It's quite a fish story, the landing of the $5 million Central Arkansas Nature Center, an enterprise that's proved as hard to hold onto as a big, wiggling, slippery largemouth bass.
It now appears the state Game and Fish Commission project, one of four around Arkansas, will rise on 4.5 acres - much of which is currently under water - on Little Rock's riverfront, from the Riverfest Amphitheatre east to about 70 feet past the Interstate 30 bridge. It's possible, too, that the nature center will encompass or include on its grounds the Pro Bass Hall of Fame.
The nature center has slipped three previous hooks - the first on 3 acres of North Little Rock's riverfront, the second at Otter Creek and the third at Dark Hollow (though only the North Little Rock site was official). What's making it jump is the chance to be near bigger fish.
First it was the Clinton Presidential Center, when the Commission announced it had chosen the North Little Rock site next to the Rock Island pedestrian bridge. The Commission went so far as to take bids from architects.
But Bass Pro Shops proved to be a stronger lure. For a time, it looked like developer Tommy Hodges and the huge sports supply store had a deal on lakeside land at Otter Creek just off Interstate 30. As those waters churned, the Commission announced that it would likely drop the North Little Rock site as being too expensive to build on; now its eye, unofficially at least, was on Otter Creek.
But before Otter Creek could set the hook, Bass Pro bailed out, prompted, perhaps, by the state legislature's refusal to call it an entertainment center and give the company a tax rebate.
Now, Belz-Burrow developers have got Bass Pro on their line for the Shoppes at North Hills, to be built just south of Interstate 40 in North Little Rock. The fickle Game and Fish switched sweethearts, and began discussions with Belz-Burrow. A third interest - the Pro Bass Hall of Fame, a nonprofit that wants to build a fishing and Hall of Fame attraction - came on board last October, meeting in Gov. Mike Huckabee's office with Game and Fish representatives and Bruce Burrow. For a while, things looked settled: Dark Hollow it would be, with multiple draws to those who love to use and observe nature.
But at the Jan. 22 Commission meeting, Commissioner Sheffield Nelson made public a letter to him from Little Rock City Director Dean Kumpuris offering the city property, and offering to pay for site preparation and utility relocation as well.
The site's location on the Arkansas River near the River Market, next to a planned promenade behind the Museum of Discovery and a biking/hiking trail to the Clinton presidential library, made it irresistible to the Commission.
"Everybody is enamored of it," Nelson said this week. He said the North Little Rock site - where plans to mitigate the floodplain it must fill have produced negative comments to the Corps of Engineers - was proving to be an expensive choice. "If in fact we'd chosen to build there, it would have been half a million just to prepare the site," Nelson said.
After a trip to the Little Rock property and a visit by Mayor Jim Dailey to the January meeting, the Commission unanimously decided to authorize the agency to work with Little Rock on the details, initially on a 3-acre parcel. (Another 1.5 acres, taking in land on the east side of the interstate, was just recently added.) The Commission will take final action after the proposal has been put in contractual form and voted on by the city Board of Directors.
Commission Chairman Dr. Lester Sitzes acknowledged there had been "a lot of twists and turns in this story," and that the site selection had more to do with contiguous attractions and money than any natural features. (At the Little Rock location, the center's outdoor area, for fishing, could be in backwater under the I-30 bridge.)
Sitzes, of Hope, recalled the 2000 Commission meeting at which representatives from Little Rock, North Little Rock and the state Parks and Recreation Department presented their proposals for various sites. City Parks Director Bryan Day, pushing Fourche Creek, and Pinnacle State Park director Randy Frazier, pushing Pinnacle, showed up with Powerpoint presentations and packets of prepared materials. Day, Sitzes recalled, gave "the best presentation. It was real impressive."
But in the end, the Commission chose North Little Rock, swayed, ostensibly, by commerce chief Joe Smith's posterboard with pictures of surrounding attractions glued to it. Sitzes chalked up the decision to "sensitivity" to the excitement surrounding the Clinton library.
Little Rock's offer in January - exactly three years after the Commission voted to put the center on North Little Rock's shore - was "out of the blue," Sitzes said, and "messes us all up a little bit."
Sitzes visited the Little Rock property with the rest of the Commission in January. "It's a big hole of water," he said. "I saw beaver swimming around in it."
But it's going to take more than beaver dams to fill in the hole. "It's going to take some work," Sitzes said. "It boggles my mind to see what they're going to have to do with that site to make it doable."
Still, Sitzes can see locating there - and he can see the Pro Bass Hall of Fame there, too.
The Bass Hall of Fame board at one point hoped to raise $25 million to build on Lake Catherine. A consultant, however, suggested that they might be better able to raise money for the Hall if they were to locate in Little Rock, with its built-in audience.
Scott Henderson, Game and Fish director, said that "under the right circumstances," the agency would like to do some sort of joint venture with the Hall of Fame. One scenario he mentioned was that if the Hall of Fame would build an aquarium - they are hugely expensive and eat up the nature center budgets - the Commission could put its money "into other things" for the nature center.
Hall of Fame director Bill Fletcher laughed - sort of - when he heard that. "Frankly, we were thinking of the reverse, that they would build the aquarium."
Pro Bass (not to be confused with Bass Pro) took a $78,000 cut in a $300,000 state appropriation in 2001, when decreased revenues required across-the-board spending cuts. During its consultant's poll of potential donors in Arkansas and nationally, the nonprofit learned that Gov. Mike Huckabee wanted the Hall of Fame to consider building in Little Rock. "We called the governor and said, 'If you feel like this is what we need to be talking about, we're interested,' " Fletcher said, and agreed to meet with Burrow and Game and Fish representatives in the governor's office. "Since then, we've been negotiating with all three of them, but hoping Game and Fish would decide where they were going to put [the nature center]."
"Really, we were kind of hoping all three of us might be together … where one plus one plus one equals more than three," Fletcher said, quoting Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris.
"We don't know where we fit in" on the Little Rock site "until we start looking at what they hope to build," Fletcher said. Considering the size of the site, Fletcher said the Hall would probably have to be located within the Nature Center itself. The advantages: The Nature Center could address the black bass biology and the Hall of Fame could honor great fishermen, and the Hall of Fame wouldn't have to raise $25 million. "My gut feel is that yeah, we are probably talking significantly less money partnering with Game and Fish. … Especially at that site. There's only so much money you can pour into that little hole."
Now, the Hall of Fame board has to decide whether to back out of its offer to Belz-Burrow on the Shoppes at North Hills site. There is some board support for that decision from members who worry that proximity to Bass Pro Shops might look to some like an endorsement of their gear, including boats. Competing boat manufacturers include Ranger Boats' Forrest Wood, who is on the state Game and Fish Commission.
Unfortunately, it's got to make a decision on the North Little Rock land before the Commission meets in February, when it's expected to decide on the Little Rock site.
Dean Kumpuris wouldn't take credit for coming up with the idea to lure the nature center back to Little Rock, though Commissioner Nelson said it first came up when Kumpuris approached him with the idea at a Christmas party. "I said, 'Dean, we're in the 11th hour,' " Nelson said, but that certainly he was interested in what Little Rock had to offer and to give him a call after Christmas. Nelson said that interest was sharpened after he met with Mayor Dailey, City Manager Bruce Moore and Parks Director Bryan Day and heard what they would offer.
Kumpuris is clearly excited about the idea. With the inclusion of the nature center, there would be "seamless" development along the riverfront that would bring in "critical mass" for attractions, including the considerable draw of the Clinton library and a planned Heifer Project International exhibit on its headquarters grounds. He envisions the Museum of Discovery partnering with the nature center, and busloads of children taking advantage of both.
Kumpuris cited the Imax theater at the Aerospace Education Center as an example of a tourist attraction that suffers from being too far from the action. If it were downtown instead of on isolated property near the airport, its attendance would blossom.
"I know this is late in the game," Kumpuris said. But, "we want to build up as many entities, be as symbiotic, as we can."
While Kumpuris' letter and Mayor Dailey have promised the city would pick up the cost of site preparation - which would mostly entail filling the backwater slough that makes up a large portion of the acreage - neither could say exactly what it would cost. Kumpuris said he "guessed" it could be $100,000 to $150,000. City Manager Moore said he thought it could be done for as little as $50,000 to $75,000.
But money aside, there's another hurdle: Getting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to sign off on a Sec. 404 permit to fill the wetland and passing a Corps' Hydrologic Engineering Center Study to show no ill affect on the floodplain.
There was some confusion as to the status of the permit. Kumpuris thought it was in hand. But according to Corps spokesman P.J. Spaul, the city, which had applied for a permit a couple of years back when a private concern was looking at the property, had withdrawn the application and had not filed another. City Manager Moore said Tuesday he'd authorized "staff to move forward" with the application two weeks ago.
The Corps had a couple of concerns with the first permit application: That light from the development, a hotel, would blind tow boat captains seeking the channel as they navigated under the I-30 bridge; and that the impact of filling in the slough on the floodplain needed to be addressed.
Those challenges might not apply to the new project, Spaul said. Parks' Day said he was confident the city would get the necessary permits, since the Corps had earlier approved larger projects along the riverfront.
There's also the matter of a 54-inch sanitary sewer line that runs through the site. The nature center will have to be built high enough over the line to allow for repairs and maintenance.
Noise from I-30 traffic above? Commissioner Nelson said the commission visited the site at 5 p.m., during rush hour traffic, and "it wasn't a problem at all."
Noise from the amphitheater? Their operating hours aren't the same, Nelson said.
Parking? While the location won't allow for a large parking lot beside it, the city will provide space for employees, and, as Kumpuris and others were quick to point out, visitors can also park at the city's new deck now under construction two blocks from the site.
What does Belz-Burrow think about losing the nature center? "They should do what's best for Game and Fish," Bruce Burrow said. He added that he believed he'd offered the agency free land on "as good a site as any," with the attraction of Dark Hollow's swampy areas and on-site parking besides.