Dark Hollow's Fate Soon to Be Settled

Two years after casting into the murky wetlands of North Little Rock's Dark Hollow, the proposed $80 million Shoppes at North Hills development is still waiting for a bite.

And without a final permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the last step before ground can be broken, the 800,000-SF open-air shopping and entertainment complex could very well end up becoming the one that got away.

The Corps of Engineers says a decision should be reached within 30 days. Even with a favorable outcome, the Belz-Burrow Development Group could very well have plenty of work cut out for it before ground can be moved.

"Wetlands are tricky tracts of land to figure out," said Tim Scott, a project manager and biologist with the Corps of Engineers. "If you build on them, not only do you have to mitigate that land, but you have to figure out the effects mitigating may have environmentally, geographically and scientifically."

It's been nearly two years since the complex — to be anchored by Bass Pro Shops — was announced as a sure-fire deal. In that time, the permitting process required by the Clean Water Act has taken several turns.

If the project is approved, developers and North Little Rock city officials will still have to wade through plans to build and renovate access roads to and from the site, the cost of which has been estimated as low as $3 million by supporters of the project and as high as $22 million by its opponents.

"We're a lot closer to knowing now than we were when we started," joked developer Bruce Burrow. "They want to make sure everything is done right, and I can't blame them for that. They want to make sure we're going to do what we're saying we'll do; they want to get that documented. Unfortunately for people who try to do things right, there's been people in the past who try to take shortcuts, so the process affects everybody."

Corps Issues

The Corps of Engineers wouldn't be involved in the private project if it weren't for Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which charges the agency with regulating the placement of dredged or filled land in U.S. waterways.

Burrow's site plan calls for filling 30-plus acres of "prime wetland," according to Scott. In order to dish out a "404 permit," the agency had to go through a public-interest review with the state Department of Environmental Quality, which took more than a year to sort out.

Four main points arose from those public hearings:

• Adding businesses and attractions to the site would naturally increase traffic where there are already problems in residential areas.

• The site is flood-prone and acts as a holding area for floodwaters. Filling it would displace that water. Burrow has already bypassed that concern by purchasing more land to offset the developed land for a "wetlands park," which has been given a satisfactory nod by the Corps of Engineers.

• Filling in wetlands raised the eyebrows of the National Fish & Wildlife Service and the Environ-mental Protection Agency, which called the area an "Aquatic Resource of National Importance" because it acts as a filter for the Arkansas River area. Through mitigation, once those guidelines are met, all three agencies will have to work together to retract the area's "Arni" status.

• Is there someplace else that Burrow could build that would both serve his purpose and not tamper with the wetlands? Burrow says the answer is no, since other sites wouldn't have "automatic customers" represented by the 140,000 cars that travel Interstate 40 beside Dark Hollow on an average day.

Final Four

The next month will bring one of four outcomes from the Corps of Engineers. A permit could simply be issued or denied. Or a permit could be issued subject to a set of requirements that Burrow must agree to and meet in order to move ahead.

The Corps could also determine that all of the issues were not thoroughly investigated and that further study needs to be done.

The last scenario would call for an "environmental impact statement," which comes in the form of an outside, independent environmental study that would be supervised by the Corps of Engineers but paid for by Belz-Burrow.

"We've already been back and forth so many times with Belz-Burrow and they seem more than willing to satisfy everything that needs to be done," said P.J. Spaul, a spokesman for the Corps of Engineers. "But, even after all of the work that's been done, (if) a decision still can't be reached, there will still have to be more studies and information gathered. We obviously can't say what the decision is because it hasn't been made yet."

Excessive Access?

The Coalition for Responsible Development, which describes itself as "a group of concerned citizens, local retailers and environmental interests" recently put the price tag for building access to and from the site at $22 million.

North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays has said the cost would more likely range between $3 million and $6 million.

The Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department declined to estimate the costs, but did recognize that it's probably somewhere in the middle, even leaning more toward the lower estimate.

Either way, North Little Rock city officials haven't reached a definite road improvement plan or figured out just how much the public would have to pay. The city is still researching the use of tax increment financing for the site, despite a recent opinion by the state attorney general that dramatically reduced the money a TIF could be expected to generate. But nothing will be final until the Corps of Engineers gives the development the green light.

"I think it's going to happen," said North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce President Terry Hartwick. "The big part is getting that permit, then I'm sure figuring out the other details will all begin falling in line."

Burrow also remains optimistic.

"We've done what we're supposed to, and I believe that there may be some stipulations in there to make sure we'll do what we say we're going to," he said. "But that's ok because we've agreed to those things. We're at that cusp, and I think everybody who has worked so hard in making this happen is feeling good about it."

Automatic Competition

A competitor of Bass Pro Shops is taking advantage of the delay to get a foothold in the market. Gander Mountain, a national outdoors chain headquartered in Minneapolis, has quietly finalized plans to move into the empty Wal-Mart building on Landers Road in Sherwood.

The company's Web site claims Gander Mountain carries everything you'd find at Bass Pro except Nascar and golf items. A spokesman for the company said the store should open this summer.

Burrow isn't worried.

"Bass Pro's name and the way it's built speaks for itself," said Burrow. "It's not just shopping; it's an experience."