Suzanne Grobmyer caught the bug at a young age. She, like many who grew up surrounded by the Ozark and Ouachita mountains in northwest Arkansas, fell in love with the great outdoors before she learned her multiplication tables.
Daily nature walks with her father and regular visits to Devil’s Den State Park helped carve out a special fondness for The Natural State’s namesake virtue, an attribute that has brought Grobmyer full circle in her role as executive director of the newly formed Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation.
Launched in November 2017, the foundation is a 501(c)(3) entity designed to improve upon existing and future parks statewide. The organization got off the ground with help from a three-year $310,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, which has a history of investing in various cultural and educational endeavors across the state. It’s the new nonprofit’s job to connect the individuals, businesses and granting organizations who see the benefits of outdoor recreation with the park needs they believe in.
“We seek to find communities and people looking to improve quality of life of their area and help bridge the gap between good ideas and needed funds,” Grobmyer says.
To her, those benefits are a no-brainer. Having spent most of the last decade in central Arkansas, Grobmyer’s roots in both the northwest region and in the nonprofit sector — most recently as director of major gifts for the CHI St. Vincent Foundation — gave her swift clarity on this new undertaking.
“When it comes to knowing the state, I’ve been lucky to see and experience much of what makes Arkansas great,” she says. “When I learned about this organization and its vision, I knew immediately that it offered an incredible opportunity to serve as an agent of good and lasting change for my home state to benefit future generations of Arkansans.”
Enhance and Protect
On the all-new website of this all-new organization, the homepage is emblazoned with three words in large, orange letters: enhance and protect. These ideas serve as the backbone of the foundation’s mission to help the state reach its full recreational potential, all for the betterment of Arkansans.
“At its core, our board believes that the health and wellness of future generations is linked to outdoor movement and activity,” Grobmyer says.
The heart behind the foundation’s drive to forge bonds between philanthropy and state parks, municipal parks and other outdoor areas is to encourage Arkansans to explore their backyards, to provoke a new curiosity in The Natural State.
“Too often today we turn to technology and scheduled activities, but there is nothing that inspires happiness in children and adults more than outdoor adventure and discovery,” Grobmyer says. “For all ages, it’s good for mental, physical and spiritual health and wellness.”
But this call for exploration comes with a dose of responsibility. The foundation is working with conservation experts to serve as stewards of natural resources and to cultivate a respect in explorers for the spaces they’re encouraged to enjoy.
The third, unspoken leg of the foundation’s mission is to capitalize, to plug dollars made through local recreation and tourism back into the communities that hold the state’s natural attractions.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) — a troop of thousands set in motion by newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — embarked on a mission to improve natural resources across the country. The CCC built trails, campgrounds, pavilions, roads and lodges for Crowley’s Ridge, Devil’s Den, Lake Catherine, Mount Nebo and Petit Jean state parks, setting in motion a soon-to-be flourishing Arkansas state parks system.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Arkansas’ outdoor industry generates $9.7 billion in consumer spending every year while providing roughly 96,000 direct jobs. In fact, despite the state’s large poultry production industry, more than twice as many Arkansas jobs directly depend on outdoor recreation.
Arkansas is a powerhouse in the outdoor arena, and the foundation believes in building up its natural resources to achieve long-term benefits statewide. In other words, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Organizers are looking to other nature-centric cities as models for the economic work they want to see done in the state.
“Take Nashville, Austin and Denver as examples,” Grobmyer says. “They are putting quality of life at the forefront by intertwining work with outdoor fun, and in return young people are moving in droves to live and work there.”
And Grobmyer sees much of those makings in Little Rock, a city filled with outdoor amenities.
“We have a beautiful river through our city that is connected by bridges, a river trail system that connects 88 miles, Pinnacle Mountain State Park less than 20 miles from downtown, many city parks and diverse terrain. These are important,” she says, noting that although much is required to make the ideal moves, it is a project worth undertaking.
“The transformation of Little Rock and Arkansas as a whole will take many stakeholders, both private and public, and it comes with great benefits for businesses and the people who locate and live here.”
Though the foundation may still be in its early stages, it will soon roll out two new projects for outdoor recreationalists.
The first is the Hobbs State Park East Trail project in Hindsville near the Missouri border. This project will add 14 miles to the existing trail, complete with a bridge, tunnel, trailhead and mountain biking flow trail. Visitors will gain new views of Beaver Lake as well as experiences designed to encourage a conservation ethic.
In central Arkansas, focus is on the new Arkansas High Country Mountain Bike Route, a project that will create approximately 1,000 miles of trails connecting Little Rock, Conway, Russellville, Fayetteville and Bentonville. The foundation joined forces with Adventure Cycling, a national organization that produces cycling routes and maps, to create a route that will leverage and connect existing networks of natural surface trails.
While the foundation is currently working to identify the viability of projects in Little Rock with hopes of releasing details on new designs soon, Grobmyer says the ambition of these ventures will boost bicycle tourism and economic development opportunities, and will create a more vibrant region for residents and visitors alike.
As new ideas, proposals and enterprises come down the pike, and as the foundation’s to-do list grows, the nonprofit’s focus is on the world to come, the one they aspire to help build.
Ask Grobmyer what fuels her passion for the job and her objective is the same.
“The future! It is cliché to offer the next generation as the answer to this question, but it is true,” she says, reflecting on those father-daughter nature walks from her childhood. “It was the simplicity of life that allowed me to think, find and discover. I enjoy sharing this experience with my daughter today, and I want to expand these offerings for her and the generation that will follow her.”
By growing the ways in which people interact with their surroundings today, the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation is investing in community to spark a recreational ripple effect to last throughout the ages.
“What our foundation is creating are tangible improvements to the outdoor experience,” she says. “I want my daughter to come back to these places and reflect on what one action can do for generations.”
What are your favorite parks?
This isn’t a fair question. I grew up in northwest Arkansas, so when it comes to state parks, I have to go with my first: I love Devil’s Den. The imprint that the Civilian Conservation Corps gave to our state is everywhere at Devil’s Den. It’s a history lesson as much as an outdoor experience. We also enjoy weekend trips to Mount Magazine, Petit Jean and other state parks. We love seeing our daughter’s eyes light up and mind grow each trip.
Locally, my family and I can be found at Allsopp Park, Two Rivers Park and Pinnacle Mountain State Park, and anywhere along our rivers and streams. Our family is working our way through city and state parks, and we try to go to new ones each opportunity we get. There is so much to see and do.
How can people get involved?
First and foremost, get out and experience your parks. Make a list of city parks, our state’s 52 state and seven national parks, and go! When you are there, reflect on why they are there and their unique attributes.
Secondly, we would be nothing if it wasn’t for our patrons ... I always tell people that the gifts made to our foundation will translate into visible and tangible benefits we all can enjoy today and for generations to come. And we are just getting started!