Attend a city council meeting in nearly any of the major towns of Benton County--Bentonville, Rogers, Lowell, Cave Springs -- and one face you're bound to get familiar with is Bill Watkins.
The principal attorney at the law firm of Watkins, Boyer, Gray & Curry is quick to say that he's not a specialist, but he's been practicing land use and planning law for about 40 years now. Many of the large scale development projects that change our towns in their appearance and ability to function are ushered through the processes of city government with his help.
Watkins' has had a hand in so many of these businesses and neighborhoods coming to fruition, that when asked to look back on even the highlights, it's hard to sort through it all casually.
"There have been hundreds," Watkins says.
But one of the most recent was the walkable community of mixed use developments -- meaning an assortment of apartments, shopping and restaurants -- that now sits across from Pinnacle area in Rogers. That particular project was made possible through Johnelle Hunt and Watkins says it's among the most rewarding experiences of his career. "That one was fun," he says. "It's cool to drive by and see it since I got that project approved."
To do a job like Watkins' well, one needs not just a keen understanding of law and of the way each city functions, but also a tendency not to shy away from conflict and a way to help opposing parties come to a productive solution diplomatically.
"From the city's perspective, he's absolutely one of the go-to people," says Raymond Burns, President and CEO of the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce. Projects often come to planning commissions and city councils in need of rezoning, especially as each town is growing so quickly. What may have originally been planned for businesses might now need to be residential or vice versa, among others.
"Bill has a stellar reputation and is trusted not only by the planning commission and the city staff, when he brings something in, we know he's bringing in a good project," Burns says. "Bill does his homework, he always tells it like it is and I think there's a sense of trust built up over all of these years where when Bill stands in front of them, you're absolutely getting all the information and he really knows the project he's representing.
"He brings something that's going to be in the best interest of the city."
What has allowed Watkins to become such a trusted source to so many, sometimes opposing, parties is his habit of speaking in what Burns calls "third grade simple."
"He has the ability to explain something so everyone -- laymen, engineers, people on city council or planning commission, where everyone has a different level of understanding -- Bill reduces it down to the least common denominator," Burns says. "He explains it in such a way that...people typically understand."
Over and over again, Burns has seen Watkins negotiate with neighbors and neighborhoods, finding acceptable compromises while working with the city involved, even if in the beginning they are contentious. By the end, the client is also happy. "Usually it's a win-win," he says.
Daniel Ellis, senior vice president for infrastructure at Crafton Tull & Associates, is an engineer who works with Watkins on many development projects as they are introduced to the cities. His first memory of Bill was well over 20 years ago.
"He definitely knew how to represent his clients on property concerns," Ellis says. "In front of those (boards) he was well versed, knowledgeable, well connected and well respected. The city council listened to him."
These days, Ellis says Crafton Tull uses Watkins "everyday for everything," and they've tackled so many different types of projects over the years. But it wasn't that way early on. Many Crafton clients need rezonings and a long time ago, Ellis says he tried to do that side of the work, drafting rezoning proposals, himself. But he often found himself questioning the legality of it. With Watkins doing it, he knows it's better quality work.
"He's a long-time practicing attorney, he knows zoning really well," Ellis says. Day to day, they talk over new projects to make sure they're a good fit for the property, how to work within the guidelines that the cities provide and discuss whether their requests are overreaching in any way.
Watkins' greatest asset is "his knowledge of Rogers," Ellis says. "He knows the history, he knows where growth is happening. He has this really broad, deep knowledge base for Northwest Arkansas, but Rogers specifically. If you're about to build on a property, he most likely knows the history of that property, who has concerns and who to talk to and can find out if he doesn't.
"He's probably only one of a couple of guys in Northwest Arkansas who have that."
CARS & BASKETBALL
Bill Watkins was born in Memphis, but he's quick to say he only ever lived there for a month of his life. He is the fifth generation of his mother's family to live in Washington County and the only time he lived elsewhere was for college at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He returned to the area to attend law school at UA Fayetteville, and has stayed put ever since.
Like a lot of families that lived here then, their house was in town, but the country was "right next door." Throughout childhood, Bill and his buddies were encouraged to go off playing until dinnertime, running through the woods a mile or two from the Watkins' house. They knew it was time to turn around whenever they heard the schoolbell ring -- Bill's mom had one on hand for the purpose of bringing him back home.
At school, it was Watkins' second grade teacher Mrs. Eddie who "got me going in the right direction," Bill recalls. She helped him get interested in reading and more engaged in school, but she was just one of his many good teachers.
Among the perks of living in a university town was the cars, young Bill thought, as he ogled the MGs and Triumphs the students drove around town. His lifelong love of classic cars really sparked somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, when he reluctantly accompanied his mother to the grocery store. Bill spent the whole time in front of the magazine rack. He loved to read about cars as his mom got the family's food, but he loved to see the beautiful vehicles up close whenever he had the chance. Flipping through the pages on one of those trips led to the discovery of a gorgeous yellow car unlike any he'd ever seen before, the Italian Lamborghini Miura.
Bill's first job was as a sacker and stocker for Dillon's Grocery. During his first couple of college summers he worked construction for the big hourly wage of $4.40 an hour. His scholarship restricted him from working during the school year, so those summer jobs had to make enough to pay his car's expenses and social activities for the entirety of the year.
Back then he had a German GM Opel -- not a GT, he couldn't fit in one of those at his height -- but a sports sedan. Those last couple of college summers he worked in oil refineries to make his cash, with some supplementing from his grandfather, who he paid back with interest, and his dad, who would make three car payments during basketball season.
"When you're my height, someone hands you a basketball when you're really young," Watkins says. He's 6'7" now.
Bill started organized basketball in the third grade at the Fayetteville Youth Center and its eight foot goals, then he went on to play in junior high and high school. He made his college choice based on the best Division One offer that he received.
"I went down (to Lake Charles, Louisiana) on a visit and had a great time, the Cajun culture was so different," he says. Afterward, he made his commitment and spent nearly five years there.
Coach Billy Tubbs was at Lamar University at the time and was friends with Watkins' coach at the time. The two liked to mess with each other and sometimes their players got swept up in the friendly razzing.
During Watkins' sophomore year, both McNeese State and Lamar were scoring well. Lamar, in particular, was on an enormous winning streak of 45 games straight, so when it was time for the two to face each other on the court, Watkins' coach was prepared.
"Instead of a pregame warmup at Lamar's arena, we put on all our gear, got on a bus, rode to Beaumont to a high school near campus and did all pregame warmup there," Watkins says. "We got (to the arena) three minutes before tipoff. Billy Tubbs was furious with us playing mind games.
"That was a great game. We wound up winning with a shot from the point guard that hit the rim twice and then fell in."
In Watkins' basketball tenure he played against some athletes who were later drafted by the NBA, like Andrew Toney, a two-time NBA All Star whose professional career lasted eight years. Bill says he has lots of fond memories of that time of his life, which he categorizes as a sort of odd time to be in basketball.
"There was no three point line and no shot block," he says. "They outlawed the dunk at (my) freshman year."
But the game Bill played at UT Arlington had to be the strangest place by far that he ever played basketball. The court was on a large theater stage surrounded by six or eight rows of aluminum bleachers to seat a thousand people. If you didn't get to the ball you were chasing fast enough, it would have a six feet drop.
Watkins returned to Northwest Arkansas with a degree in business management, a seat at the University of Arkansas School of Law and a new funny accent.
THE WILD WEST
Bill's first inkling that he wanted to practice law, aside from his enjoyment of the TV program Judd for Defense, was through the lens of his father's work. While Bill was growing up, his dad worked as personnel manager for Baldwin Piano in Fayetteville and became a corporate human resources officer for the same company, later closing out his career at Southwestern Energy, the parent company for Arkansas Western Gas.
The work, which was in close conjunction with his father's colleague Jim Gilker, dealt a lot with labor law and the accounts of it fascinated young Bill. Law school itself was an eye opener, the first time that Watkins remembers having to be fastidious about studying with true intensity. The pressure was high with many of the classes riding on the grade of a single, four hour, essay-filled exam.
Late in Watkins' second year of law school, a friend of his was interviewing for job and heard that a firm in Rogers was looking for a clerk. Bill was hired for the gig of law clerk at Adams, Scott, Lingle & Lashlee and it taught him all the fundamentals of real estate. Once he had his license, they hired him as a full time lawyer "and I've been here doing this ever since," he says.
In his earliest days of land use and planning law, it felt like there were no rules at all.
"You'd go into a courtroom, and you've got rules of civil procedure and rules of evidence that govern how you do stuff, how you present things, but certainly 25-30 years ago and to a little bit of an extent now, it's a free-for-all," Watkins says. "A citizen can get up and say whatever they want to say and we have to respond to that. I always try to do that in an ethical way. I would never say something to a city body that I knew was not true."
It's no longer quite the wild west that it was in the old days, Bill says. Now he's more likely to run into a bit of "elitist nonsense" when one neighborhood might consider themselves too elite for certain developments to spring up next to them.
In 2004, Watkins received an invitation that would shape his professional life, the chance to fill a seat on the board of the Beaver Water District. Bill accepted because it sounded like an interesting appointment -- having clean drinking water is important for everyone, he says.
Watkins has been president of that board since 2012 and views the job as "treating water and keeping the cost of water down for the public and making sure we're prepared for the future, making sure water is clean enough to treat at a reasonable cost," Watkins says. "We're engaged in efforts to protect the white watershed."
Lane Crider, CEO of Beaver Water District, describes Bill as an engaging person who really gives you his full attention, a person who commands a room and "is very much about the process," helping the board get through all the issues at hand. In this role, he took over following someone with tremendous influence at local, regional and state levels.
"But once he understood about the district and the value to citizens of Arkansas, he was passionate about it," Crider says. "Certainly Bill does not back away from a hard decision or a controversial issue."
The power of having a highly functioning board of directors and an efficient leader at its help is that "The (public) begins to understand that the only agenda we have is to make sure we are an economic engine for drinking water and how important it is."
Date and place of birth: Memphis, Tenn.
Family: wife Lisa. We met on a blind date in December 1984 and it's been great ever since.
I would never: watch a courtroom drama now, they are ridiculous, but they did inspire me to be a lawyer. One I remember is Judd for the Defense.
I began practicing law in: August 1984, when I moved to Rogers.
There's a nasty rumor going around that: I've retired or I'm about to retire. To paraphrase Mark Twain, "news of my retirement is greatly exaggerated."
The most difficult side of my job is: always the fact that people don't like change, but the growth in this area has generated an enormous amount of change.
Something I look back on with particular satisfaction: my two years as chairman of Main Street Rogers. We got the Historic District Commission formed in downtown Rogers, that was really a satisfying thing to help preserve the historic character and nature of downtown Rogers for the long term. I was pleased to help get that done.
My first classic car was: a 1962 Triumph TR4
How many classic cars do you have? Two. I like to tinker with them, I've learned some maintenance and some mechanical skills. Here (at the law office) I have 3-18 months of work per project. With a car, I can complete something in a weekend.
What I love about the British Iron Car Club, of which I'm president: The driving and meeting people involved. We have a car show in the fall, Brits in the Ozarks, that benefits the ALS Association.
One thing I've always wondered about my law school experience: How they managed to read my handwriting.