Mon. May 29th, 2023

I always take time on New Year’s Eve to look back on the year that’s ending and look ahead to the year that’s about to begin. I can state without equivocation that Arkansas is in a good spot economically as 2022 comes to a close. State government has a record budget surplus, and there are trends that point to a golden era for the state if business and civic leaders make the right moves.
We have the continued boom in northwest Arkansas with Walmart spending more than $1 billion on a corporate campus, Tyson Foods bringing an additional 1,000 white-collar employees to the state, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art expanding, a medical school being built and record enrollment at the University of Arkansas.
We have central Arkansas becoming a logistics and distribution hub at the same time it’s becoming a banking hub. We have northeast Arkansas becoming the leading center of steel manufacturing in North America.
We’ll soon see Fort Smith become the site for training fighter pilots from around the world. We have the defense industry booming in south Arkansas at the same time efforts to remove lithium from bromine could bring about the 21st century equivalent of that region’s 1920s oil boom.
Taking advantage of these developments, we must invest capital wisely to make Arkansas a mecca for young, talented people who are looking to escape the high costs and congestion of urban areas. We do that through downtown revitalization and coordinated efforts to protect and enhance our abundant outdoor recreational attributes.
Along those lines, here are things I would like see happen in 2023:
• I would like to see Johnny Morris of Bass Pro fame complete the transformation of the former Dogpatch property, turning Newton County into a nationally known attraction. Those who have watched Morris through the years know he does first-class work.
• I would like to see the growing number of people with wealth in Benton and Washington counties invest money next door in Carroll County. Eureka Springs has authenticity that a place like Branson can’t touch. It just needs some large capital investments to polish this Arkansas jewel and attract a higher-spending clientele.
• In northeast Arkansas, where the steel plants are being built, I would like to see Arkansas State University expand offerings at the Dyess Colony, where Johnny Cash came of age. There’s a potential for drawing far more people than are currently visiting Dyess. Just down the road, I would like to see billionaire investor Gaylon Lawrence Jr. continue making Wilson a model Delta town, including opening a world-class boutique hotel. And good luck to the investors trying to bring restaurants, boutiques and live music to historic downtown Blytheville.
• Also in northeast Arkansas, I would like to see the string of attractions being developed up Interstate 55 move forward and draw the tourists who already visit Memphis. From south to north, these attractions include the recently opened 20-story Southland Casino hotel at West Memphis, an expanded museum at Marion focusing on the Sultana disaster that occurred at the end of the Civil War, and the U.S. Cold War Museum at the former Eaker Air Force Base near Blytheville.
• I would like to see the revitalization of downtown Pine Bluff, where the downtown campus of Friendship Aspire Academy opened earlier this month. The charter school joins an architectural jewel that houses a library, a state-of-the-art aquatics center and extensive streetscape improvements. There soon will be a new hotel connected to the Pine Bluff Convention Center. Let’s also hope for the renovation of the Pines Hotel and Saenger Theatre downtown.
• I would like to see the city of Little Rock get serious about restoring the Capitol Avenue corridor. This should be Arkansas’ grandest boulevard–a vibrant street leading to the steps of the state Capitol. It’s instead filled with tacky surface parking lots and empty buildings. The state’s new governor, Little Rock Central High School graduate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, must realize that state government has an interest in ensuring the road to the Capitol is a street all Arkansans can take pride in.
• I would like to see the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service focus on the recreational aspects of their congressionally mandated missions. Too many of their recreational areas have been allowed to deteriorate in a state where tourism is the No. 2 economic sector, behind only agriculture. The six members of our congressional delegation must put more pressure on these agencies to ensure this happens. The power of the pocketbook is real. Our delegation should use it.
• I would like to see the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism spend more on the Delta Cultural Center at Helena and the Ozark Folk Center at Mountain View. Rural areas of Arkansas are struggling. These two institutions help preserve both the Delta and upland cultures of the state.
• At the same time, I would to see that agency partner with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission to buy the former Delta Resort near McGehee and give southeast Arkansas (an area in dire need of capital investment) one of the finest public shooting sports complexes in the country.
• I would like to see success for the Murphy Arts District at El Dorado. There’s a whole area of south Arkansas, north Louisiana and east Texas that’s a bit of a cultural desert. MAD is solving that problem with live music and art.
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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