Hopes of developing Withrow, Huntsville

Area seen as base camp for tourism


Second in a series.

The prospect of increasing tourism at Withrow Springs State Park and in Huntsville is on the radar of the Natural State Advisory Council, a group appointed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in January 2023 and tasked with growing the state’s outdoor economy.

Danny Collins, owner of Bentonville tour company 37 North Expeditions and a member of the Council, sees Withrow Springs State Park as a base camp for tourism growth in Northwest Arkansas. And, working with Arkansas Game and Fish, the council foresees “water trail creation projects at War Eagle Creek [and] Kings’ River.” 

Sanders appointed First Gentleman Bryan Sanders chairman of the 18-member advisory council, which also refers to itself as the Natural State Initiative (NSI).

Bryan Sanders sees the tourism industry replacing the state’s agricultural industry as the predominant industry in the state. He plans to make Arkansas a year-round outdoor recreation attraction.

As part of NSI plans, the 2023 General Assembly amended the Arkansas Tourism Development Act by creating four opportunity zones to promote and grow outdoor recreation, allow the creation of tourism attractions in the area, and receive tax incentives. 

According to the new law, the four zones must be within or no more than one-eighth of a mile outside the boundaries of a state park, a cultural or historic site, or a cultural or educational center.

Opportunity zones allow for qualified tourism attraction projects that locate in a designated opportunity zone to receive tax incentives. For a company’s project to be eligible, it must have a $500,000 minimum investment or a $250,000 minimum investment if the opportunity zone is in a high unemployment county. 

Though Withrow Springs State Park was not chosen as an opportunity zone this year, Collins would like to see it included in a “potential next phase.”

NSI has two subcommittees: Economic Development and Outdoor Experiences. In May, NSI member Tom Walton emailed members of the Outdoor Experiences subcommittee about potential opportunity zones. 

Walton is the grandson of Walmart Inc. founders Helen and Sam Walton and co-founder of The Runway Group. 

In an email response to Walton and subcommittee members, Collins wrote: “Withrow Springs State Park — Proximity is my main reason for focusing on WS, but this time it’s actually more of a focus on the NWA-Buffalo River corridor. As we continue to see more movement between NWA and our amazing Buffalo River region, Withrow Springs is right along that route. I view Withrow Springs, and even Huntsville for that matter, as almost a mountain base type area that is perfectly situated between NWA, Eureka [Springs], Kings River and Buffalo River. I personally am super interested in what an Opportunity Zone could do for that area to turn that park/area into a hub that is within 30 or so minutes of a ton of parks/rivers.”

Because Collins’ business already utilizes Withrow Springs, Collins admitted he was a bit biased in the possibility of Withrow Springs as an opportunity zone.

The tourists Collins brings to Withrow on day excursions are from outside the area, living in “bigger cities,” he said, “Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and we have a smaller operation in Springfield, Missouri as well.”

As part of his business plan, Collins uses areas as home bases and provides transportation to different outdoor locations. 

“It would be fair to say that Kings River and that region is probably my favorite place and all the views are very close to my heart.”

Bryan Sanders’ visit

The First Gentleman had plans to visit Withrow Springs on April 17, as part of his goal with NSI to visit all 52 state parks

In his travel agenda, Withrow was described as a park serving “as a put-in point on this north-flowing Class I stream, typically floatable from March to mid-June depending on rainfall and is an outfitter and shuttle service for War Eagle Creek. A day of floating or fishing on these gentle waters is relaxation at its best.” 

In a memo regarding his agenda, park officials were asked to make “some refreshments available (approx. 8-10 folks in the party) for their afternoon arrival.”

The agenda included the possibility of a “short hike, if requested. The party plans to stay at Buffalo Outdoor Center the evening of April 17th.” 

Buffalo Outdoor Center was founded by Mike Mills and is managed by his son-in-law, Austin Albers. At the time of the planned Withrow visit, Mills was Secretary of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and was a member of NSI. He resigned as cabinet secretary in June. He was replaced on the NSI with current Secretary of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Shea Lewis.

Albers continues to serve on the NSI with Sanders and has been an advocate for re-designating land around the Buffalo National River as a national park or preserve. 

Contract Renewal

Madison County expects to find out soon the status of its $500,000 grant request, if received, for funding to improve the youth baseball program’s facilities at Withrow Springs, according to Madison County Judge Larry Garrett. 

The county’s 25-year lease agreement with the state for use of certain acres at Withrow Springs appeared to expire in March.

In anticipation of the contract expiration, Madison County Clerk Austin Boatright wrote in January to Deputy Director of State Parks Jeff King on behalf of Garrett asking that the lease between the state and the county be reinstated with similar terms for an additional 25 years.

Boatright noted Withrow is used for “county recreation and youth sports. On the property, we have four baseball fields with associated viewing infrastructure, a tennis court complex containing four courts, as well as a concession stand, maintenance shed, and area for batting cages.”

A recommendation was made that the county and state enter into a five-year lease agreement, but Garrett said that length was too short. A lease longer than five years must go before the Arkansas Legislative Council. 

The state and county are operating under a contract with no expiration date.

Garrett prefers to operate month-to-month because signing a five-year agreement was not in the best interest of the county. 

If the county receives the $500,000 grant, it will be required to invest $250,000 in-kind contributions, including time, labor and equipment. 

“If the citizens of Madison County and the county are going to invest time and labor out there, five years is not long enough,” Garrett said.

He said he doesn’t expect the state to terminate the contract. 

“I’m not sure that what we’re trying to do out there with the youth baseball program really has much to do with,” expanding tourism in the park, Garrett said. 

The park contract states it may be terminated by the state or the county by mutual written consent with a 60-day notice, by defaulting on contract’s terms or conditions, by not using the area as permitted for 120 consecutive days or by not operating the area or facilities as a public recreational area. 

Land acquisitions 

Garrett believes tourism is good for the county because it increases revenue.

“That’s what we’re all about,” he said.  “And you know making life a little easier as far as a tax base and that kind of stuff.”

But he is hesitant when it comes to people’s intentions after acquiring land.

“What I don’t want to see is people coming in here and paying money for properties around Withrow and then trying to delegate or dictate or say what we can do or what we can’t do out there or turning it into something more than what it was intended for,” he said.

Madison County does not have zoning ordinances. 

Walton Enterprises Inc. has been purchasing land in Kingston and currently owns more than 6,000 acres and recently announced plans to develop three historic buildings on the Kingston Square that it purchased a few years ago. 

“I think it would be great for Kingston for some of these buildings to be put back like they were but to try to make it something elaborate that you know the folks of this county would not be used to or wouldn’t adhere to that, that’s just my opinion. And my opinion is the same as theirs,” Garrett said. 

Huntsville Economic Development Director Brandi Holt said Kingston is a beautiful, quaint town but “it’s vacant.” 

“If buildings were open and there are businesses thriving and people were visiting, that would be attractive,” she said. 

The Runway Group, one of Walton’s investment groups, has also been engaged with the idea of re-designating land around the Buffalo National River, not far from Kingston, as a national park or preserve. After a public backlash against the idea, The Runway Group backed off.

The Walton family has not announced the specifics of redeveloping the buildings they own.

“That could mean supporting tourists coming to and from the Buffalo River. It can mean trying to attract people to this area or to the Buffalo. I can’t speak for what they’re thinking,” Holt said. 

“I don’t want us to get into a classification that they’re trying to do with the Buffalo River,” Garrett said. 

“I would have never have thought that this group would have been trying to do the things that they’re trying to do on the Buffalo either,” Garrett said. 

Growing Huntsville 

Holt recognizes that Withrow “presents a great opportunity for visitors to come to the area and that means they will come to Huntsville because we are the closest place for groceries, for eating for any kind of thing.

“So that would mean business for us and opportunities for our businesses if we had more visitors coming to the park,” she said.

Collins says when he brings people into the county, “We try to frequent your, you know, in a good way, your hole-in-the-wall restaurants or your mom and pop bakeries.”

Adventure guide businesses that are bringing people from the corridor area into Madison County are helping our local businesses when they frequent them,” Holt said. “And we want them to frequent them more. Those dollars spend really well in our mom-and-pop locations,” she said.

“Obviously, I’d like to see Huntsville grow,” said Mayor Travis Dotson, who became Huntsville’s first full-time mayor this year.

Growth expands the city’s tax base and “by expanding our tax base, it offsets little by little the tax burden of every citizen,” he said. 

Dotson is open to listening to any NSI ideas for Huntsville and Withrow Springs State Park. 

“I’d be a fool to say we wouldn’t at least visit with them in regards to what this looks like 10,000 feet above,” he said.

Holt recognized also that with growth comes more traffic, but she notes that Huntsville is already seeing an “uptick in at least car traffic. I would even say in our business traffic in some areas with people visiting the Buffalo and getting out in the outdoors.” 

By having Withrow Springs or an area around Huntsville designated as an opportunity zone, the county and city could see more investments from private businesses, such as a hotel, which Holt said has been a part of the Economic Development Commission’s goals.

“If it were an opportunity zone, that might attract a developer, and we’ve struggled to right now attract that developer,” Holt said.

Giving a potential developer a guarantee of people visiting the area would provide more reason to invest in the area, Holt noted. 

Dotson’s desires include being a “more well-rounded city,” one not just for tourism. 

He’d like to grow infrastructure and entice more people to move to the area. 

“We don’t want to be the Branson of Northwest Arkansas. Absolutely not. Because what comes with that is good and bad. But we want to be well-rounded. 

“So we’re willing to meet you at the table. We’re willing to talk about it and see what it brings to us,” he said.  

Dotson said before the area is turned into one of the NSI’s opportunity zones, he expects officials to meet with him. 

“If it’s accepting to the public, we’ll move mountains for you. If it is not, you will want to leave as quickly as you possibly can,” Dotson said. 

This summer, the city purchased seven acres, including a walking trail, behind the Madison County Library and promptly sent a survey asking residents their thoughts on the use of the property.   The city has also applied for the same state grant the county applied for and also expects to hear something soon. If the city receives the funding, it hopes to build a splash pad. 

Dotson also said before the state considers turning the area into a year-round outdoor recreation destination, he would like proof that plan will bring in a lot of tax revenue. 

“I think it’s a great revenue generator for our community, but at what cost is my question,” he said. “We want some clarity and some transparency along with this to answer that question.”

Holt agreed. “Being more transparent about what plans might be, bringing Huntsville to the table in its early stages, will be very important to our city. We’ve got to know what we’re planning for.”


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