A former governor and the current governor showed up on a May day along the banks of the Mississippi River near Arkansas City for a ceremony. At what's known as McCallie Access, part of Robert Moore Jr.'s dream was coming true.
Moore, once speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives and now chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission, hails from this corner of southeast Arkansas and has long worked to improve the area. Agriculture is king here. In the 1950s, business and civic leaders began intense efforts to attract manufacturers to replace thousands of jobs being lost due to agricultural mechanization. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers no longer were needed to chop cotton in the summer and pick it in the fall.
There was some initial success in attracting manufacturers, though not enough to stem population losses. Moore determined that future economic development wouldn't be centered on attracting industrial concerns. It would be about drawing those who hunt, fish, birdwatch, hike and cycle.
I call this the wild, wild southeast. Arkansans tend to think of the Ouachitas and Ozarks when asked about the state's most remote spots. But this land where the Arkansas and White rivers join the Mississippi is among the wildest places in the continental United States. It's where the state's last native bears lived and where there might still be an ivory-billed woodpecker or two.
Given the fact that most of Arkansas' eastern border is the Mississippi River, there are surprisingly few places to put a boat into the river. And there aren't many places with views as good as this. More than $2 million has been spent at the site, an effort that began when Mike Beebe was governor. The access and scenic overlook were named for Beebe during the May ceremony.
"This has been a long time coming," Moore said that day as Beebe and Gov. Asa Hutchinson listened.
Few people are better connected in state government than Moore. A graduate of McGehee High School and Ouachita Baptist University, he served five years of active duty as a U.S. Army officer. Three of those years were spent in Vietnam. Moore served three terms in the House and was speaker in 2011-12.
Moore's public service career began in 1974 as an assistant state attorney general. Gov. David Pryor appointed Moore as chairman of the Arkansas Transportation Commission (which at the time regulated intrastate trucking) in 1977.
In 1986, Moore joined the staff of Gov. Bill Clinton. In 1987, he was appointed director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division and served in that job for two decades. His recent efforts have been devoted to educating people on the jewel that Arkansas has in the national wildlife refuges and state wildlife management areas of southeast Arkansas. Moore was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame in 2019.
As the southern terminus of the Delta Heritage Trail, which is being developed for cyclists and hikers thanks to large grants from the federal government and Walton Family Foundation, Arkansas City will soon see lots of visitors. Moore envisions a place with bed-and-breakfast inns, a nice coffee shop and even a restaurant that serves dinner and hosts blues artists.
With his decades of government service, Moore is a master at getting agencies such as the state Department of Transportation, Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism to work together. A few miles from McCallie Access is a golden opportunity to do just that--work together to create something special.
In June, I wrote about the state's new Office of Outdoor Recreation. With a push from Moore and Hutchinson, that office could be the perfect facilitator for a state purchase of the now-closed Delta Resort & Spa. Arkansas has one of the nation's top youth shooting sports programs. The Delta facilities built by a high-flying developer named Gary Gibbs could take that program to the next level as the host of national and international competitions.
In an October 2014 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story, Chris Bahn wrote about the resort: "It's the sort of gathering that property owner and Tennessee businessman Gary Gibbs envisioned when he opened the 132-room resort in 2012. Gibbs, an avid hunter and shooting enthusiast, built the lodge and competitive shooting range on nearly 2,000 acres of Desha County land that public records show he purchased for $3.1 million in 2008.
"Gibbs, who has been hunting in Arkansas for more than 30 years, said he began building what he describes as a $40 million hunting lodge seven years ago. In addition to recreational and competitive endeavors, Delta Resort & Spa has served as a place for Gibbs to entertain government officials from nearby towns and counties."
Gibbs told Bahn: "It has been a dream of mine for a while. We can safely say we're one of the best shooting venues in the world. That's what the competitors that come through tell us."
Gibbs also announced plans to buy a hotel connected to the Hot Springs Convention Center. There were Gibbs' housing projects in Warren, McGehee and Lake Village. In the end, his talk was louder than his pockets were deep. Gibbs, beset with financial and legal problems, was forced into involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Delta Resort now sits empty, available for purchase for far less than Gibbs put into it. Its buildings still appear to be in good shape.
In an area desperate for development, the state could create a major attraction--a Delta version of its mountain lodges at Petit Jean, Mount Nebo and Mount Magazine.
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.