OPINION | REX NELSON: A false narrative
Today at 2:00 a.m.
by Rex Nelson
It's a sunny Wednesday in October, the leaves are changing color, the square at Jasper is crowded with visitors, and I'm eating one of the best pizzas I've had in Arkansas. I'm at Jasper Pizza Co., the brainchild of Austin and Allison Nichols.
I stand at the counter and watch Austin make pizzas in a building that was constructed in the 1890s. The couple, who moved to this town of fewer than 600 residents from booming Fayetteville, opened the restaurant in May. Stories about the quality of the food spread quickly.
Austin and Allison know what they're doing. They've worked at some of the top restaurants in the state. They met while working for Yellow Rocket Concepts (the parent company of brands such as Local Lime, ZAZA, Big Orange and Lost Forty Brewing) at the Rogers location of Big Orange. They later worked for Jordan Wright, whose Wright's Barbecue has taken the state by storm since 2016. Austin is a Little Rock native, and Allison hails from Daytona Beach, Fla.
"We planned to move to Little Rock and operate the new Wright's Barbecue location there," Allison says. "We decided that first we would travel the country for six months. It was during that trip that we began talking about opening our own restaurant. We found this building in Jasper. We knew big things were about to happen in this area, and it seemed perfect for us since we could live on the second floor.
"We were afraid we were going to let Jordan down, but he wound up encouraging us. He told us that if we were ever going to open our own place, now was the time."
After lunch, I walk to the other side of the square and visit with Walter "Bubba" Lloyd Jr. at Bubba's Buffalo River Store. Lloyd, who grew up in North Little Rock, opened his first store several years ago across the street. Business was so good that he moved to a larger location.
This isn't the Booger Hollow type of tourist attraction that I associated with the Ozarks when I was growing up in Arkansas. Lloyd sells high-quality shirts, hats, coffee mugs and other things that tourists want these days.
Lloyd takes me to another old building he owns. He's remodeling it for a coffee shop that will open next spring. He likely will remodel the other side of that structure for an additional business later in 2024.
The investments being made by Lloyd and the Nichols family are the kind of quality capital investments downtown Jasper has needed for years. These businesses could be successful in any city in the country. Newton County, which is among the state's poorest counties, saw its population peak at 12,538 in the 1900 census. It was down to 7,225 by the 2020 census.
A few miles to the north along Arkansas 7, Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris is turning the former Dogpatch USA amusement park into a nature park. Dogpatch opened in 1968 and closed in 1993. The 400-acre property was purchased by Morris for $1.1 million in 2020.
In September, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration had awarded $1 million to the Marble Falls Sewer Improvement District for wastewater improvements. The project will be matched with $1.9 million in state funds and allow Morris' project to move forward.
In the application for the funds, it was estimated that there will be $40 million in private investment creating 166 jobs. I have a feeling that Morris' investment will end up being far higher. Like the Nichols family and Lloyd, he believes in quality. Even at $40 million, it represents the largest private investment in Newton County history.
The picture I just painted of the Jasper area is probably far different from the impression you got from the media following a recent town meeting. Angry local residents lashed out at the idea of change, even those changes that will improve their quality of life. What happened here represents a case study of the power of misinformation on social media. It shows us how even well-educated people can be duped by the social media mob.
Wild rumors began circulating in these hills after a coalition floated the idea of making the Buffalo National River a national park preserve. A poll was commissioned, and the rumors spread--Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton, want to take over Buffalo National River; the Sarah Sanders administration wants to take over Buffalo National River; eminent domain will again be used; hunting and fishing will be prohibited; the Waltons plan to mine the area.
None of these rumors are true, but I watched on social media as people (many of whom I consider friends) bought into them without any effort to obtain the facts. The first people to believe the lies were those who support conservation organizations and see themselves as heirs of the environmentalists who fought half a century ago to have the Buffalo declared our first national river.
What these folks didn't realize is that they're actually on the same side as the Walton brothers and others they were bashing.
Those in the coalition are searching for a way to obtain more federal funding to handle the crowds already visiting the Buffalo. A upgrade in the National Park Service pecking order might achieve that goal. Federal protection of the river isn't going away. That battle was won 51 years ago in the face of strong opposition from Newton County and Searcy County residents.
We need more rangers, restrooms and parking lots. All who study the issue should be able to agree on that. Yes, amateur naturalists, you and the Walton brothers are on the same side.
It's not just the NPS that's under-funded in Arkansas. It's also the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In a state where tourism represents the second-largest segment of the economy, you would think the six members of Arkansas' congressional delegation would work hard to get these agencies what they need while also ensuring that they prioritize the recreational aspects of their missions.
On the way to Jasper, I stopped at the popular Rotary Ann rest area along Arkansas 7. The Forest Service's interpretive panels were either missing or difficult to read. Frankly, it's embarrassing in a place that calls itself the Natural State.
In our highly politicized society, the next group to believe social media misinformation was made up of those who dislike Sanders. I've done extensive reporting on this issue for the past month, and I can't find much evidence of direct involvement by the governor or husband Bryan Sanders, who fancies himself as the state's outdoor czar. The anti-Sanders crowd, however, immediately believed rumors and joined the social media attacks.
I would like to offer this piece of public relations advice to the Walton brothers: It would be wise to distance yourself from Sarah and Bryan Sanders, since they're now the most divisive Arkansas public figures in my lifetime. They can add nothing but heartache to efforts to preserve and enhance outdoor recreational attributes in the Ozarks.
It's true that the Walton family has purchased more than 6,000 acres in the area. Take a step back from the social media rhetoric and consider this: The Waltons don't need to make money off this land. They already have plenty. They won't be clear-cutting the timber. They won't be mining gravel in streams. They won't be bringing in commercial hog and poultry operations.
They want to improve outdoor recreational opportunities, and you do that by keeping the land pristine. In that sense, they're the best possible owners.
Longtime residents must have their voices heard. But they also must realize a couple of things. First, the Buffalo National River doesn't belong to them. It belongs to all American taxpayers. That issue was settled in 1972. Second, there's no way to keep everything as it once was. In the words of Lou Holtz, you either get better or you get worse. Nothing stays the same.
It's time to abandon the social media madness and work together. The Buffalo deserves nothing less than a united front.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.