Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.
All you can see right now on John Burkhalter's riverfront property east of the Clinton Presidential Center are steel pipes, a 250-ton crane, some rusted buoys and a small crew. Eight-foot-tall grasses growing on a levee obscure the Arkansas River. It's not exactly lovely at the moment, but it's peaceful and, except for the pair of red-tailed hawks whistling in trees nearby, quiet, despite its proximity to downtown Little Rock.
The quiet is one thing Burkhalter likes about the site, where he plans to build the Rock City Marina and apartment project. The construction on a city park and marina is the first stage in the long-planned landmark marina project, one that Burkhalter says will eventually include 400 boat slips on the river, 15 docks, seven apartment buildings, restaurants and a city park. "If you had told me nine years ago that I would just now be at this stage," Burkhalter said, "I would have taken a pass." But now, "at this point, you couldn't take it away from me."
Burkhalter consulted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city before he bought the property a decade ago to build the marina. Burkhalter was the only bidder to build the city park on five acres he's leasing from the city north of Third Street and east of Bond Street. He owns the adjoining 11.5 acres hugging the river bank from the park to property owned by the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.
It's not easy to build a marina. Creating access to a major waterway requires cutting through reams of red tape, not surprisingly, and need for interagency coordination as work progresses. His planned commercial development (PCD) was first approved by the city in 2005, and a revised version was approved in 2007. Another revision in 2011 was stalled by the need to get approval from the Pulaski County Levee District, the Corps of Engineers and the city for work on the city-owned property. The PCD was re-established and approved by the City Board in 2013.
Burkhalter was issued a 404 permit from the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard in 2014 (also after a Corps-required redesign). He had to get permission from Pulaski County to build because of the location of the development in the flood plain. He had to do a study for the state to determine the impact of the development on any archeological sites that existed. His last hurdle, Burkhalter said, was getting a "no rise" certificate from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a requirement before Public Works will provide a permit for land grading and flood hazard work.
The red tape "was more than I bargained for," he added.
Now, two years off the projected start of the marina, Burkhalter has begun work. Step one: wave attenuators. Burkhalter, an engineer (and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor last year), bought the wave attenuators — steel pipes 35 inches wide and 60 feet long — from Orange Beach, Ala., and shipped them here to be fabricated according to his own design. (They had been placed in the Gulf of Mexico by a contractor for BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.) The pipes, filled with a buoyant material, will float on the Arkansas River to protect the boat slips and dock from being rocked too strongly by river traffic. He called that construction three-quarters built.
Once the river goes down and the attenuator is ready, Burkhalter said, he'll build a river wall, the boat launch, fueling dock and 125 boat slips ranging in size from 25- to 80-feet wide.
"Since I am spending a tremendous amount of my own money" on the public park, he said, Burkhalter's lease gives him naming rights. He plans to name it for his parents, Loyce Ann and the late Frank Allen Burkhalter. His father, Burkhalter said, served in the Navy on a PT boat, was an engineer for the Corps and loved the water.
Burkhalter said his family was involved in Boy Scouts and he hopes to have Scouting programs on two 44-foot Navy racing boats he bought that he plans to dock at the marina.
The rusted river buoys, the size of satellites, that now lie in high grass will be painted and placed in the park. On the other side of a rise that defines the Burkhalter property's southern edge is Carver Magnet Elementary School.
The cost of the first phase will be around $5 million to $6 million and the job should be completed by summer of 2016, Burkhalter said. He said he has no partners in the venture.
Next up: Seven "high-end apartment dwellings" with 200 units total, with balconies and river views, already approved by the city; construction of another 275 boat slips, and a retail boat supply. An optimistic sort, Burkhalter says they'll be finished by 2017.
Eventually, Burkhalter said, he wants to "create a village" that will support a full-service floating restaurant or two. When all is said and done, he expects the project will cost between $40 million and $50 million.
"A lot of people have said, 'Is he really doing it?' " Burkhalter said. "I'm doing it."