Putting a Youthful Spin on a Classic Model & Creating a Community That Stands the Test of Time

It’s not about losing anything, but about creating
additional lifestyles that will both enhance our lives and
create a more meaningful place to live.”
– David Twiggs, COO of Hot Springs Village

by Rex Nelson

photography by Jeremy Rodgers

The year was 1948, and a West Memphis businessman named John A. Cooper Sr. had an idea. World War II veterans were starting their families and buying homes after having attended college on the G.I. Bill.

Cooper, who lived in the flat cotton country of the Arkansas Delta, looked west to the Ozark foothills, confident that some of these veterans eventually would want a house in the hills. He purchased 400 acres near where Otter Creek ran into the Spring River in north Arkansas. At first, he used his Otter Creek Ranch as a family retreat. Cooper, however, had a bigger plan in mind. He began buying additional land in Sharp and Fulton counties, and in 1953 he formed the Cherokee Village Development Co. with the idea of selling lots to people in Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus attended the dedication of Cherokee Village in June 1955 and declared it to be the “coming mecca of the Ozarks.”

Cooper built two golf courses, seven lakes, 350 miles of roads, a water system and three recreation centers. Memphisbased historian Wayne Dowdy would later write that Cherokee Village “had a profound impact on Arkansas. The retirement community industry became an integral part of the state’s economy as the older Americans who flocked to Cherokee Village transformed the state into one of the most innovative and popular retirement destinations in the United States.”

In essence, John Cooper had given birth to a new industry. In the 1960s, he set his sights on Bella Vista in northwest Arkansas, which had a long history as a resort. Cooper began buying up land and dividing it into lots. During the next 35 years, more than 37,000 lots were sold. Almost 13,000 of them have been developed. The population of Bella Vista soared from 2,589 in the 1980 census to 26,461 in the 2010 census.

In 1970, Cooper looked to the southwest and the Ouachita Mountains. He began developing a 20,000-acre tract in Saline and Garland counties into what’s now the jewel known as Hot Springs Village.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes: “Cooper had been approached separately by two people with the idea of creating a retirement community, state Sen. Bud Canada and Peter D. Joers, the president of the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. After touring the property by air, Cooper realized the potential of the land and immediately bought 20,000 acres from Dierks Forests Inc. His plan was to create a peaceful retirement community in a natural setting that would offer all modern-day conveniences without the hassle of living in an urbanized city. Unlike his other two communities, Hot Springs Village was created as a gated community in order to provide security for its residents and as an experiment to see if the gated community would result in more residents than the nongated communities.”

Ground was broken on Feb. 15, 1970, and lots were being sold by June of that year. The population of Hot Springs Village grew from 2,083 in the 1980 census to 6,371 in the 1990 census to 8,397 in the 2000 census to 12,807 in the 2010 census.

Demographics and preferences changed along the way, though. The Baby Boomers are different from their parents. Though Hot Springs Village remains a golfers’ paradise, not as many of the Baby Boomers want to live by a golf course in a rural area during their retirement years. Some prefer urban areas with amenities such as fine restaurants, live theater, a symphony orchestra and sports events.

Enter David Twiggs.

Twiggs became the chief operating officer for Hot Springs Village two years ago. He was charged with instituting a change of philosophy. Earlier in his career, Twiggs had initiated changes at similar developments in North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina. He knew that amenities such as free music events, farmers’ markets, appearances by chefs and hunting and fishing clubs could add a 21st century lifestyle touch to John Cooper Sr.’s 20th century vision. The modern term for it is “placemaking.”

During the Governor’s Conference on Tourism at Texarkana this spring, Twiggs participated on a panel that discussed how places such as Hot Springs Village must redefine themselves in the 21st century.

“When planned communities such as Hot Springs Village were developed, all that was needed to create value was an
emphasis on golf and country club living,” he said that day in Texarkana. “From the 1970s to the early 2000s, banks were willing to finance these types of communities. It didn’t really matter when the communities were built. As long as they had gates, nice homes and an emphasis on golf, then the lots could be sold. … There has been a shift among consumers to a lifestyle that’s more focused on doing, serving and learning. Conspicuous consumption is no longer seen as a value by today’s consumers or by banks interested in these types of communities.”

Twiggs wants to transform Hot Springs Village into a true destination.

“It’s not about losing anything. It’s about creating additional lifestyles that will both enhance our lives and create a more meaningful place to live,” Twiggs says. “What we want to do is to
maximize what we already have here in Hot Springs Village while increasing opportunities for authentic living and connection with others.”

He says that working with members of the property owners’ association has been “exciting, a chance to explore opportunities to help Hot Springs Village reach its potential.”

“I learned a lot during my previous 18 years in the business through trial and error,” Twiggs says. He became aware of the job opening at Hot Springs Village when contacted by a professional headhunter.

“I didn’t know anything about Arkansas,” Twiggs admits. “Nothing whatsoever.”

What he did know about was reinventing communities that once had been based mostly on golf.

“Golfers are going to pay for a great experience,” Twiggs says. “And we can offer that with eight courses. But that no longer sells to a lot of the baby boomers. A number of golf communities across the country are resistant to change. To their credit, the people here realized there had to be changes. What I saw here was a ton of untapped potential. For instance, Hot Springs Village and the city of Hot Springs had never worked that closely together. But the city of Hot Springs has great bones. That should be part of the attraction for people to come to this area. We also must do more to incorporate everything that’s available in the Ouachita Mountains. We must start thinking as a region.”

The steps Twiggs has taken in recent months include:

  • Affiliating Hot Springs Village with Troon Golf, a company that manages more than 170 facilities in 35 states and 28 countries. More than 50 of its facilities have a Top 100 ranking by national or international publications. Twiggs says: “Troon was our first choice as the top golf business talent internationally, and we look forward to expanding our relationship.”
  • Creating the Ouachita Rod & Gun Club, an effort to bring people of like interests together to network and socialize. The club organizes events and keeps members aware of outdoor activities across the region. The club will hold events ranging from striper fishing outings on Lake Ouachita to duck hunting on the Grand Prairie and trout fishing on the upper White River.
  • Creating Basecamp, an outdoor adventure initiative for those involved in hiking, kayaking, bicycling, mountain biking and other outdoor activities.
  • Opening a facility known as Waypoint at DeSoto Marina. A 2,200-squarefoot deck was added and the facility is now the home of Basecamp while renting canoes, kayaks, standup paddleboards, bicycles and
    motorboats. Little Penguin Tacos, a local organic food vendor, now serves food from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. each Tuesday through Saturday at Waypoint.
  • Establishing Grove Park as the home for the weekly Green Market farmers’ market and as a community gathering place for the new Artisan Market, which each quarter offers local handmade arts and crafts ranging from jewelry to pottery. Grove Park is also the outdoor live performance venue for the Rock Porch music sessions, which take place the first Saturday of every month.
  • Creating trails for hiking and mountain biking, a whitewater program in the spillway of Balboa Lake and announcing plans for the addition of a recreational shooting sports complex.

In other words, Hot Springs Village is now about much more than golf. Twiggs and the members of his management team want to be able to attract everything from hikers to foodies to craft beer enthusiasts. He calls the focus solely on golf a “1970s model. I told them what I thought when I interviewed for this job. For starters, I won’t take a job anywhere that I wouldn’t want to take my family on vacation. Now, we’re beginning to appeal to these various subcultures such as hikers, climbers, kayakers and foodies. People are talking to each other.”

“After two years, the message is finally getting through to our residents that we’re not trying to take anything away from them. Instead, we’re adding to the offerings. Look, we’re the gateway to the Ouachitas. It’s no longer just about what the property owners’ association can give you. It’s about what this whole region can give you.”

Twiggs says he has been pleased by the influx of young families that now call Hot Springs Village home.

“If you’re going to attract more residents, you must first start getting more people through the gates,” Twiggs says. “We have to communicate to people that Hot Springs Village is not a club. What makes a place interesting to someone? That’s a question I ask myself several times each day. The traditional model was to sell lots to people who were originally from the upper Midwest. They tended to work for corporations that had transferred them every few years. They didn’t have deep roots anywhere, but they knew they wanted to retire where the winters were milder. That model is no longer enough. I’m in the lifestyle business. My job is to provide memorable, rewarding experiences in a number of areas. It’s really neat to see it all starting to come together.”

Along with the younger families are retirees who care not just about their golf game but about finding a place their grandchildren will want to visit on a regular basis.

“It’s very gratifying when people tell me that they feel something exciting is starting to happen here,” Twiggs says. “And this is just the start. I want more walkable communities. I want a bakery and a wine bar. It’s all about getting people to engage with each other. That’s the big picture.”