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Paragould - A Happening Main Street

Bob Ward was born and raised in McComb, Miss., not exactly worlds away from Arkansas. Yet when the opportunity to take a job as director of Paragould's Main Street program came along, he really hadn't heard of the town. He had spent more than 10 years self-employed as a small-business consultant and had lived in San Antonio before taking a job in Vicksburg, Miss., to be closer to his parents. He is very familiar with Paragould since taking the job in September of 2004. He and his wife, Kaye, now live in the only loft apartment in downtown Paragould. While the town may not have an excess of loft apartments, it certainly has a successful downtown.

Downtown Paragould has an occupancy rate of about 90 percent, and that's a unique situation since many towns have a downtown vacancy rate of 50 percent to 80 percent, Ward said.

What Ward finds really impressive is the fact that so many downtown businesses are owned by families who have run the businesses for decades. We only have two major chain stores in the area, Belk and Wal-Mart. Just about anything you need can be purchased in Paragould, and much of it can be purchased downtown, he said.

Ward admits that the town of about 25,000 people has a rural feel to it, but he believes that is a very positive thing. He says that there are restaurants downtown that fill up every morning with long-established coffee clubs, the only farmer's market in northeast Arkansas is in Paragould, and based on Arkansas crime statistics Paragould is the safest city in Arkansas. Ward believes that Paragould's location, convenient to Memphis and Little Rock, provides residents with accessibility to the metropolitan amenities the town does not provide.

But if you ask Ward to describe everything going on in Paragould, you might wonder if there were any reason to leave. We have high school football games on the weekend, a great county fair, dance recitals in the old theater, great restaurants downtown, and of course, lots of places to shop. Ward admits that growing up in Mississippi, his impression of small-town Arkansas life was that it was as rural and backwoods as what he was familiar with. His impression changed after moving to Paragould. I was absolutely amazed at how cosmopolitan and open-minded the community was, he said. Shame on you if you judge an area like this before you see it for yourself. He and his wife are very happy in the area and his oldest son recently moved to town. He is keeping himself busy by pursuing his masters degree in public administration at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. No doubt the new degree will soon benefit downtown Paragould as Ward goes to work improving an already vital downtown.

Pocahontas - Bringing Theater to the Masses

Andee Evers grew up in the big city of St. Louis, where she nurtured her love of the arts. Growing up she took ballet, voice lessons and acting lessons and began teaching ballet at the age of 14. So how does a big-city girl with a love of the arts end up in an Arkansas town with a population of 6,000? I got married on a Saturday in St. Louis, and moved to Biggers, Arkansas, on Sunday, Evers said. Needless to say I was in culture shock for years. She said that was not necessarily a bad thing, and she quickly learned all about Southern hospitality.

Now the person who filled her days as a youth with dance and acting is sharing her love of art with her community. Evers currently serves as the executive director of The Imperial Dinner Theatre in Pocahontas, but it has been quite a journey to reach this point.

In 1986 Evers began teaching ballet in a friends garage, and that led to The Studio for the Arts being founded in 1987. The programming expanded to include drama, visual art, clogging and music classes for children and adults. In 1994 the organization purchased the old Imperial movie house in downtown Pocahontas, and it was renovated entirely with volunteer labor. In one year, Evers and Kelly Grooms, the artistic director, established the Imperial Dinner Theatre and a resident acting company called The Imperial Players.

They said it would never fly, but The Imperial Dinner Theatre began bursting at the seams, Evers said. We were selling out the house, yet killing ourselves in the old building, which was never meant to be used as a theatrical facility. In 2000, the Studio for the Arts began a campaign to raise funds for the construction of a new $2 million facility. In less than six months, over $500,000 was raised locally, launching the construction of the facility. This year will be the first year of operation in the new building, with expanded classrooms and more classes.

As Evers has traveled the state, she has enjoyed destroying the myth that says if you are from a small town, you must be small beans, she said. Growing up in St. Louis, this was something I never had to deal with, but in my adult life it has been a challenge to constantly prove myself to people who judge my ability and intelligence based on my geographic location.

Arkansas truly is the land of opportunity for me, Evers said. I was lost when I came here, but now I have a dream come true. I've always believed that if opportunity doesn't present itself, you have to make your own. Arkansas allowed me to do just that.

Little Rock - Finding a Home Downtown

After working for Marriott for five years, Michael Hickerson was relocated to Little Rock from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area in Florida. In his new role he serves as general manager of the newest hotel addition to downtown Little Rock, the Courtyard by Marriott.

Living in the capital city has come quite naturally to this single man, who lives, works and plays downtown. As a resident of TufNut Lofts, he is able to take advantage of everything the downtown area has to offer, with his favorite hang outs Sticky Fingerz Rock n Roll Chicken Shack and Vermillion Water Grille within walking distance.

I'd never been to Little Rock ever before and really had no preconceived ideas of what it was going to be like, Hickerson commented. Within a months time I found it to be an extremely nice community. People here are just so excited about the development of their city and that means so much to me and my business. It makes my experience much better.

Through his position with Marriott, Hickerson quickly became involved in the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and fundraisers including Build for the Cure, which raises money for the Susan G. Komen Foundation; Riverfest, an annual festival along the Arkansas River; and Splatters, an auction that benefits the Centers for Youth and Families. He adds that he enjoys working with those from the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce on a daily basis. He even hopes to participate in the Leadership Greater Little Rock program through the Chamber of Commerce in the future.

I certainly love the excitement that surrounds all the new development of the community, he said. Never in my career have I ever encountered such. It's pretty amazing how much people love the city that is people who are from here and people who visit here. It's contagious.

Hickerson said that though he loves all the outdoor opportunities Arkansas offers, he's not seen as much of it yet as he'd like. However, he has had the unique opportunity of seeing Arkansas from a different angle, from the air. Hickerson reported that he has been working on earning his pilot's license and has completed nearly all the requirements.

When faced with the idea of moving elsewhere, Hickerson said, I don't see myself leaving here anytime soon. I'm proud to call Little Rock home.

Hot Springs - Garden of Eden

In their quest to find a good place to retire, Dee Oates and her husband traveled all over the United States in their motor home before making their final decision.

Dee said despite owning property in Melbourne Beach, Fla., she and her husband fell in love with Hot Springs.

I like Hot Springs for its ambiance, she said. There is an aura about Hot Springs, people are friendly, the climate is perfect because we have fall, winter, spring and summer. It's not like Iowa where you freeze to death and summers [there] are just as hot as they are here and just as humid. We have a beautiful spring here with everything blooming.

Though her husband passed away a few years ago, Oates stays busy volunteering in the community. She serves on the selection committee for Habitat for Humanity and as a volunteer for Garvan Woodland Gardens, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and Music Fest and as a board member of the Jazz Society.

Oh, I never met such wonderful people, she exclaimed about those she's met through volunteer work, at church and in the community

At the gardens, Oates works as a greeter and membership guru. I sign people up because I am so enthusiastic about the gardens, she stated. I have dubbed it the jewel in the crown of Arkansas. I tell people all the time, I do not go there to work physically, I go out to restore my soul, and I mean that!

And I do think it's so unique here, she said. When you walk through the garden, you think everything has been there since the earth cooled. Actually, it's only been about five years that the gardens have been open. All those huge boulders, rocks and trees have been brought in and planned by man, yet you walk through and you swear that must have been the way Eden looked. I am so busy and so happy that I have to shake myself every once in a while, she said. I turned 80 in January and have three senior citizen sons, and that's a shocker.

When she's not volunteering, Oates loves to cook. I have dinner parties at least once every other week, usually with six to eight people, and cook a nice sit-down dinner with table cloth, centerpiece and everything, Oates stated. I never have anyone turn me down for a dinner invite.

Magnolia - Back-Road Living

Before Greg Borne decided to take the job with Shaw Group that would relocate him and his wife from Knoxville, Tenn., to Magnolia, he was sure to bring her along for her opinion first. If your wife's not happy, you're not happy, he said.

They both liked what they saw, and Borne took the job in December of 2004. It was just he and his wife making the move since their two sons are grown, sort of. We've got them gone (they are 24 and 28), but I don't know about grown, Borne said.

Born and raised in the small town of Sorrento, La., Borne has done a lot of moving around; the last six years have seen job-related moves and the 15 years prior to that brought family-related moves, Borne is ready to stay put for a while. I figure I have about 15 years left in the workforce and I would like it to be here, he said.

Knoxville is a great deal larger than Magnolia, which has a population of almost 11,000. This is just fine with Greg and his wife, Sherry. We have small-town living, beautiful countryside, and none of the hustle and bustle lifestyle of the big cities, he said.

There are some trade-offs to be made. Borne said the cost of living is less in the area than it was in Tennessee, and housing is at least comparable if not less, but there are fewer choices when it comes time to shop. And that's not just clothes shopping but house shopping as well. Although houses in the Magnolia area are affordable, Borne said there are not many new homes available. As shop site manager for Shaw Group, working at Albemarle Corp., Borne oversees 125 employees who provide services from security to maintenance. He said the work force in the area is hardworking and very conscientious; there just aren't enough of them. He said the reason the labor force is small is because the area does not have a concentration of large industry.

That lack of concentration of big industry in the area might account for the beauty of the outdoors. My wife and I went out to Lake Columbia and drove around, and as soon as I am all settled in I'm going to buy myself a boat again and get back to hunting, Borne said.

Arkansas provides the Bornes with the ideal way to spend their spare time in the back roads. We love to drive. We ride and look at the countryside, we go and just get lost and find our way out, he said. Sometimes you go down a road and need to turn around after 10 miles, but that's the fun of it.

Springdale - Head 'em Up

From the dry, dusty land of Arizona to the lush, green hills of the Ozarks, Western novelist Dusty Richards and wife Pat enjoy the beauty of their surroundings on Beaver Lake, just outside of Springdale.

Richards is nearly poetic in describing how he enjoys the climate in Arkansas and the changing of the seasons from the fiery colors of fall to the starkness of winter and rebirth of spring, not to mention their yard full of irises. We took early retirement and write Western novels. We have an RV but never get to use it, Richards stated. My wife told me if you ever want to use this thing, you're going to have to stop signing up for all these things.

All those things he's signed up for over the years involve electricity, rodeos, traveling and public speaking, and writing. There's definitely a connection. He serves as director for the Ozark Electric Cooperatives, which supplies electricity to nearly 60,000 households and businesses in northwest Arkansas. With the heart of a cowboy, Richards has served on the board of Springdale's Rodeo of the Ozarks, a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association - sanctioned event, since 1976.

On Labor Day weekends Richards heads to Clinton to co-announce the National Championship Chuck-wagon Races, which he's done for 14 years. Its NASCAR racing with wild horses on iron wheels, he exclaimed. It's pretty wild and wooly. Last year, about 8,000 horses came through the gate.

His travels take him to Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas to talk about writing fiction. He also serves on the boards of the Ozark Creative Writers Conference, Ozark Writers League and the Oklahoma Writers Federation and is past president of the Western Writers of America.

In 2003, he received the Oklahoma Writer's Federation Book of the Year Award for The Natural and in 2004 for The Abilene Trail.

I was up against some pretty good mystery and romance writers, Richards stated. They tease me a whole lot about that. They said how'd the cowboy win?

In 2004, Richards was inducted into the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame at the Central Arkansas Library System's Main Library in Little Rock. It makes me pretty happy I'm on the wall with Dee Brown. He wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and lots of others, Richards said. He's a very nice gentleman and friend of mine. He's very recognized in the literature of the West. It's nice to be recognized.

Richards has 70 books to his name and pseudonyms. The list continues to grow, as his most recent addition was Ogallala Trail, in the Ralph Compton series, released in June 2005.

Hot Springs National Park - Arkansas Ambassador

Josie Fernandez's decision to throw her name in the hat has proven beneficial to her, her family and the city of Hot Springs

In January 2004, Fernandez became the first woman and the first Hispanic to lead Hot Springs National Park as superintendent. It is a long way from Cuba to Hot Springs, and it has been an interesting journey for Fernandez.

Missouri State University in Warrensburg, Mo., and visiting friends in the Morrilton area. She spent a year away from her job as the superintendent of the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, on active duty at the Pentagon as a member of the Air Force Crisis Action Team.

It was soon after her return to New York from Washington that she learned of the job opening in Hot Springs and applied. She considered the chance to relocate to Arkansas a great job opportunity and a wonderful opportunity for her family. Her husband, Charles Hiett, is from Texas, and she thought the small-town atmosphere would be good for their two young children.

When I first drove in to Hot Springs, I thought, Oh my gosh, how lucky can I get, because the pictures just don't do it justice, Fernandez said. She enjoys not only the natural beauty of the area but the warmth as well. In New York, there was a lot of snow. TV alone won't do for my kids and here they can be outdoors 12 months a year, she said.

The warmth of the people in Arkansas is another reason Fernandez is happy about the move. Neighbors here really act like neighbors; you really feel like you can borrow a cup of sugar and not have to run to the store, she said. There is an extended family kind of feeling. That is important to Fernandez, who has moved a great deal due to her military service; plus, she has lost her mother and brother, and her father lives in Florida.

Fernandez says Hot Springs is an easy sell. My intention, if I have not already become one, is to be an ambassador for Hot Springs and Arkansas, she said. She and her staff give the national park 150 percent of our undivided effort and attention and work to preserve the resources of the park and make it available for the public to enjoy.

This city is chock full of art and culture, and a person could be busy doing something every day of the week if they wanted to, Fernandez said. A friendly ambassador with an easy sell shouldn't have any trouble convincing people to come to Hot Springs.

Flippin - Enjoying Natural Resources

Davy Wotton is an internationally known professional fly fisherman from Wales who has fished in more than 40 countries around the world. And yet the opportunities provided by the White River System brought him to Arkansas, where he re-established his business and set about promoting the area on an international level.

Wotton considered many factors before moving to Flippin six years ago. One of Wotton's closest fly fishing friends, Dave Whitlock, lived in the state, the cost of living was good and the rivers in Arkansas were unique in that they are accessible almost 365 days a year.

Even in the rural areas of the United Kingdom, where cost of living can be lower than the large cities, land is very expensive. So Wotton brought his business, American International Schools of Fly Fishing, along with his guide service, to the White River area of Arkansas.

Wotton believes the infrastructure in place in the area is more than adequate to support the national and international customers his business brings in. He is currently working with a group in the U.K. to promote the area to European fly fisherman. As far as the fishing goes, Wotton believes Arkansas is a winner. There is nothing in Europe that comes close to this, there really isn't, he said.

Wotton says the White River can be fished at least 10 months a year and doesn't suffer from the horrendous winters of the northern part of the country or the burning heat of the southern part of the country.

Wotton said that one of the most attractive things about the White River area is its open accessibility. In the United Kingdom, and in fact in several states in the United States, the river systems are not open for public access. In the U.K., you must either be a member of a private club or pay a fee to a landowner in order to fish most of the rivers, he said. In certain states in the United States, I know of places landowners will sit and watch their parts of the river to make sure no one stops their boat. If you drop anchor, you can be ticketed on these privately owned sections of the river. Wotton believes the public access found in Arkansas is a unique feature that can serve to draw international fly fishers to the area.

Wotton said many people in the area do not realize what they have. He certainly seems to appreciate it, though. After a career spent fishing all over the world, Davy Wotton decided to drop anchor in Arkansas.

Fort Smith / Van Buren - Word Around Town

When Rolando Cuzco moved from New York to Arkansas, residents did not know they were in for a treat. After working at an Italian establishment in the Big Apple, Cuzco decided to open a restaurant in Van Buren and introduced customers to his own Latin fare.

The first restaurant received the moniker Rolando Cuzco's Café Chisme. Literally translated, Café Chisme means Gossip Café, Cuzco said in his Ecuadorian accent, aptly describing the nature of any small town in Arkansas or the nation. He modestly referred to the menu as normal Latin cuisine before mentioning that his personal favorites include the rice and beans, tilapia, and shrimp. He is quick to point out the difference between Latin fare and Mexican. While chipotle and jalapenos are used as garnish, Cuzco said the actual food is not spicy.

While working at an Italian restaurant in New York, Cuzco met his first wife, who is originally from Arkansas. They began to explore other dining establishments in the area, including Ecuadorian and Peruvian eateries. Once the couple moved to Arkansas with their 4-year-old son, Cuzco said they started practicing cooking Latin dishes at home.

I started out like everybody washing dishes at 20 years old, Cuzco stated. It was an Italian restaurant. Then, I started prepping and soon I started cooking Italian food.

After about six years in Van Buren, word about the restaurant spread to neighboring town Fort Smith. Cuzco reported that people would drive to the restaurant to enjoy a meal but also wanted a glass of wine to go with it. Then he decided to open Rolando's Restaurante, or simply Rolando's, in downtown Fort Smith.

In the little spare time he has, Cuzco said he enjoys growing vegetables and tending to his rose bushes outside his 1920s Fort Smith home. He added that he likes antiques, which are easy to find with so many antique stores in the area. I like the downtown area. I like the old buildings and shops, he said. That's also why I decided to open a restaurant in Hot Springs. Rolando's in the Spa City opened for business in May 2005.

Wife Sherry retired from teaching and plans to run the Hot Springs location while Cuzco splits his time between the Fort Smith and Hot Springs restaurants.

Subiaco - Small Town Serenity

Although he was leaving big-city Fort Worth, Texas, Brother Michael Endres felt right at home at Subiaco Abbey near the small town of Paris.

I had visited abbeys to determine which one I would apply to, Brother Endres said. I visited one in Oklahoma and thought it was kind of blah, and then I visited Subiaco and knew this was the abbey I wanted to apply to.

Brother Endres joined the monastery at Subiaco in February 2001. His trip to the state occurred right after a devastating ice storm struck the state that year. Though the winter damage concerned him, the normal winter weather enchanted him. The first time it snowed, I just couldn't believe it and sat outside for hours enjoying it. And then it goes away in a few days, so it's great, he said.

Cost of living is not a big concern to a Benedictine monk since the position is unpaid and the abbey takes care of all material needs. However, Brother Endres has heard from those in the area that the lack of competition can make the price of goods more expensive than in the big city. Here, there is really just Wal-Mart as a place to shop, he said. But the Internet allows people to shop and gives them so many choices.

Brother Endres spends a lot of time outdoors: on Lake Dardaelle, at summer camp with Subiaco Academy students and hiking through the woods surrounding the abbey. He is especially fond of fall in the mountains. The first fall I was here, I spent every Sunday going to Mt. Magazine with one of the other brothers to take photos of the amazing trees, Brother Endres said. The trees actually look like they are on fire the way the leaves turn an orange-red color and the wind blows and it's just amazing. In Texas, tree leaves are green, they turn brown and then they fall.

Brother Endres does not miss the big city any more and says after two or three days of visiting in Texas, he is ready to return to the peace and serenity of the small town. This fall, he will enter the seminary school at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. I know I will experience a lot of snow up there and will look forward to returning to the calm winters in Arkansas, he said. Following completion of his education, Subiaco will remain his home abbey, but Brother Endres will be assigned to work at another location. I will go wherever they send me, and it's still six years off, but hopefully I will end up in Arkansas.

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