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Editorial Roundup: Recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers

May 21, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. May 19, 2019.

“The purpose of this Conservation Easement is to ensure that the Brooks-Hummel Nature Reserve will remain forever predominantly in its present condition as a nature park preserving the natural habitat as much as possible, with the City of Fayetteville retaining the right to construct, maintain and repair trails, picnic areas, benches and other park amenities which within the discretion of the City are compatible with a city nature park. The City further retains the right to construct small parking lots near access areas ...”

— Dec. 12, 2008, agreement between the city of Fayetteville and the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association.

It was a little more than a decade ago that a passionate group of Fayetteville residents lobbied city leaders to purchase a 14-acre piece of property in an otherwise residential area behind the Evelyn Hills Shopping Center as a nature preserve. Beyond that, they put their money where their mouths were: The Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association provided $179,500 toward the $495,000 purchase price, with the balance coming from Fayetteville taxpayers.

That the property remained natural is a testament to the Brooks and Hummel families that owned it. The association recognized putting the property on the open market would likely lead to urban development, destroying a natural space nearby property owners had enjoyed for years.

“This is a hidden treasure, right smack in the middle of the city,” resident Hugh Kincaid said back in 2006 of what became the Brooks-Hummel Nature Reserve.

In the years since, it has pretty much remained just that, a treasure, but hidden from most of the public. The city has not made any additions that would make the property inviting and accessible to more than just the people who live nearby. But, since even before the city owned it, Fayetteville’s master plan for trails has envisioned some kind of passage through the preserve and beyond. A trail there would help create a welcome connection for walking and bike-riding residents between Mission Boulevard/North Street to the east and beyond College Avenue. Especially desirable is that residents could use that east-west connection to reach the area around Woodland Junior High School.

Why there? The topography to the east of College Avenue is steep in most places. Alongside the nature preserve and beside Sublett Creek is a rare location where a trail could be developed without steep grades, creating a needed east-west connection anyone could use.

In the city’s list of projects tied to the recent voter-approve $226 million bond issue, the Sublett Creek trail project comes in at $1.3 million. The city plans to tackle the approved trails projects in three phases, with the Sublett Creek trail currently in the final phase.

The preliminary plan has the trail starting at Poplar Street and College Avenue and going behind businesses on College and Evelyn Hills Shopping Center. Spurs would go through the Brooks-Hummel preserve, with a bikeway to run along Lakeridge Drive at Lake Lucille. The trail would then go east across Mission Boulevard, head north, and connect to Old Wire Road.

It would be an incredible connection for the trail system, but it would also create access to the city-owned natural area that has been missing for too long.

Last week, about 30 residents or preservation advocates, however, asked the City Council’s Transportation Committee to remove the trail project entirely from the trails master plan, saying it could destroy the natural area.

In a letter to the city, some of the same people who lobbied for the city’s land purchase more than a decade ago are back, asking the city to leave the Brooks-Hummel preserve untouched. They argue development of a trail, no matter what material is used, will have an adverse ecological impact on the property, resulting in “habitat fragmentation” for plants and animals.

To their great credit, members of the Transportation Committee declined to abandon this trail project’s place in the master plan, although they did mark it as a “study area.” That’s governmentspeak for not saying yes and not saying no.

But a plain reading of the conservation easement shows city leaders at the time of the purchase recognized a need to develop access to the property so that its public purpose could be fully realized. The city should not give that up.

In 2006, the Northwest Arkansas Times supported the purchase through an editorial, but with an eye toward any future temptation to declare the nature preserve untouchable, even for the greater community’s good:

“It must be said, however, that the only way the use of public money in this effort makes sense is if the land will become highly accessible and usable by the citizens of Fayetteville. ... Our city leaders need to evaluate this land and its future use based on its value and use by the citizens. Making it publicly owned means the land should be promoted as a public area and steps should be taken to make sure it’s easily accessible for public use. ...

“In our view, this land cannot simply be purchased using public funds and then left as is. It must be made, in real terms, into an asset that invites the public’s use. Otherwise, it would be preservation of land for just the neighbors, and if that’s the goal, it should be left to the private market.”

Back in those days, advocates for the Brooks-Hummel natural area were busy raising money to fund the Heritage Association’s part in the purchase, saying they hoped people from throughout Fayetteville would contribute because it was a meaningful purchase for the entire city.

We agree it was a meaningful purchase, but today, a dozen years after it became public property, most city residents are unaware that they, as taxpayers, are the owners of a nature preserve. The fact that they’re welcome to visit its wonders has gone unpromoted, and the work necessary to create real access for people beyond those who live nearby hasn’t been accomplished.

We cannot fault property owners around the Brooks-Hummel property for wanting this land left undisturbed. Concerns about activities overrunning the property should be taken into account. This smaller natural area shouldn’t become a mountain biking haven, for example, but the city should encourage hikers and a path that’s part of the city’s trails.

For the good of the city’s residents overall, a trail -- perhaps a boardwalk less disruptive than a concrete trail — serves a dual purpose of creating a valuable new trail east-west connection and better access so the property’s owners can enjoy what the neighbors have appreciated for so long.

___

Texarkana Gazette. May 21, 2019.

It was a dream come true for the Morehouse College Class of 2019.

And perhaps as well for the graduation speaker who astounded them all.

Robert F. Smith made a fortune in venture capital, mainly by investing in up and coming tech companies. With a net worth pegged at $5 billion, the Colorado son of two schoolteachers has come a long way from his middle-class childhood in Denver.

Smith has long been noted for his philanthropy and is considered one of the Top 50 givers in the U.S. But on Sunday he really outdid himself.

As guest speaker at Morehouse, Smith announced he would pay off the college debt of all 396 students.

That’s reportedly around $40 million. Maybe that’s not much when you have billions, but for those students it means a heavy burden lifted and a chance to focus on their careers without the pressure of student loan payments breathing down their necks.

It’s an incredible gift. And the only thing Smith wants in return is for the Class of 2019 — his class, as he calls them — to pay it forward and help others as they can.

Yes, it was a dream come true for the students. And for Smith this must be a dream come true as well.

And it’s the perfect personification of the American Dream in action.

___

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. May 21, 2019.

Northwest Arkansas seems a growing place, so something’s going right. Better said, somebody’s doing right. From mayors to private businesses to park superintendents to golf course designers, things are looking up (as soon as this weather clears). The thousands of people moving to Fayetteville, Bentonville, Springdale and Rogers each year can’t be wrong.

You know who else really likes northwest Arkansas? The nation’s largest private employer.

On a warm May morning, we gathered inside the front door at Walmart’s Home Office in Bentonville with other reporters. We were all given lanyards with our names. (First class all the way!) Inky wretches from all around were there to see Walmart’s plans for a new headquarters.

We were led into a large auditorium. At the front of the room was a large model of what Walmart’s new campus would look like, with several new buildings, lakes, green space--all built around a main bike trail not far from downtown Bentonville.

The model reminded us of other Fortune 500 companies that have built a headquarters into something of an open campus. Lots of planning had gone into this particular design, and it’ll be exciting to watch it come along over the next few years.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson showed up, along with Bentonville Mayor Stephanie Orman and others. Then Walmart CEO Doug McMillon stood and began to discuss the new HQ. McMillon said Walmart wanted a campus designed in new ways, with a home office that will reflect the company’s social and environmental values.

The CEO said he was excited to further invest in Bentonville and northwest Arkansas. And that’s really what this new campus is all about: It’s a commitment from an Arkansas-born company to remain true to its home.

Executive Vice President Dan Bartlett said that currently Walmart occupies about 20 buildings in the area, and it’s straining resources to operate that way. The new campus, announced in 2017, will sit on more than 300 acres, and the first phase will start soon with demolitions. Work on the first building will begin in the fall. It might take till 2024 to get the campus up and running completely.

Bartlett called this the biggest construction project in northwest Arkansas history.

It’s staggering when you look at the model and see all it will encompass. This project is going to require a grand assortment of resources. The brass at Walmart seems fully aware of this. Northwest Arkansas is already undergoing a construction boom. It’s a good time to be a contractor or construction worker.

Everywhere you look, more apartments are going up in Fayetteville. And have you driven through Rogers lately? The Arkansas Music Pavilion is expanding, and Topgolf is going in. If Arkansas has a 3.7% unemployment rate, northwest Arkansas might have a negative figure.

One part of the presentation caught our eye in particular: the announcement that one of the main sources for Walmart’s new buildings was going to be cross-laminated timber made from pine in southern Arkansas. The material is more sustainable than steel and concrete, and it’s fire retardant, so we shouldn’t have a Mrs. O’Leary cow/lantern situation.

When Gov. Hutchinson took the microphone, he said he was excited about the Arkansas timber Walmart would be using for this construction. All that wood has to be cut, treated and transported to the northwest part of the state, which means new jobs created for a region that could desperately use them.

And this will be the largest cross-laminated timber project ever constructed in the U.S., according to Bartlett. This means Walmart’s campus will be a model going forward for other companies that want to conduct large-scale cross-laminated timber projects.

The governor also talked about Arkansas’ global reputation. When people hear the name Arkansas, it’s synonymous with Walmart, one of the biggest retailers in the world. Gov. Hutchinson said he hears that often.

And all the talent brought here from across the country and planet makes a big difference to the state.

You can’t talk about Bentonville without talking about restaurants. The town of nearly 50,000 people has become a hub for foodies with all the new restaurants and food trucks popping up. And Bartlett said the new Walmart campus will certainly incorporate a wide variety of cuisine to reflect the array of cultures from associates who come from all over to make Bentonville their home.

Bartlett said Walmart has spoken with local restaurateurs and taken in all sorts of feedback on offering food at the new campus. The model display showed multiple spaces for food trucks, along with a central area that’ll have several eating options. It makes sense. When you have thousands of employees that have to eat every day, food options should be a priority.

Someone at the event asked about the old buildings Walmart would be leaving behind, and Bartlett said it wasn’t the company’s intention to simply leave a bunch of vacant buildings scattered throughout Bentonville. This is good to hear. Usually when a company leaves an area, empty buildings remain as blight.

The new campus sounds modern and, dare we say, hip. It was described on Friday as “communities within communities” and an extension of the neighborhood. While other campuses can feel isolated, Walmart said this new facility will feel much more open. And it’ll come with fun stuff like scooters, electric bikes, bicycle shares and more.

“We’re trying to think of it in a way that’s timeless,” McMillon said, speaking on the future of Walmart and its new campus’ legacy. “I’m really excited about getting it completed.”

We are too. It may seem like 2024 is a long way off, but since the campus will be phased in, there will be lots to watch and see as this future commitment to Arkansas continues to unfold.

Onward!

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