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Climbing the mountain 

Rockefeller still lifts Arkansas with UA Institute.

A PLACE FOR REFLECTION: Program director Sherry Walker says the Institute provides an "immersion experience."
  • A PLACE FOR REFLECTION: Program director Sherry Walker says the Institute provides an "immersion experience."

The top of Petit Jean Mountain was an improbable spot to start a cattle farm, given its locale and lack of water.

The top of Petit Jean Mountain may seem an improbable spot for conferences on public policy and academe, given its locale hours from any population center at the end of a mountain-climbing two-lane.

But Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller piped water to the mountain top, raised his Santa Gertrudis and along the way raised up Arkansas as well. Now his legacy is working on bringing the best minds to his mountaintop farm, to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute of the University of Arkansas.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Trust has already committed $55.8 million to the Institute, some $20 million of which has gone into the renovation of the former headquarters of Winrock International, new construction and operational expenses.

What a deal for the University: a place where people can come together and think big thoughts for the future of Arkansas, in a handsome 17,000-square-foot conference center, with lodging and fine dining — all on WR.

Rockefeller stipulated in his will that his riches should be used for the education of Arkansas, and when, in 2004, Winrock International decided to move its operations from Petit Jean to offices in Washington, D.C., and Little Rock, the trust asked the University of Arkansas to submit a proposal on operating the Institute. The University had no money to offer, but it could bring its human resources to the table to design programming that would reflect the interests of the Rockefeller and benefit the state.

Since it opened in July 2005 (initially as the Winthrop Rockefeller Center), the Institute has dipped a toe in fairly disparate public programming areas, such as fine dining, painting workshops and archeology. Substantive policy talks have originated with organizations outside the Institute — such as the Arkansas Leadership Academy, the Arkansas Medical Association, the School Boards Association — or have come in collaborative events with the University of Arkansas.  

But now, the Institute, at the behest of the Rockefeller Trust, wants to take the lead, set an agenda for tackling issues of import and taking steps to implement change.

The expectation of the Trust, said board member Bob Shults, is that the Institute will develop programs “of real substance … that will benefit not just Arkansas but the region and perhaps internationally.”

Think think tank, said David Davies, the executive director (and brother of Arkansas Department of Parks Tourism director Richard Davies). For example: The Institute might want to devote resources to the many questions that the state's Hispanic population has brought to the fore. “To what extent has the state figured out how to handle it — or not figured out? Do there need to be processes or suggestions for assimilation? … That's one of several choices that the study will look at and which our board will recommend to the Trust for supplemental funding.”

Davies said the board will meet in December to settle on its final suggestions to present the Trust as early as January.

Like its mission, the Institute's physical form has been a work in progress. Renovations and “repurposing” of various buildings on the Rockefeller farm, including a studio perched on the edge of the mountain and the cattle show barns that housed Winrock International, in 2005 were followed by the construction of a 30-room lodge, a new lobby area and the opening of the River Rock Grill restaurant, which opened in 2007. Landscaping — which includes a 310-foot water feature meant to represent Petit Jean River as it flows into the Arkansas River — was completed this month.

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