Legal Woes, A Movie Cameo Were Among Years Best & Worst News

by Talk Business & Politics ([email protected]) 268 views 

There’s good and bad in each year, and the editorial staff always enjoys ruminating on the highs and lows for our annual “Best & Worst” feature.

Northwest Arkansas is a dynamic region, and there’s never a shortage of exciting developments and laud-worthy efforts. Unfortunately, there are also usually a few scandals, nasty lawsuits and some bad behavior.

This year’s list includes everything from an eco-friendly energy plant being built in Springdale, to a business closure that appeared to leave employees high and dry. From a local entrepreneur who landed a brief appearance on a summer blockbuster, to court decisions regarding some of the region’s fallen business leaders.

Here’s our recap of some of the best and worst moments of 2015.



Tyson Foods Inc. had some good news for its corporate employees this year when the company eased up on its dress code guidelines.

An internal memo let staffers of the company’s Springdale and Chicago offices know that its new dress code is simple: Dress appropriately for your day.

Appropriate attire now includes polos, henleys, golf shirts, casual pants, jeans, jeggings and leggings.

“If you have a day that doesn’t involve meeting with customers or other important guests, feel free to wear jeans, khakis, slacks, or whatever is comfortable and appropriate for a business environment,” the memo stated.

The relaxed dress code is more in line with guidelines that were in place at The Hillshire Brands, which was acquired by Tyson in 2014 for $8.5 billion.



Ever had a wild idea pop into your head and say to yourself, “That’s it. I’m doing it.”

Of course you have. Northwest Arkansas is filled with those kinds of stories.

One of the more interesting we heard this year belonged to Springdale businessman James Smith, a founder and co-owner of furniture retailer James+James.

Smith, self-described as a fanatic of the “Jurassic” movies, has a very bit part in the fourth film in the dinosaur franchise, “Jurassic World,” which opened in June and recorded the biggest opening weekend ever by earning $524 million worldwide.

Smith said when he heard a couple of years ago that the movie was being developed, he made it a mission to appear in the film.

And so he did, parlaying a day on a New Orleans production set in the summer of 2014 into a role as an extra in a couple of the movie’s control room scenes.

“I’m certain it’s just a matter of time before my agent calls and I ditch this furniture thing,” Smith joked.



This year, three Benton County World Gym locations shut down abruptly, without prior notice to members or — to our knowledge — employees.

Two locations in Bentonville and one in Lowell closed for the day on March 24 and didn’t reopen the next morning.

Owners Rhett and Tania Garner informed gym members through an overnight social media post.

While noting that they were unable to discuss specific reasons for the closure at that time, the Garners wrote: “We are not able to work out some issues. They are beyond our control.”

A month earlier, local developer Mike Charlton filed a lawsuit against the Garners for unpaid rent on the properties.

In April, Rhett Garner filed for bankruptcy, citing among its unsecured creditors the thousands of former World Gym members owed money for broken membership contracts.



Monte Johnston, owner of the Springdale-based Automatic Auto Finance franchise, was arrested in August at the Springdale Municipal Airport after returning from Colorado with an assortment of marijuana products, according to Springdale police.

He was charged with one felony count of possession of a controlled substance, schedule VI, which carries a penalty of up to six years in prison and/or up to $10,000 in fines.

According to Springdale police, Johnston had frequently traveled to Colorado to talk with people there about possibly opening marijuana dispensaries in Colorado, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.

He presumably came back home with samplers, because when police apprehended him, they found high-grade marijuana, the Groovy Granola Bar, pot-infused massage lotion, e-cigarettes with pot-infused liquid, and an assortment of prescription pills.

On top of all that, around the same time as the arrest, Johnston freaked out and tried to storm his in-law’s house during a domestic dispute.



Where were you on the morning of Nov. 3?

Bill Simon, Cliff Slinkard and Maurice Willis were aboard a single-engine plane that experienced oil pressure problems not long after beginning a flight from Bentonville Municipal Airport to Waco, Texas.

Simon, the pilot of the plane and the president and CEO of Wal-Mart U.S. from 2010 to 2014, attempted to route the Cirrus SR-22T aircraft for an emergency landing at Drake Field in south Fayetteville. When that option failed, Simon deployed the plane’s emergency parachute and made a slow free fall/crash landing on Martin Luther King Boulevard, which was caught on video by more than one amateur photographer.

The plane did hit a pickup truck that was traveling on the road, but all three men and the driver of the truck walked away from the accident with only minor injuries.



Former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive John Ryan wound up in the Benton County Jail in October. The reason? Contempt of court.

Due to the terms of his 2011 divorce decree, Ryan owed his ex-wife a big pile of money, but only paid a portion of it. So when he was arrested, his bail was set at $344,530, an amount that included the $325,560 he owed his wife, and nearly $19,000 in attorney’s fees.

According to court documents, he also stopped paying on his son’s truck note and college tuition.

The arrest warrant was only issued after Ryan failed to attend a court hearing regarding his divorce decree.

Ryan languished in jail, and his time there was bookended by two catastrophic events. Before his arrest, he lost one of his Pinnacle Country Club homes to foreclosure. After his arrest, he lost the second one.



Billionaire businessman Jerry Jones has a special spot in his heart for the University of Arkansas, specifically the athletics department. There was evidence of that in January, to the tune of nearly $20 million.

Jones, a UA grad in 1965, paid Danville-chartered Chambers Bank $7.3 million for 11 tracts totaling 256 acres west of the Cato Springs Road exit, just off the Interstate 49 interchange in south Fayetteville. He then donated the property to the Razorback Foundation, the private fundraising arm of the UA athletics department.

A couple of weeks later, Jones gave $10.65 million to help fund an athletic support center and establish a permanent tribute for the school’s 1964 national championship in football.

Jones played for Arkansas from 1962 to 1964, when the Razorbacks went 11-0 and were awarded a national title by the Football Writers Association of America.

He is, of course, most known as the owner/president/general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, ranked by Forbes magazine in September as the most valuable professional sports franchise in the world at $4 billion.



In January, convicted real estate developer Brandon Barber picked up a courtroom victory. A federal judge in Fort Smith ordered him to pay only $450,000 to First Federal Bank of Fayetteville for his role in an extensive bank fraud scheme.

That is substantially less than what federal prosecutors had in mind. They were seeking restitution of about $16.19 million, payable to three lenders.

U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III said sufficient financial evidence of Barber’s guilt in defrauding Legacy National Bank of Springdale and Enterprise Bank of St. Louis was not provided by the prosecutors, who had the burden of proof and relied on testimony from Barber’s former chief financial officer Vera Crider. She alleged that Barber generally inflated his financial situation on loan applications.

While the judgment is good news for the disgraced real estate mogul, the fact that he heard about it from a federal prison cell in Pennsylvania likely dampened his excitement. 

In October 2014, Holmes sentenced Barber to 65 months in federal prison, after he pleaded guilty to charges that included conspiracy to commit bank fraud and money laundering.



“Like any field, you are constantly working and trying to keep up. They’re willing to try different things. They’re not sitting on their butts.” — Claudia Mobley, director of the University of Arkansas’ Center for Retailing Excellence, commenting on Walmart’s efforts to catch up in e-commerce.



H. Dennis Smiley, the former president of Arvest Bank Benton County, in August pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of bank fraud and is set to be sentenced on Jan. 21 in Fort Smith.

Smiley, the affable face of Arvest Springdale for years, was accused of bilking as many as 23 banks out of $6.3 million by repeatedly pledging his shares in Arvest stock as collateral for a variety of personal and business loans.

At the heart of the scam were loans for himself, a business he held with his father, HDS Holdings LLC, and a business he held with his wife, Design for the Home LLC, according to the plea agreement.

As the legal process unfolded, Smiley lost his home at Pinnacle Country Club, and disappeared from public view. During the investigation, Smiley told lawmen that he had been living beyond his means for at least a decade.



The 10-story Hunt Tower in Rogers, under construction for more than a year and now the tallest building in Benton County, welcomed its first tenant in November.

The Harvest Group, a sales and marketing firm for the consumer packaged goods industry, leased 14,000 SF of class-A office space on the seventh floor. John George, executive vice president of Hunt Ventures, the project developer, said another 80,000 SF would be occupied by mid-January, giving the building a 40-percent occupancy rate.

George also said discussions are underway with other potential tenants and expects more occupants by mid-2016.

The $42 million, 230,000-SF building was designed by Core Architects of Rogers and was built by Crossland Construction of Rogers. Also in Rogers, construction got underway for County Club Plaza, which includes 88,000 SF of office space, and a 22,000-SF of retail center.

The partners in that project include Colliers International, Miller Boskus Lack Architects of Fayetteville, Crafton Tull of Rogers, and Little Rock-based contractor VCC.



Ozarks Electric Cooperative began construction of a 3,960-panel solar farm on U.S. 412 east of Springdale.

Once operational in 2016, the solar farm will generate one megawatt, or enough energy to power 150 to 200 homes. Among the first of its kind in the state, the solar initiative was taken at the behest of Ozarks customers, who in surveys indicated they wanted the utility to consider renewable energy, solar in particular.

Ozarks, which serves 71,000 meters in nine counties in Northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma, purchased the 12-acre site for $780,000 in March.

Customers who want energy from the solar installation can do so by subscribing on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition to energy generation, the solar farm will also have a public service component. The site was chosen in part due to its accessibility and visibility for educational purposes, said Mitchell Johnson, president and CEO of Ozarks.



After years of layoffs and tinkering with multiple mastheads and editions, Northwest Arkansas Newspapers LLC in January announced a major restructuring to form a regional publication called the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

In the process, the company eliminated 15 jobs — nine editorial and six in other departments — and shuttered two newsrooms in Benton County.

Northwest Arkansas Newspapers, jointly owned by WECHO Media Inc. and Stephens Media, owns the Benton County Daily Record, Rogers Morning News, Springdale Morning News, the Northwest Arkansas Times, and what was formerly known as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Northwest edition.

The various nameplates still run in the paper as the “B” section.

Shortly after the restructuring, Stephens Media was sold to New Media Investment Group Inc. for $102.5 million.

“We have come to think, live, work and act as a region without borders and this decision reflects our region’s growth and development,” editor Rusty Turner said at the time.



In September, the Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center and the Early Childhood Initiatives Center, its sister company that supports early childhood education programs throughout the region, announced plans for a new, $14.3 million headquarters on an 8-acre site next to the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville.

The center formed a Development Coalition with business leaders from throughout the region to raise money for the project and raise awareness on early education needs in the area.

“Having quality childhood education options is critical in securing young business professionals in the area,” said Stephanie McCratic, Development Coalition member and founder and CEO of Acorn: An Influence Co. of Bentonville. “Northwest Arkansas relies on those soft infrastructure needs to support today’s workforce.”

At the time of publication, development manager Sunny Lane said the center had raised $12.6 million for the project, with hopes to finalize the development team in January and have the design process complete by early fall.