July 2019 Magazine

Taking Off: Jacksonville Business Scene Grows Around Little Rock Air Force Base

Taking off

by Jon Walker | Photography By Jamison Mosley

When most Arkansans think of Jacksonville, Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB) immediately comes to mind. Most residents generally agree that LRAFB has been a blessing to the area. But there is a lot more to the freeway-straddled city than just the airbase, though.

Named for Nicholas Jackson, a landowner who made local railroad establishment possible in 1870, Jacksonville has grown considerably since her establishment. Expanding from early settlements around the rail depot, she eventually incorporated as a city in 1941. Nearly a decade after the close of World War II, Uncle Sam authorized the construction of the airbase in 1953. 

Over the years, the base and city have enjoyed a prosperous symbiotic relationship. Today, the base has an annual economic impact of $596.5 million. It employs nearly 6,000 service members and 1,400 civilians, making it the seventh largest employer in the state, and has a payroll of more than $305.67 million. Home to the C-130 Combat Airlift, at any given time as many as 62 C-130H/J aircraft in the 19th, 314th and 189th airlift wings and 913th Airlift Group are at the ready to support missions around the world.

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Angel Milan, 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, greets his family after returning home from a deployment at Little Rock Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Dana J. Cable)

The American Dream: Homes & Automobiles

With the Air Force base planned, Chevrolet decided to open a dealership in Jacksonville. They dispatched Harold Gwatney, an unassuming twenty-something, to purchase the land. The year was 1957 and 16 miles away in Little Rock, nine black teens were the focus of national attention—because they sought to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School.

“I wanted it in another place, but Chevrolet said, ‘Nope, you can’t build there. You’ve got to build here,’” Gwatney recalls, “That piece of property belonged to the Jacksonville Sweet Potato Growers’ Association, and I was waiting at night to try and buy it. But they wanted to hear Orville Faubus and all the things about the school integration. I had to sit out there and just listen on the radio to what was going on, and finally—about 1:00 o’clock in the morning—they asked me to come in.” 

Gwatney soon found himself resigning from North Little Rock’s City Council, packing up his family, and moving north. He wound up buying the former residence of the base’s wing commander, who was in Africa at the time. The deal was closed, with the help of a realtor, over a midnight international call.

Chevrolet sent Harold Gwatney to Jacksonville in 1957 to open a dealership in the fledgling city. Sixty-two years after he opened for business, his name is still on the marquee.

By the 1970s, at Chevy’s insistence, Gwatney moved the business from Main Street to a larger facility on T.P. White Drive. Attempting a side move into real estate, he had acquired permission from the county to buy the soon-to-be-defunct school building on Main Street. There was just one hitch: he lacked the funds and the clout necessary to borrow money for it.

That is when Bart Gray, Sr. entered the picture. Gwatney knew Gray, a fellow Jacksonville entrepreneur who had also worked his way up the ladder, from church. 

“I said, ‘there’s no housing here for the military people. That schoolroom—we could put it into houses and have a road,” Gwatney remembers, “He said, ‘Can I get in on it?’ I said, ‘yeah.’ He said, ‘What do I have to do?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to borrow the money—because I can’t.’”

With funds secured by Gray, the partners bought the building and renovated it. When they were done, it opened as “HarBart Apartments,” christened after a combination of their first names. 

It was not just securing a loan that Gray had brought to the table. Having founded Bart Gray Realty in 1948, Gray came with decades of local real estate experience. His own days in Jacksonville had begun shortly after World War II, when he’d come to launch a movie theater business. His son, Bart Gray Jr., recalls life with his namesake fondly. 

“We grew up working in our family businesses,” Gray says of himself and his siblings, “My father had theater businesses in the ‘50s and on occasions, we would clean up the theaters… We got to see a lot of movies. We also had a drive-in theater, and we got to sit out and watch the family movies at the drive-in theater with our Pics, a mosquito repellant coil (which smoldered), to get rid of mosquitoes. The good ol’ days, so to speak.”

“That piece of property belonged to the Jacksonville Sweet Potato Growers’ Association, and I was out waiting at night to try and buy it. But they wanted to hear Orville Faubus and all the things about the school integration,” Gwatney recalls. “I had to sit out there and just listen on the radio to what was going on, and finally—about 1:00 o’clock in the morning —they asked me to come in.”

As he matured, Bart Jr. worked at family-owned motels. This helped finance a degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in the 1970s, which paved the way for his transition into real estate. 

“When we were taking care of our customers, the customer was king—and in the real estate business, you found that people could find homes when they were not working,” Gray reflects, “We learned that weekends were a time to work because other people were off and that was when they could look at housing and be served. Those were things that I learned early on and continue on in my work ethic.”

A New Path

In another part of Jacksonville, Joan Zumwalt was obtaining a degree of her own from the school of hard knocks. Zumwalt had emigrated from Indiana in 1963, having dropped out of college to marry a military man.

“I came to Jacksonville in the beginning to upgrade our local radio station and from there established that I had a failed marriage and so I started a business collection agency,” Zumwalt says, “I had three children, my mother and myself to support and that was my path, to do that.”

Running a collection agency could be rough, but it taught Zumwalt as much as a young mother was willing to learn: chiefly what not to do in a business, as observed in the mishaps of peers. Perhaps more than anything, it taught her that she didn’t want to stay in that field any longer than she had to. 

When a lucrative opportunity presented itself in 1973—at a large liquor store on the county line—she left the collection agency biz. She would spend the next four decades as the store’s proprietor. During that time, she also got involved with the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and would serve a couple of years as its president. 

In 1980, on Zumwalt’s watch as president, the unthinkable happened: a company called Vertac Chemical Corporation rose to infamy for mishandling hazardous waste at its Jacksonville plant. At least two sites on the property were contaminated with cancer-causing industrial byproducts known as dioxins. In addition to the danger and widespread fear, it was a public relations nightmare. The city made national headlines, none of which were flattering.

“It was a daunting task,” Zumwalt says of dealing with the situation, “And it was the kind of education that you don’t seek out. 

With help from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Arkansas state agencies, the waste was cleaned up and the problem was eventually resolved. In time, Jacksonville would live down the PR black eye. It was a dark time, but Zumwalt had a side project had provided solace. 

In 1971, a young UCA graduate and her sister had approached Zumwalt seeking help launching a program to provide facilities for the developmentally disabled. They had taken her to see the closest thing that existed at the time.

“There were absolutely no services for them,” Zumwalt says, “They sat in a room and looked at a blank wall. That was all there was at that time. Remember: this was the early 70’s—and it was obvious that they needed someone to help get a program started; get this off the ground; find solutions to the services that were absent.”

Burdened by what she had seen, Zumwalt began discussing a tentative plan with the sisters. She sought and obtained a $12,000 grant. It went to the assistance of six disabled children and a teacher—and Pathfinder, Inc. was born. Zumwalt and her late second husband chaired the board of directors. Today, in 2019, the budget has grown to $42 million. Pathfinder now serves over 1600 clients at 28 locations around the state. 

“Our staff is second to none,” Zumwalt beams, “The people that operate on the front line of serving the disabled are unsung heroes, in my estimation, and you cannot pay them enough money to do what they do. It’s a dedication and the love of being helpful to those who sometimes cannot help themselves… I really believe to be successful in anything—whether it is philanthropy or it’s your own livelihood—you must give more than you take.”

The Wilson-Belden Bond

It is hard to imagine modern Jacksonville without it, but the airbase might not exist if it were not for Kenneth Pat Wilson, the founder of First Arkansas Bank & Trust. In the 1950s, Wilson was instrumental in convincing Uncle Sam to build LRAFB where she stands today. He also helped establish Jacksonville’s first hospital and first chamber of commerce.

Pat Wilson co-founded First Arkansas Bank & Trust in 1949, as Jacksonville State Bank. His son, Larry Wilson, is chairman, president and CEO of the business today. 

Larry Wilson, chairman, president and CEO of First Arkansas Bank & Trust.

“Not only did he provide good mentorship for the banking business,” Wilson says of his dad, “He also provided mentorship and set a high example for community involvement and industry involvement—rather than just looking out for himself and for the bank. My dad set a good example…. We have tried to follow it.”

Pat Wilson also convinced Minnesotan manufacturing magnate Delbert R. Belden to move his family’s louver-making business to Jacksonville in 1967. Delbert’s father, Clark David Belden, had started the company in the basement of a Minneapolis hotel during the Korean War. Initially named the Dandee Manufacturing Company, it is better known today as Lomanco Incorporated. 

Delbert’s son, Ted Belden, co-owns Lomanco with his brother, Dennis. Ted Belden became chairman of the board in 1980 and helmed the company for decades. Despite a track record of leadership that speaks for itself, he is quick to credit employees with Lomanco’s success in those days. 

“Hire good people,” Belden says, “Don’t look at yourself as a person that has all the answers; always strive to hire a higher caliber of people… Don’t think you know it all. Try to find out from other people that might know more than you.”

More than anything, however, he attributes Lomanco’s growth on his watch to the highest authority.

“I’m a Christian—and my business philosophy is rooted in my spiritual faith; in trying to treat other people as I would want to be treated.”

Belden is on the board of First Arkansas Bank & Trust. Jacksonville engineer Tommy Bond holds a seat there, as well.

“The bank is owned by my closest friends, and I think they just threw me in the mix,” Bond says of the Wilsons. “I’m a director that has no personal interest. They have to have so many that don’t borrow money from the bank or don’t have projects directly related. ‘Independent director.’ That’s what they call it. I’m one of those.”

Bond has worked in Jacksonville since 1966 when he started doing surveys for local subdivisions. As head of Bond Consulting Engineers, Inc., he has also served the Plumb Bayou Levee District for 50 years. The second-largest levee district in the state, Plumb Bayou begins near Old River Lake and extends below Pine Bluff.

As this story was written, Arkansans were watching remnants of widespread floodwaters recede. Bond, fresh from the flood-fighting trenches, says two levee sections in Pine Bluff nearly overtopped but didn’t. Although water reached cultivated land in a couple of places, no crops or structures were ruined. 

“The flood is winding down,” he says. “Thank God.” 

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