About a mile down a mud-rutted road off Arkansas Highway 1 in Desha County rests what’s envisioned as a $32 million sportsman’s dream: Delta Resort & Conference Center near Tillar.
These 1,945 acres, developer Gary Gibbs hopes, will host duck hunters and corporate conferences and retreats, along with thousands of ducks.
But most importantly, Gibbs, his family and his staff plan for the resort to be the site of a shooting sports tournament “just like March Madness,” Gibbs says in a video posted on his DeltaSports.tv channel on YouTube.
“And there’s going to be a countdown to the final four and then the big championship,” Gibbs adds.
The shooting sport is sporting clays, described by Barry Kelly as “golf with a gun.” Kelly is called a “master class shooter” on the Night Hawk Publications website, a site devoted to hunting and fishing news.
Kelly, a burly bear of a man, leads Delta Resort as general manager. The former manager of The Willows Sporting Clays & Hunting Center in Tunica, Miss., has been with Gibbs for about 18 months, as has Alex Holzmeier, the assistant general manager. Holzmeier is a credentialed sportsman who’s a graduate of Southern Illinois College with a degree in game preserve management and sporting complex management. Both men also work as hunting guides.
“We duck hunt and guide day in and day out,” says Holzmeier. “I think I hunted 50 days out of a 60-day season,” Kelly says.
Rounding out the resort’s management team is Anna Grayson, a former high school chemistry teacher in nearby McGehee who might be described as an administrative assistant but is closer to a jack-of-all-trades, overseeing food and beverage service for the resort but also working as a media relations manager.
On a gray wind-whipped day in late winter, the trio tries to bring to life for a visitor Gibbs’ big vision for the resort. But wet weather has bogged down construction on the resort’s two-building hotel, which sits a few hundred yards from the main lodge, and landscaping currently consists primarily of water-logged rice fields stretching to the horizon. In fact, about 1,400 of the resort’s acres comprise a working rice farm and that’s not expected to change. “It’s good for ducks,” Kelly says.
“Nothing is so ugly as the Delta in winter or so beautiful in spring,” he says. The staff is working to have the hotel and its landscaping up to snuff by June. To the duck hunter, however, it’s a close to perfect location, just about 5 miles, Kelly says, from the confluences of both the White and Arkansas rivers with the Mississippi.
And, of course, the resort is right on the Mississippi Flyway. As the National Audubon Society notes: “Nearly half of North America’s bird species, and about 40 percent of its waterfowl, spend at least part of their lives in the Mississippi Flyway.” That flight path runs the length of the Mississippi down to the Gulf Coast before finally reaching South America.
At Delta Resort, any area that has high pedestrian traffic will be paved, as will the road to the resort, Kelly says.
“Once everything is completed, I think this facility will be one-of-a-kind,” he says. “I’d agree,” Holzmeier adds. “No one else really offers the mixture, the blend,” he says.
“Me and Alex have shot and traveled all over the country, and once this is finished, it will be one of the premier resorts for an outdoorsman there is,” Kelly says.
So what is that blend? The Delta website markets it as “Where Wing Meets Clay,” “a unique combination of extreme waterfowl hunting and world-class shooting including Sporting Clays and Olympic Bunker Trap all in one setting.”
For the uninitiated, that means a combination of good old-fashioned duck hunting and the shooting of clay targets.
In addition, the resort features a 13-acre stocked bass lake for fishermen, a lake designed by famed fisherman Bill Dance of Collierville, Tenn.
Delta Resort & Conference Center is now centered by the large rustic-but-wired lodge that is the home of Gibbs and his family, which includes sons Josh and Jeremy. The lodge itself has 14 guest rooms.
Down the road a bit are the two buildings that will offer guests 132 rooms, space for 176 occupants. Finishing-out is all that remains to completion.
And there’s the triplex, three buildings that are home to a 7,000-SF conference center, restaurant and bar, and a pro shop.
Gibbs, said by Kelly to be closing on a hotel and unavailable for comment, is a real estate developer based in Franklin, Tenn., south of Nashville. He’s the owner and CEO of Coastal Phoenix Investments. Sons Jeremy and Joshua are SVPs at the company, which specializes in subsidized housing.
Gibbs has built apartment complexes in Jonesboro, Bentonville and West Memphis. Jeremy Gibbs, through Coastal Phoenix Investments, has been involved in projects in McGehee, Warren and Lake Village.
Gary Gibbs has had a couple of bankruptcies over the last 25 years, but the successful projects appear to have dominated his professional history, which, according to the CPI website, has involved more than $250 million in real estate assets.
The resort’s promotional material tells the tale of Gibbs’ first duck hunt, in 1979 in flooded timber at Banfield’s Duck Funnel Hunt Club in Tillar. He sought to recreate this magical experience and in 2006 was able to buy the Banfield property.
The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission launched its Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program in autumn 2006, and in spring of 2011 and 2012, it sponsored the Arkansas Junior Olympic State Qualifier at the Delta Resort & Conference Center. The high school-aged trapshooters competed on the resort’s bunker trap fields, as they are scheduled to do in April 2013.
In addition, the resort, in its effort to “combine the natural beauty of our surroundings with major shooting sports, inaugurated the Delta International Sporting Clays Tournament in March 2011. It has held other trap shooting events since.
Kelly and Grayson say that once the hotel is complete and the resort is fully staffed, it will employ 167. The resort has plans for a spa somewhere in its future, as well.
“We’re going to get heavily involved with Arkansas youth shooting and youth shooting in the United States,” Gary Gibbs says in the family video on DeltaSports.tv.
“We’re going to have a tournament just like March Madness. And there’s going to be a countdown to the final four and then the big championship.”
Josh: “We feel that the sport, it needs a spark and we want to be that spark.”
Sporting Clays Explained
To describe sporting clays, it’s probably best to quote the National Sporting Clays Association:
“Sporting Clays is the closest thing to actual field shooting of all shotgun sports. The sport dates back to England in the early 1900s when trap shooting used live pigeons. With the introduction of clay targets, the sport began to take on the popular form known today. But rather than using standardized distances, target angles and target sizes, sporting clays courses are designed to simulate the hunting of ducks, pheasants and even rabbits. Six different sizes of clay targets give the participant the experience of actual hunting conditions, so you can see why the sport is so popular with hunters.”