Kingston is a town of about 100 people in Madison County, Arkansas. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

The curvy road turns to gravel shortly after you leave Kingston, Arkansas, but that hasn’t kept change from arriving in the community of 97 residents. Just like an outsider can attract attention in small Ozarks communities, folks know change has arrived – but introductions haven’t been made just yet.

The quiet purchase of several buildings on the sleepy town square has caused locals to wonder what is up – and concern over what it might mean for the place as they know it. As one person recently posted on Facebook, “(I) have lived in Kingston all my life – it’s very scary the rumors we hear about changes in our little town that might be coming!”

We now know who bought the properties, but not why they did so. This raises a big issue, one that a lot of rural places face when outside entities “discover” a place and begin to invest in ways that might mean change for the people who call that place home. How much say should local people have in how outside investors affect the character of a community?

Change in Northwest Arkansas

While that question arguably isn’t one that only specific areas face, I think it’s particularly relevant in conversations about rural places, which from my anecdotal view often have an “it’s complicated” relationship with change. And it especially comes to mind right now because of Kingston.

The Madison County town is rugged and rural and the type of place where you might see a pig being sold on the town square ( I have). Yet despite its sleepy vibe, it is in the center of a triangle of attractions with international significance.

One is the Buffalo National River, which was given the national designation in 1972 and was the first in the country to be recognized in such a way. Not far away from that is the defunct Dogpatch, a former theme park based around the comic strip “Li’l Abner” that was acquired by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops in 2021 with plans of developing it into a nature-based destination. 

A view of downtown Kingston includes several vacant buildings, a bank, and the Kingston Community Library. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

Kingston is also about 70 miles east of the Bentonville-Springdale-Rogers hub, an area in the northwest corner of the state that is home to companies like Walmart, J.B. Hunt, and Tyson Foods. The area was a series of farming communities in the not-far-distant past. Now it has rapidly developed into a center of arts and culture – just one example is the opening of Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Alice Walton, daughter of the father of Walmart, in 2011.

Descendants of the famed big-box empire are also behind the Runway Group, which on its website describes itself as “a holding company making investments in real estate, outdoor initiatives, hospitality, and businesses making Bentonville, and Arkansas, the best version of itself for everyone.”

As part of the group’s work, Runway has been part of floating the idea of changing the Buffalo River’s designation from a National River to what the website calls a “National Park Preserve,” although there isn’t a federal designation with that exact wording.

You might wonder why this change is necessary after more than 50 years of federal protection under its current designation, especially since the two designations sound pretty similar.

I do, too – but I don’t have a specific answer. I asked Runway for clarification on this and a few other things for this story. A representative pointed me to past statements they have given to other media outlets on the topic, the most recent of which was posted in late October. Here’s an excerpt from one:

“We believe a change in status is one idea that would provide needed infrastructure support to a growing number of tourists; would support the preservation of the river and its current boundaries; and would create new ways to benefit the surrounding communities.”

While the National Park Service doesn’t have the term “National Park Preserve” listed on its website – National Parks and National Preserves are defined separately – my impression is that changing the designation would allow for greater flexibility in what could be done around the river. As a Runway fact sheet puts it: “Change the status from National River to National Park Preserve [sic] and become the most active-use National Park in the country for outdoor recreation.”

Under the National Preserve definition, there’s another line that catches my attention:

“Management may be transferred to local or state authorities.”

If I’m reading between the lines and wagering a guess, I bet the points made by a stone skipped across the river connect to the part about state control of needed infrastructure and the ability to build on more land that today is protected.

I think it’s also relevant to note the fact that last year, Brian Sanders, husband of Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was appointed chair of the Natural State Initiative and Natural State Advisory Council.

He was appointed by his wife to lead the new initiative, which was established in January 2023 “to provide advice to the Governor regarding the promotion of outdoor recreation and the outdoor economy in Arkansas.” This information was posted on Runway’s website.

One of Runway’s founders, Tom Walton, was also appointed to the council.

Looking to the Future

I strive to think the best of people and situations and want to believe that people have good intentions. My gut tells me that the folks floating the proposed Buffalo changes think they are doing the right thing. (But for whom?) To be fair, Runway did lead a survey in September 2023 about the proposed redesignation, which brought mixed results.

It doesn’t change the fact that many questions remain – and the fact that, more than 1,100 showed up for a meeting to learn more.

According to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, they attended a meeting in Jasper, a town near the heart of the Buffalo’s path, for an October meeting about the proposed redesignation.

One of them was Jared Phillips, Ph.D., who teaches history at the University of Arkansas and is also a farmer, a combination that brings a unique perspective to the changes in agricultural spaces in the past and in contemporary times. 

Kingston is surrounded by a largely rural area. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

To him, the Kingston and Buffalo questions are part of the same concern.

“When we decide to turn a place into solely a recreation economy, that has all sorts of negative ramifications for everything – from human communities to ecological, like natural communities,” he tells me by phone. “That’s where I get worried.

“The data is not 100% settled, but where we see counties in the United States – rural counties that have an outdoor-rec tourist economy – the rhetoric is that it does good things for poverty and employment. But when we actually look at the data, best-case scenario, it's a wash. In most places, we do see poverty numbers decline. But that's because poor people are priced out.”

Not only does development have the potential to significantly shift life in terms of more visitors, businesses, and development, but it also has the potential of raising property taxes to where generational folks aren’t able to stay.

“Everything from land prices getting too high for people to expand or buy farms if they want to move to the region and start a farm, or it increases property taxes so that folks that have been there for a long time don't really have an option anymore to sell,” said Phillips, who teaches on Ozarks history, rural development, human rights, and food systems.

“You don't actually have a choice in selling your farm or not, if the choice is you can sell it so that your family has something or you can watch it get auctioned at the courthouse for back taxes. That's not a choice anymore.”

Visiting Kingston

This brings us back to Madison County and Kingston, a community with about 175 years of history that’s surrounded by scenic, rural beauty.

I come through periodically, always interested to see what’s up in and around the quirky place that a century ago was part of the “Kings Plan,” a project by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions.

There was one time when I visited a quirky antique-slash-flea stop on a hot and muggy day, where I gleaned wisdom from handwritten cards hanging on the wall. A few miles out of town, a couple has a “graveyard” of vintage Volkswagens.

Yet when I came through town in mid-2023, something seemed off. While the community always seemed to morph a bit from time to time, it felt especially empty – despite the man selling shallots in the rain from the gazebo in the center of the square.

The shop selling local art – housed in a former general store dating to the late 1800s that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places – was closed. So was the cafe.

In recent weeks, local news outlets shared that it was members of the Walton family.

On Runway’s website, it says that the new owners “intend to update them and open their doors to the community. While we don’t yet have a timeline for the opening, we will share more when we do.”

In December, I stopped in at the Madison County Courthouse and visited with staff to learn more about property sales.

Ann Laird, who works in the Assessor’s office, is someone who has wondered for quite some time about what was going on in Kingston. In addition to properties on and off Kingston square, she’s seen thousands of acres sold in recent years to LLCs that she said are held by the Walton family.

“That same company kept recurring,” she said. “That’s when I started questioning: ‘Who is this?’ There are a lot of people who have lived there their whole lives and they are not happy about this.”

In the meantime, life continues on in Kingston, but the next steps aren’t clear.

“As a Kingston area resident and very small business owner, I’m watching this scene with a mixture of despair at how our small town vibe could change, and yet I do recognize it could bring opportunities for local businesses,” wrote local artist Madison Woods on her website regarding the uncertainty. “But at what cost?”

Phillips also said that the issue isn’t inherent with development; the concerns are about the why and how and being done in ways that are fair – and much bigger than Kingston or Madison County.

“It’s a global conversation that we’re seeing. My friends in England are dealing with it, my friends in France are dealing with it, my friends in China are dealing with it,” said Phillips of agricultural spaces being bought for alternative uses – or by new residents, who number 30 to 35 on average a day coming into the four-county Northwest Arkansas area.

“Whatever it looks like, it creates a further breakdown in agricultural rural spaces.”

A reality of life – for Kingston and far beyond – is that change is inevitable, and that opinions are rarely neutral, especially when someone feels done-to.

I hope that as evolution occurs, we can strike a balance of what’s best for the future – and what’s best for the people and places that make the rural spaces attractive in the first place.

Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project through which she has documented the region through hundreds of articles since 2015.

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