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The little things 

Public-private partnerships let ponies ride, dogs run, travelers rest.

click to enlarge PULL OF A PARK
  • PULL OF A PARK

Cancer sufferers, college students and families in need were the beneficiaries of tens of millions of philanthropic dollars in Arkansas the past year. Education got a boost with the $100 million University of Arkansas fund-raisers pulled in to add to school endowments; the $239.6 million UAMS has raised to build a new hospital and enlarge its cancer research facility promises a brighter future in health care for the state.

But they also serve who throw cake walks to help build a hostel in downtown Little Rock, recycle cans and sell naming rights for carousel ponies, throw swim parties for dogs to fund the city dog park and persuade government to lend a hand. Their projects are not going to cure disease or change the direction of someone's life — they may not even involve a lot of money — but what they offer all can enjoy.

Grassroots fund-raising can be a slog. It took 16 years to complete the $1 million Over the Jumps Carousel restoration project that put the 1924 ride's 40 painted horses and the works that drive the undulating track back in business.

The names of the painted horses — such as “Breezy” (as in Osborne), “Bailey” (Dr. Ted and Virginia Bailey), “MarjemandI” (John and Marjem Gill), “Civitas” (as in the Civitan Club), “Harvey” (as in Couch, from Entergy), and “Lil E. Tee” (from a thoroughbred owned by Cal Partee), for example — provide clues to the gifts that helped rescue the one-of-a-kind carousel, a fixture at War Memorial Amusement Park from the 1940s to 1991.

Friends of the Carousel — whose state and executive boards have seated 60 members over the years, including David Martinous, the great-nephew of one of the carousel's former owners — went around and around. They nearly came to a stop at one point, but thanks to the persistence of board members, the generosity of other private individuals and non-profits, help from the state and city, and the enthusiasm and ingenuity of restorers, engineers, machinists and the like, children were riding the Over the Jumps Carousel at the Little Rock Zoo in late October.

Former state Sen. Mike Kinard of Magnolia took the first strides toward saving the carousel, getting a bank loan of $1,000 and working out a deal with owner Lloyd “Mokie” Choate in 1991. The preservationist group — including Dr. Hamp Roy, Marlena Grunewald and Joan Gould — ponied up another $4,000 in the next month and committed to raising $245,000 over the next five years. They were sure that “all we have to do is raise the flag up ... people in Little Rock will break down our doors to bring us money,” Kinard said.

The fund-raising started at a gentle walk, with a black tie fund-raiser in a tent downtown and Cans for the Carousel, which raised money through the sale of cans to recyclers, most of which came from the late preservationist Peg Smith, who flattened her haul with her car wheels and turned them in by the garbage bag full. Kinard got the legislature to include the carousel in the Department of Arkansas Heritage budget, which provided needed funds to pay for the restoration work by Rick Parker of Gentry, who stripped the 40 ponies of 30 layers of paint and restored them to their original colors.

The Pony Parents provided the majority of private funds by adopting the four lead horses for gifts between $25,000 and $50,000 each and the remaining horses at $5,000 (one is left to adopt), totaling more than $300,000. The $1 million raised also included funds from the sale of stationery drawn by Richard DeSpain and commemorative bricks (also still ongoing) and $75,000 from the Civitan Club, $125,000 from the defunct Friends of the Zoo, $250,000 from the state and $100,000 from the city, which purchased the carousel from the Friends.

An unsung hero of the project, Friends board member Danny Huber says, is volunteer Steve Raley, who “brought 21st century technology to an early 20th century design ... and didn't get paid a dime.”

Raley, who took over the project from Wes Davis, his late co-worker at Garver and Garver, worked nearly every work day for 13 months to reassemble and modernize the pulleys, gears, belts, motor and other parts, and design a computerized drive system that provides safe and smooth acceleration and stops. “I like to say I put the go in the merry-go-round,” he said, laughing.

Huber estimates the value of Raley's work at around $80,000. Raley's team of mechanical whizzes — including Little Rock machinist Joe Berg, fabricator Jeff Bemberg and belt supplier Bill Steward — worked for about half of what they'd normally charge. He noted other in-kind donations, from Simon Properties for storage and gift shop space in the University Mall and Gus Blass for assembly space in a warehouse on 65th Street. Jerry Rider, another volunteer, transported the 24 wooden wheels the carousel rides on to Pennsylvania, where Amish wheelwrights restored them.

Mokie Choate was back on the scene to put the carousel together at the zoo. All held their breath when the switch was thrown to see if Over the Jumps turned. It did, like a dream. “I could have sworn the horses were smiling, like we'd let them go out in the field again,” Raley said.

Linda Fordyce, her husband, John, and a small board of directors of Hostelling Arkansas have been working several years to turn defunct Fire Station No. 2 in MacArthur Park into Arkansas's first hostel. She shook her head in wonder at the effort: “I like living close to the ground, and here I am trying to raise $2 million.”

The hostel is part of a larger plan to revitalize MacArthur Park. A board headed up by Downtown Partnership director Sharon Priest has raised $100,000 to hire a consultant to work with park neighbors on improvements, and is planning a 5K race next May on what's being touted as the history trail linking the River Market district and the park nine blocks south.

Fordyce hopes the Firehouse Hostel and Museum will be open by then. In the past three years, the board has raised $100,000 — what Fordyce calls an “awesome” amount — for the project and needs $300,000 more to complete the first phase of remodeling that will allow for 30 beds (and a family suite) and several bathrooms. Some of the funds have come from the annual Five Alarm Frenzy at MacArthur Park, which features cake walks, firetruck rides, music and food.

The first floor of the hostel will contain artifacts from the Little Rock Fire Department, which has been an enthusiastic supporter of the idea. Two antique firetrucks will go into an annex to be built in the future, next to a glassed-in dining room facing the lake. The city of Little Rock signed a 50-year lease with the group that allows it to occupy the building rent free.

The Fordyces became hostelling fans during a trip to Europe in 1997. In exchange for privacy and room service, hostels provide inexpensive shelter ($20 a night on average) — and great fun, Linda Fordyce said. A day trip turned into a week-long stay when they visited their first hostel in Switzerland. “We loved the way people cooked, played cards, talked,” she said — and exchanged cultural and travel information. Since then, the Fordyces have stayed in more than 50 hostels, both in Europe and all over the United States, from Washington, D.C., to Hawaii.

Fordyce has done her homework on what it takes to keep a hostel open: The average hosteller is between 18 and 28, college educated and interested in the history and culture of the places they visit. Keeping the hostel running will require at least 45 percent occupancy. She's convinced the Firehouse would have no problem operating at that rate; bed and breakfasts and the Little Rock Convention Bureau have told her that inquiries for hostel accommodations come in weekly, and the Firehouse gets calls to the number already listed in the phone book. She said the hostel will also appeal to school groups or kids' sports teams looking for inexpensive lodging and a self-service kitchen that will help save on meals. She mused about the best meal she ever had at a hostel: Fresh halibut steaks in Juneau, Alaska.

The Firehouse Hostel should have a website up and running soon. For more information, go to www.firehousehostel.org.

A stray husky mix can be credited for the creation of Paws Park, the fenced two-acre dog gathering place in Murray Park.

It was May 2003 when Debbie Milam happened on the frisky and tagless stray. Mattie (as Milam later named her) jumped in Milam's car and into her life. Milam had to drive to Maumelle to get Mattie her exercise, and so decided to call then-Parks and Recreation Director Bryan Day to see if Little Rock could create one. Day said he could help if she'd raise money for the project.

It took 12 months, 13 people, a letter-writing campaign and the Dog Paddle, a fund-raising event letting dogs take a dip in the War Memorial Fitness Center's outdoor pool, to get the slobbery ball rolling: In May 2004, Little Rock opened the two-acre park, shaded by tall cottonwoods and oaks and surrounded by a sturdy 5-foot-high chain link fence.

The park would never have happened without the city's willingness to donate land, pick up the trash, build benches and supply it with water. The unofficial Friends of Paws Park group has been able to contribute $21,000 to the effort, but “If Parks and Rec were keeping a tally, we would still owe them money,” Milam said.

In the past year, Marlies Matthews volunteered to take over from Milam in filling the mutt mitt dispensers and has been dubbed the Queen of Paws Park. She handles the day-to-day dealings with the city.

“The beauty of the dog park is that it is really a social experiment in action,” Matthews said. It's both a public-private partnership and a dog owner partnership, with frequent users gently policing the place to keep dogs and park visitors safe.

“The dog park has become so important to the community,” Matthews said. It's a place “where people meet across all stratas, doctors talking to plumbers. The thing that bonds us is our dogs.”

The park has been such a hit, in fact, that the city's allocated money to install a floodlight so people can give their dogs a frolic after work during the winter. The parks department has also designed what it's calling a “water fun area,” a cement surface with a drain to replace the swamp that now exists at the water tap, where dogs like to splash about in their drinking tubs.

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