown of Arkadelphia is another example. Funds are being raised statewide for Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, which will be on the site of the long-gone hospital where I was born more than 62 years ago. The park is envisioned as the state's most prominent memorial to the late civil rights leader.
The honorary co-chairmen of the campaign to raise $2.5 million are two Little Rock business and civic leaders who grew up in Arkadelphia. Fitz Hill is Black; Mitch Bettis is white. Both love their hometown and will take a far more active role than the term "honorary" usually implies.
Hill was one of the few Black head football coaches at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level when he headed the program at San Jose State University. He later was president of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. Before going to San Jose State, Hill was on the University of Arkansas football coaching staff, serving under five head coaches during a 12-year tenure.
Bettis is owner of the media and digital marketing company Arkansas Business Publishing Group. He also owns 360 West, a media and marketing company in Fort Worth. Like me, he was born at Clark County Memorial Hospital. Like me, he once worked for Arkadelphia's Daily Siftings Herald, which no longer exists. Like me, Hill and Bettis are graduates of Ouachita Baptist University.
The campaign chairman is Arkadelphia's Roland Gosey, who owns Williams Funeral Home, which is among the state's top Black-owned funeral homes. At age 27, Gosey became the youngest funeral home owner in the state. He serves on the Arkadelphia Board of Directors with the title of assistant mayor.
According to the MLK Memorial Park website: "At the corner of Pine and 15th Street lies the perfect central location to host the park. Once the site of Clark County Memorial Hospital, the property holds historical and emotional importance to many community members who have expressed their desire to retain it for the community to use rather than see it developed commercially. Residents view it as sacred ground as it was the place lives began and also came to an end.
"The park location is nestled between residential, commercial and religious areas. ... MLK Memorial Park will offer an abundance of opportunities for all ages that will provide a blended experience including art, nature, sports and history. Initial park design includes a quarter-mile walking loop, play area, splash pad, amphitheater adjacent to a green gathering place, and a civil rights educational trail."
City leaders view it as a regional attraction that will draw people from beyond Arkadelphia.
"Not only will the community be impacted, the city is along Interstate 30 midway between Texarkana and Little Rock, making it an easy-to-reach destination for field trips, group travel and tourists," the website states. "The park will include an elliptical design with all features leading back to the central greenspace that includes the amphitheater and splash pad."
The play area will include two basketball courts. The civil rights trail will have educational kiosks that tell the story of the civil rights era.
I noted in Wednesday's column that Arkadelphia is on a bit of a roll economically. That's not common in the south half of our state, where the vast majority of towns are losing population. Thanks to the presence of Ouachita and Henderson State University, Arkadelphia's population has remained stable through the decades. That's considered a victory in south Arkansas. But the town hasn't grown.
That lack of population growth is one reason area residents were so excited in November when groundbreaking ceremonies were held for a new housing project that could spur growth. Arkadelphia natives Nicky Goff and Kyle Smith, partners in Mill Creek Investors Group, came up with the idea of North Ridge Estates and South Ridge Crossing. They're converting 234 acres of undeveloped land into housing.
The first phase, North Ridge Estates, will use 90 of those acres. The second phase, South Ridge Crossing, will be about the same size. The two phases will have 435 lots. Goff has been involved in previous projects in booming Saline County.
"I hope this contributes to the next growth opportunity for Arkadelphia," Goff told the online site The Arkadelphian. "It has been 40 years since we've had new home construction options."
In June, Clark County voters renewed a half-cent sales tax used for economic development. Part of the proceeds from that tax will be used to fund a truck bypass around Arkadelphia, which should spur additional development. Pine Street, the major commercial corridor along which MLK Memorial Park will be situated, is also being expanded.
"The widening of Pine Street along with MLK Memorial Park construction will change the way we think about ourselves in this town," says Gary Brinkley, Arkadelphia's city manager. "We're working toward becoming a regional center for this whole part of the state. We want this to be the kind of town where people want to move. I can already name people who moved here recently from places like Arizona and south Texas. That trend will accelerate with these projects."
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.