Tunnels, Dennis Smiley, John Rogers, Wal-Mart Kept Readers Checking Online


About 2 miles of tunnels lie under downtown Hot Springs.
About 2 miles of tunnels lie under downtown Hot Springs.
Dennis Smiley, as a trustee of the Jones Trust of Springdale, participated in the March 2013 groundbreaking ceremony for the Webb Memorial Children Park on the campus of the Center for Nonprofits at St. Mary's in Rogers. Smiley resigned from the trust's board last month.
Dennis Smiley, as a trustee of the Jones Trust of Springdale, participated in the March 2013 groundbreaking ceremony for the Webb Memorial Children Park on the campus of the Center for Nonprofits at St. Mary's in Rogers. Smiley resigned from the trust's board last month.
John Rogers
John Rogers (Mark Friedman)
Thin film solar panels on a Walmart store in Mountain View, California. | (Photo provided)
Thin film solar panels on a Walmart store in Mountain View, California. | (Photo provided) (Walmart)
Wittenberg Delony & Davidson designed landmarks like the Stephens Inc. tower.
Wittenberg Delony & Davidson designed landmarks like the Stephens Inc. tower. (Luke Jones)
Bean Lumber Co. of Glenwood planned to receive $10 million in funding in 2010, but the money never arrived as promised. (Photo by Mark Friedman)
Bean Lumber Co. of Glenwood planned to receive $10 million in funding in 2010, but the money never arrived as promised. (Photo by Mark Friedman)
KEWI-AM, 690, provides local programming that Benton listeners can’t get elsewhere, says owner Grant Merrill.
KEWI-AM, 690, provides local programming that Benton listeners can’t get elsewhere, says owner Grant Merrill. (Michael Pirnique)
Stories about hidden tunnels, Dennis Smiley and new restaurants were popular online this year.
Stories about hidden tunnels, Dennis Smiley and new restaurants were popular online this year. (Tre Baker (Illustration))

A tour of the hidden underground tunnels of Hot Springs was the most-read story on ArkansasBusiness.com in 2014.

The story, by Assistant Editor Luke Jones, and the accompanying photos held reader interest throughout the year. Published in February, the piece examined the 130-year-old network of tunnels that snake more than 7,000 feet under the Spa City’s downtown historic district. It also revealed the challenges faced by engineers tasked with maintaining the tunnels, which supply mineral-rich waters to Hot Springs’ iconic bathhouses.

A hit with readers, the story also made its way to television viewers. Six weeks after Arkansas Business’ story ran, Little Rock ABC affiliate KATV-TV, Channel 7, aired its own piece on the tunnel system and the city’s latest plan to continue maintenance.

Arkansas Business readers were also interested in a major banking scandal that continues to unfold in northwest Arkansas.

Arkansas Business was first to report on the federal criminal investigation of H. Dennis Smiley Jr., a former CEO of Arvest Bank’s operations in Benton County. Smiley had suddenly resigned his postion with Arvest a few weeks before Arkansas Business’ April 2 report, which revealed allegations that Smiley repeatedly pledged the same collateral to borrow an estimated $4.5 million from about 20 banks.

Since that first report, more details have emerged, including indications that some loan documents might have carried forged signatures. Most of the banks that did business with Smiley have since settled their legal claims with Arvest, and, so far, no criminal charges have been filed against Smiley.

A story by Senior Editor George Waldon about an off-beat foreclosure was the third most-read story of 2014 on ArkansasBusiness.com.

The piece looked at the case of Lawrence Braggs, a Little Rock pastor trying to retain his 5,600-SF home at 15621 Sorrells Road in a long-running foreclosure action dating back to 2011. Braggs, whose housing problems were linked to financial problems at his Awareness International Ministries, attempted to stop his eviction by providing U.S. Bank of Cincinnati a $700,000 International Bill of Exchange. 

The bill, a phantom financial vehicle, is associated with the “sovereign citizen” movement, whose adherents believe they aren’t necessarily subject to federal, state and local law. The bank rejected the bill, and the case is nearing conclusion in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

In another case of items that might not be authentic, readers continued to follow the collapse of John Rogers’ memorabilia empire, which includes photo archives and sports collectibles.

The North Little Rock businessman, who founded the Rogers Photo Archive, saw the total amount of claims against him rise to $18 million as questions about his business dealings continued to mount. His biggest creditor, First Arkansas Bank & Trust of Jacksonville, sought $14.8 million in a series of now-delinquent loans to Rogers and his business ventures. The litigation also continued to steer those businesses toward receivership.

In addition to civil litigation, there remained the possibility of criminal charges related to a federal probe into his business dealings. Rogers already is identified as making false statements to federal agents as part of a sweeping investigation into sports memorabilia fraud around the nation.

Food, Wal-Mart and Politics

Arkansas Business readers have shown time and again that they are intensely interested in food, restaurants and the business of both. That was again made clear when we published word of several Whataburger restaurants headed to northwest Arkansas.

In October, Whispers reported that the wildly popular San Antonio burger chain planned to break ground on the first of five possible restaurants in the region. The first is set for Fayetteville, where the company purchased property at 1920 and 1956 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. for $1.45 million.

The chain has also bought land at West Pleasant Crossing Drive in Rogers, and sources told Arkansas Business that other Whataburgers could pop up in Bentonville in Springdale in the near future.

As Arkansas’ most famous publicly traded company, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville, continues to attract reader attention — so much so that a story from earlier this month on the retailer’s investments in solar energy has already become the year’s sixth-biggest online story.

The story, by Assistant Editor Sean Beherec, examined how Wal-Mart’s goal to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2020 has helped put solar investments within reach for Wal-Mart’s competitors and small businesses, as the retailer’s purchasing power has helped lower solar costs.

As Ken Johnson, vice president for communications at the Solar Energy Industries Association, put it, Wal-Mart’s interest in solar has prompted others to explore it on a large scale.

Readers also turned their attention to political matters this year, which saw heated races, record spending on campaigns and a sea change in state government. In November, Beherec filed a look at how Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson would re-make Arkansas government in his own political image, choosing a new slate of leaders to run the state’s departments and agencies.

The story also telegraphed which Mike Beebe-era leaders would go and which would likely stay. Among the high-profile departures: Department of Finance & Administration Director Richard Weiss, who is retiring, and Economic Development Commission Executive Director Grant Tennille, who will be replaced.

The Top 10 Most Read Stories on ArkansasBusiness.com

  1. Underground Tunnels Challenge Hot Springs Engineers From Past to Present
  2. Former Arvest Officer Dennis Smiley Under Investigation for Loan Fraud
  3. 'Sovereign' Actions Complicate Foreclosure of West Little Rock Home
  4. Claims Pass $18M as John Rogers' Dealings Draw More Lawsuits
  5. Whataburger Chain to Break Ground on First of Five Possible Locations in NWA
  6. Wal-Mart Investment in Solar Energy Transforms Industry
  7. Rogue Broker at Stephens Inc. Caused Penalty, $1.9M Claim
  8. Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson Begins Bureaucrat Shuffle
  9. Bean Lumber Bankruptcy Blamed on Scam
  10. What Happened to Saline County's Only Radio Station, KEWI-AM?