Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Walton Family Foundation announced Thursday that a $20 million matching grant from the foundation will complete the 84.5-mile biking and pedestrian trail from Lexa (Phillips County) to Arkansas City (Desha County).
"This is great news for cyclists and hikers, who have waited more than 20 years for the completion of this rails-to-trails project. The matching grant we announced today, combined with Arkansas Parks and Tourism funds, means that the wait is almost over," Hutchinson said in a news release.
"The $7 million in tourism that the 85-mile trail will attract, along with the 600 jobs it will create, will infuse renewed energy into southeast Arkansas along the trail," he continued. "Hikers and bikers will see bottomland hardwood forests and views from the levee that we don't see from our cars. This is a great project for Arkansas."
The 50/50 matching grant will allow Arkansas State Parks to complete construction of the Delta Heritage Trail over the next five years. The state is also applying for federal grants to offset the match. In all, the project amounts to a $40 million investment.
"The Delta Heritage Trail will connect the region's expansive natural beauty and create new ways to experience its unique cultural offerings," Jim Walton, a Walton Family Foundation board member, said. "This joint effort is a dream nearly 30 years in the making, a bold idea now being realized in a community that, with continued support, can reach its enormous, untapped potential."
There are 44 completed miles in the Delta Heritage Trail State Park, including a 20.6-mile compacted crush gravel section between Lexa and Elaine, a 14.4-mile shared-use roadway on the Mississippi River levee between Rohwer and Arkansas City and another 9.4-mile compacted crush gravel section between Rohwer and Watson. Portions of this project are former railroad lines that have been converted to bike/pedestrian routes.
"When completed, not only will it cross two major rivers – the White and Arkansas – it also traverses through the Dale Bumpers National Wildlife Refuge that has enormous old-growth cypress trees that will give the visitor a sense of being in a 'Jurassic Park' environment," Arkansas State Parks Director Grady Spann said.
"In this area of the refuge, sections of Delta Heritage Trail State Park are elevated, providing an exceptional view of the scenery. Guests will be able to have extraordinary birding and wildlife watching opportunities and may even catch a glimpse of one of the many black bears, which is considered the best genetic representative of the historic bear population that existed in the Lower Mississippi Valley of Arkansas."
The grant includes funding to support a plan for public recognition of the life and professional accomplishments of John Harold Johnson, the Arkansas City native who founded Ebony and Jet magazines. Johnson, a member of the University of Arkansas' Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, died in 2005 at age 87.