The ur­ban wilder­ness

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Rex Nel­son

I’ve seen the fu­ture, and it’s in an ur­ban wilder­ness area. The term “ur­ban wilder­ness” might seem con­tra­dic­tory, but let me ex­plain.

It’s ur­ban be­cause we’re only about a mile from down­town Hot Springs. And this is in­deed a wilder­ness. It’s quiet on a hu­mid Thurs­day af­ter­noon as we walk through thick woods. I hear no traf­fic. A breeze rus­tles the oak and hick­ory trees that cling to rocky hill­sides. Be­low us is a pris­tine lake. It’s like a post­card as I look down at the wa­ter. Two of the Hot Springs city of­fi­cials who are ac­com­pa­ny­ing me on the hike say this view is what they use as the screen­saver on their com­put­ers.

We’re in what’s be­ing billed as the North­woods Ur­ban Wilder­ness Park. The city owns 2,080 un­de­vel­oped acres here that con­tain three lakes—13-acre Lake Bethel, 24-acre Lake Dil­lon and 28-acre Lake San­der­son. In 1881, the Hot Springs Wa­ter Co. be­gan de­vel­op­ing reser­voirs to pro­vide drink­ing wa­ter for the boom­ing re­sort city. Wood-fired steam gen­er­a­tors were used to pump wa­ter, and the sur­round­ing forests pro­vided the wood. The three lakes no longer are used for the city’s wa­ter sup­ply.

I grew up 35 miles from Hot Springs and never knew about this place. It’s safe to as­sume many Hot Springs res­i­dents are un­aware of the North­woods. Frankly, I’m amazed the city didn’t sell pieces of this prop­erty through the decades when bud­gets were tight, or at least sell the tim­ber. The cur­rent lead­ers of the Spa City have in­her­ited what turns out to be one of Arkansas’ finest trea­sures, and they’re de­ter­mined to de­velop it cor­rectly.

The North­woods soon will have moun­tain bik­ing and hik­ing trails, a bike shop, and a wa­ter­craft rental fa­cil­ity so peo­ple can use kayaks and ca­noes on the three lakes. David Frasher, the Hot Springs city man­ager, has no doubt that the area will prove pop­u­lar with both area res­i­dents and tourists. In fact, he says the main con­cern may be that “we don’t love this area to death.”

A Novem­ber fea­si­bil­ity study by Pros Con­sult­ing Inc. noted: “The site, if de­vel­oped, would con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to the qual­ity of life and tourism in Hot Springs. . . . Out­door re­cre­ation op­por­tu­ni­ties will en­hance and pro­mote en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship and nat­u­ral re­source man­age­ment. The North­woods prop­erty has enor­mous po­ten­tial to be a lo­cal, re­gional and even na­tional leader in out­door ad­ven­ture re­cre­ation while pre­serv­ing its beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral set­ting. The pro­posed devel­op­ment would pro­vide Hot Springs with a unique site that bal­ances re­cre­ation and en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship and would serve as a valu­able as­set that at­tracts users from across the coun­try.”

Frasher says there are 44 miles of pos­si­ble trails. And these days, it’s im­por­tant to note, Wal­ton fam­ily money of­ten fol­lows the devel­op­ment of moun­tain bik­ing trails.

“Lake Bethel’s dam dates back to the 1880s, Lake Dil­lon’s dam to the early 1900s and Lake San­der­son’s dam to around 1926,” says Jean Wal­lace, the city’s parks and trails direc­tor. “In the early years, what was known as the wa­ter works was a mecca for young peo­ple and vis­i­tors in town. Ex­cept for a few years of pub­lic ac­cess af­ter this time, the area has re­mained rel­a­tively un­touched. In 2015, the In­ter­na­tional Moun­tain Bi­cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion des­ig­nated Hot Springs as a bronze-level ride cen­ter. As a re­sult, more vis­i­tors and res­i­dents are seek­ing a back­woods trail ex­pe­ri­ence close to an ur­ban set­ting. This 2,000-acre wilder­ness with di­rect ac­cess to his­toric down­town Hot Springs is in a per­fect place at the right time to pro­vide that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Arkansas quickly is gain­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a qual­ity cy­cling state. The IMBA held its World Sum­mit last year at Ben­tonville. The four-day event, which takes place ev­ery other year, at­tracted more than 500 peo­ple from coun­tries around the world. With five moun­tain bike trails des­ig­nated as “epic rides” by the IMBA, Arkansas is tied with Colorado for sec­ond (be­hind only Cal­i­for­nia) for hav­ing the most such trails. IMBA has des­ig­nated Ben­tonville, Fayet­teville and Hot Springs as “ride cen­ters.” Those in the re­cre­ation in­dus­try re­fer to cy­cling as “the new golf.” It’s an ac­tiv­ity that peo­ple will travel to pur­sue while spend­ing big money in ho­tels, restau­rants and shops.

Con­sider how Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a col­lec­tion of well-de­signed cour­ses with ad­ja­cent ho­tels, put that state on the tourism map for the first time for thou­sands of wealthy Amer­i­cans. Gov. Asa Hutchin­son, who has branded Arkansas as the Cy­cling Hub of the South, be­lieves cy­cling could do for this state what golf did for Alabama. The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion agrees. It pro­vided IMBA with a $309,000 grant to main­tain the state’s five des­ig­nated “epic rides.”

Cy­cling and hik­ing, com­bined with the Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art and an ex­pand­ing culi­nary scene, have put Ben­tonville on the map when it comes to up­scale tourists. With proper devel­op­ment, the old re­sort city of Hot Springs will ap­peal to mil­len­ni­als. Hot Springs could once again be­come the na­tion­ally pres­ti­gious re­sort it was in the 1920s and 1930s. Along with de­vel­op­ing the North­woods Ur­ban Wilder­ness Park, it’s cru­cial that the city find the best use for the former Ma­jes­tic Ho­tel site. Most peo­ple fa­vor a series of out­door ther­mal pools that high­light the hot wa­ters.

The city also must en­tice in­vestors who will im­prove the qual­ity of ho­tel rooms on the north end of Cen­tral Av­enue and at­tract down­town res­i­dents through the devel­op­ment of apart­ments and con­dos in empty build­ings such as the former Velda Rose Ho­tel, the former Howe Ho­tel and the Med­i­cal Arts Build­ing. This would give the neigh­bor­hood a 24-hour vibe, mak­ing it even more at­trac­tive to vis­i­tors while draw­ing up­scale restau­rants and bou­tiques. Just think: Peo­ple could take their bi­cy­cles di­rectly from that part of down­town to one of this na­tion’s great ur­ban wilder­ness ar­eas.

Rex Nel­son is a se­nior edi­tor at the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

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