What never was

Moun­tain Home’s path not taken

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Voices - RICK ROGERS

Dur­ing my for­ma­tive years in the ’60s and ’70s I al­ways knew my home­town of Moun­tain Home (also known as MoHo) was an odd place. It was at once full of na­tive-born folks as well as in­creas­ing num­bers of new res­i­dents and vis­i­tors. We could pick the lat­ter out eas­ily due to their col­or­ful car tags. They were con­ve­niently color-coded for us. The lo­cal cul­ture was a mish­mash of South­ern and up­per Mid­west­ern in­flu­ences, with the lat­ter more ev­i­dent each year.

It wasn’t un­til I left for col­lege in 1974 that my per­cep­tions changed to those of a non-res­i­dent, and I be­gan see­ing the for­est rather than just the trees. My cog­ni­tive fil­ter more eas­ily in­ter­preted just what was go­ing on in my home­town and, more than likely, who was most re­spon­si­ble.

I was born there in 1956, and was among the ear­li­est group of chil­dren grow­ing up in what I call the mod­ern era of north cen­tral Arkansas, de­fined as the time pe­riod af­ter 1951, the year that the sec­ond of the large Corps of En­gi­neers’ dam con­struc­tion projects was com­pleted (Nor­fork Dam was the first, fin­ished in 1944).

Au­tho­rized and funded for flood control, those dams cre­ated a won­der­land for out­door recre­ation en­thu­si­asts. My home area was for­ever changed. How­ever, I have an is­sue with what it changed into as a re­sult.

With the recre­ational as­sets em­bod­ied in two large lakes and two world-class fish­ing rivers, the Twin Lakes Area (or TLA) had a des­tiny to be­come a powerhouse tourism des­ti­na­tion, on the or­der of Hot Springs or Bran­son. The back­bone was al­ready in place. But that didn’t hap­pen. Spe­cific, con­scious de­ci­sions ap­pear to have been made by a small group of in­flu­en­tial lo­cals that put the area onto an al­ter­nate, nar­row path. They some­how con­cluded that it was best suited to de­velop into a re­tire­ment des­ti­na­tion.

In retrospect their in­flu­ences proved dis­as­trous to the de­vel­op­ment of a healthy tourism econ­omy. MoHo was of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to be­come a true tourism des­ti­na­tion, not just in the Ozarks but also in the en­tirety of the South and the Mid­west. That be­came the road not taken, the one that could have pro­duced a much dif­fer­ent city, one not dom­i­nated by re­tirees from else­where, and one with more ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties for ev­ery­one. No brain drain of young tal­ent in that sce­nario.

Had that nat­u­ral path been fol­lowed, the tourism-cen­tric Moun­tain Home might have had a base pop­u­la­tion some­what larger than to­day and be greatly in­flated dur­ing a busier sum­mer sea­son. It would also re­flect a much more bal­anced gen­er­a­tional pro­file. There would still be some re­tire­ment as­pects as with all re­sort ar­eas ev­ery­where, but they would not pri­mar­ily de­fine it as they do now.

I lament the loss of that MoHo ev­ery day.

It’s all spec­u­la­tion of course, but I fully em­brace the idea that my home­town stood at a cross­roads in the 1950s and sim­ply made a des­tiny-al­ter­ing turn. As a re­sult Moun­tain Home evolved in a per­plex­ing man­ner. That re­al­ity has pro­duced a myr­iad of apol­o­gists over the years but was also bound to even­tu­ally pro­duce at least one critic like me. I’m crit­i­cal of the mod­ern MoHo in terms of how it has ac­tu­ally de­vel­oped, be­cause I know it could have been a more eco­nom­i­cally vi­able com­mu­nity than it is now. I’m a critic of those fate­ful de­ci­sions made by the ca­bal that led Moun­tain Home to look the way it does in 2018. I will al­ways love my home­town but love is of­ten ex­pressed via timely ob­ser­va­tions and cri­tiques. As such I’m the loyal op­po­si­tion, the 10th man who by def­i­ni­tion must dis­agree with nine oth­ers speak­ing with one voice.

On a pos­i­tive note, MoHo ap­pears to have an in­creas­ingly healthy econ­omy of late, a re­nais­sance of sorts oc­cur­ring in the 2000s. I won’t say it’s boom­ing, but com­mer­cial growth within the re­tail and hospi­tal­ity sec­tors is more ro­bust than in past decades.

There’s a greater en­ergy com­ing from the non-re­tired ranks, es­pe­cially among young adults, which I be­lieve has not been in ev­i­dence since the 1960s. In my opin­ion that was the last time that the me­dian age in Bax­ter County re­flected as­pects of nor­mal­ity.

My par­ents and those of my class­mates were among those mak­ing rel­e­vant con­tri­bu­tions in that decade.

Moun­tain Home re­mains an en­joy­able place to live for mem­bers of many co­hort groups, whether na­tive-born or trans­plant. The tens of thou­sands of folks who have re­lo­cated to the TLA over the decades would not have done so if they thought other­wise. Many of them might still have ended up there even if the tourism-cen­tric model had been al­lowed to un­fold in a nat­u­ral way.

At this point, roughly 60 years af­ter the re­tire­ment vil­lage over­lay was placed on the al­ready-ex­ist­ing town, it’s now per­ma­nently cast as a re­tire­ment des­ti­na­tion. In a cu­ri­ous way MoHo might still have ended up as a re­tire­ment town in the 21st cen­tury even if it had fol­lowed that orig­i­nal pre-or­dained path. The tsunami of baby boomer re­tire­ment will change the cul­tural land­scape of Amer­ica. Many com­mu­ni­ties that have been tourism-cen­tric for decades just might be mor­ph­ing into re­tire­ment des­ti­na­tions soon enough. The wave is com­ing.

Maybe this was what was des­tined for my Moun­tain Home all along. It just got there, re­gret­tably, decades ahead of sched­ule. A long­time Con­way res­i­dent, Rick Rogers has been a Moun­tain Home ex­pa­tri­ate for over 44 years. This es­say is adapted from his book man­u­script, The Pre­ma­ture Gray­ing of the Ozarks: Re­flec­tions on Re­tire­ment Mi­gra­tion, Leisure Ghet­tos, and Re­lo­ca­tion Tourism. He is cur­rently seek­ing a pub­lisher.

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