Tuesday, August 10, 2021

My hometown is (apparently) about to blow up--in a good way

Newton County Courthouse, Jasper
Spring 2016
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2016

Sunday's column by Rex Nelson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette makes an encouraging prediction about my hometown.  The headline is "The Coming Boom," and it's about Jasper, Arkansas, the county seat of Newton County, in the Ozarks.   (You can find numerous posts about Newton County here).  It's not the first time Nelson has written about Jasper.  In fact, he seems to have a bit of a Newton County fetish.  Earlier columns are here and here, with this latter from last year repeating a lot of what this weekend's column reports.    

Nelson, a member of the paper's editorial board, predicts an ecotourism boom for Jasper, and he marshals a lot of evidence in support of his thesis.  I've written about the county's ecotourism economy here (2008) and here (2010), and I've generally kept abreast of the phenomenon of rural gentrification, usually in amenity-rich destinations, across the United States.  

Here's an excerpt from Nelson's column, which is thick on details-including details about who has the $$$ that pouring into the area to fuel this boom: 
Abandoned Dogpatch USA theme park property
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 
The square in downtown Jasper is hopping on this Saturday afternoon. Bubba's Buffalo River Store is filled with visitors.

Opened in March 2020 by North Little Rock businessman Walter "Bubba" Lloyd Jr., who long has had a house in Newton County, Bubba's isn't like those tacky tourist shops that once dotted the Arkansas Ozarks. It's filled with high-quality shirts, caps, coffee mugs and other goods that well-heeled visitors are willing to pay for.

Jasper, which only has about 700 residents, is changing. Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, purchased the Dogpatch USA property, and there's dirt work going on that's likely costing Morris millions of dollars.

Love thinking about what Dogpatch USA might become, not least because I gave that park six of the best summers of my life (1979-1984).  Also, where did Nelson get the 700 population figure?  As far as I know, Jasper's population has not been so robust for many decades, probably not in my lifetime.  The signs at the edge of town said 394 through most of my childhood, based on the 1970 and 1980 censuses.

Buffalo Theatre on courthouse square.  I worked the concession stand as a teen.
Would love to see investors do something with this old gem 
as many local initiatives to save it have failed. 
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 

Nelson continues:  

Depending on what Morris does with the land (and all of his projects are first class), Jasper just might be Arkansas' next hot spot for tourists.

Just across East Court Street from Bubba's Buffalo River Store stands the old Gordon Motel. It recently was purchased by investors from northwest Arkansas who have big plans for the property. Harold Gordon moved to Jasper from Bogalusa, La., and purchased the motel from his uncle in 1970. In 1987, Gordon opened Buffalo Canoe. Four years later, he added a canoe factory at Spider Branch. Gordon died in 2017 at age 81.

Yes, I knew Harold Gordon and his wife Roslyn (why doesn't Rex also mention her? I assure you she had an important role in running the business), and I went to high school with their son Gary. Spider Branch is part of the farm homesteaded by my family five generations ago.  I used to catch crawdads there--the trick was getting them to back into the little nets held by my cousin, my sister and me.  We'd come out of a day of crawdad chasing with our backs and necks red with sunburn.  Sunscreen wasn't really a thing then.

Buffalo River Bunkhouse in background
with some visitors from Louisiana
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt
For more than 40 years, Gordon Motel had a partnership with the National Park Service, having obtained one of the original canoe rental permits when the Buffalo was designated by Congress as the country's first national river. Outdoor recreation such as paddling the Buffalo is now more popular than ever. That popularity, combined with Morris' Dogpatch purchase, has investors taking a look at the stone buildings around the Newton County Courthouse.

The column features much more detail still about who is spending money where and how in Newton County.  Reading the column leaves me with but one comment and one question.  The comment is this:  all of this capital is flowing in from outside Newton County--most of it from well outside the region.  Very little of it, if any, is truly local.  Not surprising in a persistent poverty county, I suppose.  There's very little wealth to invest in anything, let alone an ecotourism enterprise.  

One of the stone buildings near the 
Newton County courthouse square
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2012
One exception--or is it more of an illustration of my point?--is my mom.  She's definitely an oldtimer--fourth generation Newton Countian.  She's not wealthy by any means, but she owns 10 acres and the modest home she and my father builtin 1964.  It's a mile from Jasper, along the Little Buffalo River.  About 15 years ago, she turned an outbuilding--built as a large garage for truck repair--into a "bunkhouse" what will sleep about a dozen folks.  It's regularly rented by big groups who come to float the Buffalo.  She also turned a little two bedroom trailer, which similarly sits in her front yard, into a "bungalow."  It's also in great demand.  These don't command much money ($80 a night for the bunkhouse, I see, on airbnb.com) compared to other rentals in the area, but the properties contribute substantially to her income as a teacher's aide at the local school. 

Of course, outside money is better than no development at all, but it leaves me with this question:   Will these entrepreneurs from outside the region hire locals?  In particular, will they hire locals to do good jobs, like being river guides? or managers?  

Ozark Cafe, Jasper Town Square (c) Lisa R. Pruitt

I've noticed over the years that the river outfitters often have not employed locals.  Instead, they bring in college students from away.  But it's only appropriate that these outside entrepreneurs will hire local talent--that they will share the opportunities for jobs, for income--if not their wealth--with Newton County teens and young adults.  

One of the less salubrious scenes in Jasper,
not far from town square.  I use this photo when
I teach torts to illustrate "assumption of risk"
doctrine. (c) Lisa R. Pruitt

And that reminds me of this recently published book on rural gentrification, Dividing Paradise: Rural Inequality and the Diminishing American Dream (2021) by Jennifer Sherman.  It is set in central Washington, in a mountain community undergoing gentrification, with lots of Seattle-area folks moving in and pricing locals out of the market.  There, in "Paradise Valley," newcomers found themselves at odds with oldtimers, with the former tending to look down on the latter for, among other things, their lack of success in life.  They rarely saw that prospects for "local" success were undermined by lack of wealth, by which I really just mean capital (think my mother's ownership of 10 acres and some modest outbuildings as an example of someone with limited capital and making the most of it).    

If Jasper does become (more of) a boom town, I hope the community doesn't see the sort of condescension Sherman documented in "Paradise Valley."  

This reminds me of some coverage the Newton County Times has dedicated in recent months to the idea that the City of Jasper should pass a "hamburger tax," the idea being to tax things tourists buy, specifically prepared food  The revenue generated would be used to finance the Japer Advertising and Promotion Commission (JAPC).  Just one of many stories from the local newspaper is here.   Initial members of the commission include Rex Nelson's North Little Rock friend Bubba Lloyd who, for these purposes, apparently has dual citizenship in Pulaski County and Newton County.  

Here's an excerpt from the story: 

Bubba Lloyd, of Bubba's Buffalo River Store, drew the four year term, [Ernie] Yeager [of Junction One-Stop] drew the three year term, Russ Todd, of the Ozark Cafe and Blake Keeton, of Harps Food Store, both drew two year terms and Angela Slape, the commission's at large member, drew the one year term. 

Lloyd will be the commission chair.  

Although the commission was formed without the benefit of a one percent tax on the sale of prepared food in the city to provide it revenue, the city is appropriating a one time $5,000 as seed money for the commission to operate. 

Low Gap Cafe, another Newton County business 
mentioned in the Nelson column.  
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt
Postscript:  The Sept. 1, 2021 issue of the Newton County Times reports that the Jasper Advertising and Promotion Commission (JAPC) is seeking to hire a paid director who would "manage the day to day business operations of the commission.  It is a part-time position paying $12.75 an hour.  The person selected for the job must be a communicator, and be familiar with and excited about the city of Jasper,  said Commission Chairman Walter 'Bubba' Lloyd.  In addition to carrying out directives from the commission, the director must have a creative mind and be able to initiate ideas and suggest events that will benefit the promotion of the city.  These events will raise funds for the commission to use for the promotion and marketing of tourism-related businesses and recreational activities in Jasper."  

Other stories about the JAPC are here and here.  

1 comment:

Ann M said...

Viroqua, Wisconsin population 4121 - my hometown has experienced this for over twenty years.