Arkansas Year in Review: Best & Worst of 2021

Arkansas Year in Review: Best & Worst of 2021
Canoo’s electric pickup truck. The Arkansas-based EV startup is shifting all production from Europe to the U.S. (Canoo)

Best News for Art Lovers

2021 saw a spate of good news for lovers of the arts in Arkansas. Among the developments was the announcement, in April, that Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville was embarking on a 100,000-SF expansion.

In addition, the Windgate Foundation continued its multimillion-dollar gifts for arts buildings at colleges and universities around the state, including $25 million to Arkansas State University earlier this month.

And don’t forget that the entirely reimagined Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock, formerly the Arkansas Arts Center, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2022.

Worst Comeback

The summer surge of COVID-19 was bad in many ways, but most obvious was its effect on children. While the original coronavirus variant didn’t often result in respiratory infections for kids, the delta variant caused pneumonia, respiratory failure requiring ventilators and other severe conditions.

Between March 2020, the start of the pandemic, and Sept. 27, 2021, Arkansas Children’s and Arkansas Children’s Northwest together had admitted 746 children with COVID.

But from late June to mid-August of 2021, weekly COVID hospitalization rates for children and adolescents rose nearly five-fold, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant. That led to a crush of young patients at Children’s, peaking at 31 on Aug. 13. “Those mid-August days we were often well above 20,” Marcy Doderer, president and CEO, told Arkansas Business in October.

Best Management Call

While some big employers instituted half measures, Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale went all the way, announcing in early August that it would mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for all employees — some 120,000 people — by Nov. 1.

The move made the publicly traded meat processor the largest U.S. food company at the time to require vaccinations for its entire workforce and came months before the federal government attempted its own mandate for private businesses, one still mired in legal challenges.

By Oct. 26, Tyson said 96% of its workforce was fully vaccinated. “Has this made a difference in the health and safety of our team members? Absolutely,” CEO Donnie King said. “We’ve seen a significant decline in the number of active cases, companywide.”

Worst Hair Day

KATV anchors Chris May and Barry Brandt put on curly black wigs as temperatures dipped into the 70s in September, inspiring a dumb throwback nod to the 1970s. One head rolled: News Director Nick Genty was dismissed after the National Association of Black Journalists and others protested, calling the Afro-like wigs at best a cultural appropriation, at worst a manifestation of racism in the newsroom. May and Brandt returned to Channel 7’s newscasts after a two-week suspension.

Best Stock Tip

Psst! Want a sure bet on a stock? Five words: Dillard’s Inc. of Little Rock.

A department store chain, you exclaim? In 2021? In the age of the internet? As fewer people crave the department store experience? After a pandemic made more people than ever eschew in-person shopping? As the future of mall property looks increasingly dodgy?

Well, why not? No one said these things have to make sense.

Now get in your time machine and travel to Jan. 4, 2021, and buy as many shares as you can at $58 — and sell them all on Nov. 23, when the price soars to a laughable $410.15. The money will roll right in.

Worst Business Boom

Jeff Smith of the growing chain Smith Family Funeral Homes spent another year serving families who lost loved ones to COVID-19. “We’re busy; funeral homes are incredibly busy. And we’re tired. Deaths are definitely up.”

Best Moves

Arkansas gained not one but two publicly traded companies this year as executives moved corporate headquarters to the Natural State.

In April, Montrose Environmental Group Inc. of Irvine, California, acquired Arkansas consulting firm CTEH, with plans to make its corporate home in North Little Rock. And in November, electric vehicle maker Canoo Inc., with operations in California and Texas, said it would put its headquarters in Bentonville, set up an R&D center in Fayetteville and ultimately employ 500 people in Benton and Washington counties.

Both announcements were welcome news in a state that’s seen the number of publicly traded firms decline in recent years. The latest departures happened last year, when Murphy Oil Corp. moved from El Dorado to Houston and Windstream Holdings Inc. of Little Rock restructured after bankruptcy and went private. n

Best Biking-Hiking News

In November, Arkansas landed a $20.5 million federal grant to complete the funding puzzle for the Delta Heritage Trail. A big carrot in attracting that moola from Uncle Sam came courtesy of a $20 million matching grant from the Walton Family Foundation. The combined piles of money should keep the 87-mile rails-to-trails project on track for a 2025 finish.

Worst Orthodontist

Dr. Ben Burris, an orthodontist who formerly lived in Fayetteville, pleaded guilty in September to bribing former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson.

Burris, who had moved to Florida before he was indicted in August 2019, had been scheduled for trial in October. Hutchinson pleaded guilty in June 2019 to accepting bribes from Burris and other federal crimes.

Burris agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. In exchange, federal prosecutors in the Western District of Arkansas agreed to dismiss the 14 additional counts of honest service fraud that were alleged in the grand jury’s indictment.

Burris acknowledged that he wanted Hutchinson to work on amending the state Dental Practices Act so that orthodontists could practice general dentistry, a restriction that had created conflict between Burris and the Arkansas Board of Dental Examiners.

Burris is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 24. While he faces up to 20 years in prison, he is likely to be sentenced around 33 to 41 months.

Best Radio Silence

The biggest cash donation in the history of Little Rock public radio came in on the last day of this year’s fall fund drive, but it came with strings of silence. Officials couldn’t talk much about the $1.5 million anonymous gift to KUAR-FM, 98.1, central Arkansas’ NPR station, and KLRE Classical 90.5.

“Details about how it came to be have to be as closely guarded as the name of the individual who made the donation,” said Christian O’Neal, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s vice chancellor for university advancement. “I’ll just say this is somebody who loves public radio, loves what public radio means for central Arkansas, and wants to encourage other people to do just what they’ve done.”

Worst News From a Client

Foundation Resource Management Inc. of Little Rock was the fifth-largest registered investment advisory in Arkansas with assets under management of $1.27 billion in June 2020. Then by March, that number had literally dropped in half, to $631.4 million.

“We had a 32-year client relationship in which the client hired a new investment consultant with whom we did not have a previous connection. Consequently, we lost those assets under management,” principal Mark W. Millsap explained.

That hit sent Foundation Resource Management to No. 10 on Arkansas Business’ annual list of money managers. Time to rebuild. Millsap said assets under management had recovered to $744.4 million as of June 30.

Best Dividend

The board of the publicly traded Dillard’s Inc. approved a special dividend that pays $15 per share for its Class A and Class B common stock.

That was good news for the Dillard family, who have several members on the board. And eight family members, including Chairman and CEO William Dillard II and President Alex Dillard, own a total of more than 7.5 million shares of the stock of the Little Rock department store chain. Their total dividend payout will be about $112.8 million.

The company said in a news release in November that the dividend was a “special thanks” to shareholders who “stuck with us through unprecedented times and have been instrumental in achieving our remarkable success this year.”

The dividend was payable Dec. 15 to shareholders of record as of Nov. 29.

Worst Dispute Over Fees

U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson and the Sanford Law Firm PLLC of Little Rock don’t see eye-to-eye on legal fees.

After Wilson’s award of a single dollar in legal fees was set aside on appeal, he awarded the employment law firm $500 in October. “No other judges treat us like Judge Wilson does with respect to fee requests,” attorney Josh Sanford said.

Wilson, however, awarded the small amount because, he said, he had found that the Sanford firm was seeking pay for work it didn’t do and billing its actual work at inflated rates. The judge also faulted the number of hours Sanford said had been devoted to the case, calling them excessive.

Sanford denied the allegations and appealed the $500 award in November.

Best News for Robots

In July, Walmart Inc. announced a partnership with a robotics company promising to revolutionize product distribution by automating supply chains.

The Bentonville retail giant, locked in brutal combat with Amazon for online sales, is counting on Symbotic, an automation firm based in Wilmington, Massachusetts, to overhaul Walmart’s regional distribution network. Walmart said it will use Symbotic’s system in 25 of its 42 regional distribution centers. “This move will fundamentally alter how products get to stores,” a top executive wrote in a company blog post in June.

And this month, Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale said it plans to invest more than $1.3 billion in “new automation capabilities” during the next three years.

Best Land Deal Collapse

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture announced in June that it will not go forward with a proposed $16.5 million land sale that drew opposition from hunters, Arkansas legislators and Arkansas’ senior U.S. senator.

In 2020, the Division of Agriculture planned to sell part of recreational land in St. Francis County, known as the Pine Tree Research Station, to Lobo Farms of Fisher (Poinsett County).

But both sides agreed to terminate the contract for the deal.

The UA likely would have used $5 million of the proceeds to help pay for the Northeast Rice Research & Extension Center south of Jonesboro.

In March, state Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, and Reps. Steve Hollowell, R-Forrest City, and Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, introduced legislation to retain Pine Tree Research Station’s recreational land as public property, and lawmakers approved it.

Also, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the ranking member of a congressional committee that would have had to approve the sale, said he wouldn’t support it, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Worst Signature From the Grave

Sheila McCutcheon, the former Newton County assessor, did a whole bunch of things wrong along the way to her controversial Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Among the most eye-catching was forging her mother’s signature on paperwork, some of which was dated after her mother’s death.

Best New Neighbor

In March, Unity Health of Searcy announced it would spend about $16 million rehabilitating the former North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville.

Unity bought the Jacksonville hospital and several properties for $7.75 million in March from Allegiance Health Management Inc. of Shreveport, which had closed the hospital in 2019. That left the Pulaski County city without an emergency room.

Unity said it plans to spend about $8 million on the renovation, which includes expanding the emergency department.

Unity hopes to have the hospital doors open before the summer.

Worst Weather

The blizzard that brought more than a foot of snow to Arkansas in February 2021 couldn’t have come at a worst time for the state’s motorcoach industry.

The pandemic had curtailed event travel for nearly a year, and as the industry was getting back to a regular schedule, the blizzard canceled those plans.

“It would be our first full week since March of 2020,” said Cary Martin, president of Little Rock Coaches. “It is like a fistful of snow in the eyes, if you will.”

Best-Worst Decision

It depends on your point of view, of course.

There was a spirited move this year to have the University of Arkansas remove a statue of Wiliam Fulbright from the center of the Fayetteville campus and his name from the College of Arts & Sciences because of his history opposing civil rights.

This summer, the UA System board of trustees voted to keep both statue and name because of his storied history as a U.S. senator and his Fulbright Scholarship Program, but vowed to put Fulbright’s racial legacy in context.

Best Tasting Expansion

Malvern’s Grapette International Inc. doubled its book of business when it struck a licensing deal with National Fruit Flavor Co. to use its Big Easy recipes. That led to an expansion of its workforce to produce the New Orleans company’s branded lines of syrups, concentrates and cocktail mixes in Arkansas.

Best in Service Journalism

Catherine Nolte of the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith is the only Arkansas-based journalist in the Report for America program, a public service effort funded with grant money that pays half of the salaries of 300 local journalists around the country. Nolte, who graduated from John Brown University in May and joined the Times Record under the program in June, covers hunger and its implications for western Arkansas.

Worst New Job Idea

The Onion, a satirical news site, jokingly reported that Arkansas Act 461, a real law that forbids transgender athletes from playing for their gender-aligned school teams, would require inspectors to verify students’ genitalia. One fictional state lawmaker volunteered to be the inspector “in an effort to prevent further moral decay.”