© 2024 KUAF
NPR Affiliate since 1985
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Affected by May 26 tornadoes? Find relief resources here.

As development continues atop Markham Hill, locals voice discontent

Drone footage of the new hotel development on Markham Hill
Ozark Broadcasting Company
Drone footage of the new hotel development on Markham Hill

While walking down a gravel road, you can hear birds and insects chirping overhead. Green leaves provide mottled shade, and a gentle wind begins to stir.

Soon, the sounds of construction silence nature, choking out the sounds of a spring day.

It's afternoon on top of Markham Hill — a place steeped in history and natural beauty that has become the focal point of a heated debate between proponents of urban development and advocates for preservation.

But as one can tell by the presence of backhoes and gravel underfoot, one side seems to have claimed victory over the esteemed Markham Hilltop. But the story isn't over. Change does not always foretell the end of things, but rather, it may usher in a new beginning.

"I grew up in South Fayetteville and I went to Ramy Junior High School, right down the hill there from Markham Hill."

Jim Reagan lived in Fayetteville from the late 1960s to the 80s. He said he remembers a time when Markham Hill was little more than a large house, some cabins and a lot of forest.

"One day, my brother— older brother asked me if I would come up and take care of this cabin," Reagan said. "Upon the North West ridge of Markham hill. I was like in ninth grade or something. And so it was wintertime, and I went up and no TV. No electricity - It was really cool. A lot of candles. Wood stove, iron skillet, just real pioneer stuff, you know. Super cool. I felt immediately at home. I was just like, 'Oh, this is great.' Lit some candles and, you know, twisted one up and, you know, just did the whole Fayetteville hippie thing."

Reagan wasn't the only person to do the "Fayetteville hippie thing" on top of Markham Hill. In fact, there's a website called "Friends of Markham Hill," entirely dedicated to sharing the stories of people who called the mountain home.

The author of nearly every post is Lisa Orton, a Markham Hill resident and founder of the group. She declined to comment for this story but allowed the use of her writings as a source for gathering the history of the property. Here's the short version:

Markham Hill is located west of the University of Arkansas' campus in Fayetteville. It became home to the Pratt family in 1900 after members of the Cherokee Tribe were forced to move to make way for white settlers.

The Pratt family ended up building several homes and cabins across the property, including a large house dubbed "Pratt Place." Visitors often rented rooms in the mansion, marking the start of the property's history in hospitality.

In 1921, Joy Pratt Markham founded "Hilltop Camps". It was a summer camp for boys and girls of all ages on Markham Hill and featured activities like horseback riding and rustic cabin living.

Following the camp's closure in 1941, the hill became a place for family residences, small cottages and visitors staying at Pratt Place. Joy Markham willed her roughly 60-acre portion of the property to the University of Arkansas after her passing. And the city of Fayetteville later acquired that acreage through a land swap in 2020 with the university. In return, the university received the land the UREC Tennis Center now occupies.

The remaining 144 acres of the Pratt-Markham property were in the hands of Joy's nephew, Julian Archer. He declared bankruptcy after a failed hospitality venture on Markham Hill in 2015. Property management company Specialized Real Estate Group bought Archer's 144 acres in 2016. They then laid out plans for expanding Pratt Place into a boutique hotel and event space.

Neighbors began to voice opposition following the announcement of Specialized Real Estate Group's planned development.

"We see this happen in a lot of markets that we go through, especially smaller markets like Fayetteville and some of the other cities that we're in."
Gary Sims is CEO of HayCreek Hotels. They're a hospitality management company brought in by Specialized to operate Markham Hill's newest boutique hotel, "The StoneBreaker." Though construction is ongoing, Sims said his company is already turning its attention toward the community.

Everybody's interested in what's going on, right? And those opinions matter," Sims said. "And we want to listen to those. This property will become an integral part of that community as time goes on. You know, when Haycreek comes in to operate a hotel, one of the very first things on our agenda is to make sure that we become part of the community. We're not a hotel standing up there, and we don't talk to anybody. We let the community come in. It's not only for customers. I mean, this is really going to be part of the community."

Sims said the Stonebreaker — which they plan to open by December this year — will allow community members to take advantage of the new amenities– for a price.

"We've got a membership program there. It's more of a social club, there's a private membership, clubhouse, they have, you know, exercise facilities and things like that. So we really want to be part of that community."

He said there will be free events as well:

"Once we get the property open, we will invite the community to tour the property," he said. "We'll have a little cocktail reception for any of the people that, you know, did not want this development to happen. We're going to reach out to them. We're going to bring them to the property and show them what has improved their community. And it's being built, right? So it's not going to go away. It's going to be here forever. So our job is to make sure that we communicate and engage with the community so they understand who we are and what we do. And we're there to be part of the community, we're not there to just be a standalone hotel. We are part of that community. And you know, the people that we hire that work at that hotel, they're going to live in that community, right. So we really spend a lot of time with the local community to make sure they embrace us."

"I think that what happened on Markham Hill is an example of a travesty."

Mark Widder is a Fayetteville resident who lived on the slopes of Markham Hill for much of his life. He said he barely recognizes the town he's inhabited since his boyhood in the 50s.

"It was a different place for what it is today, that's for sure. Much smaller town or the university was way smaller than what it is now. And I pretty much walked or rode my bicycle just about everywhere. Even when I was very young. I remember like being almost probably 5 years old riding my bicycle to the city pool at Wilson Park."

Though Fayetteville has maintained its bikeability, Widder said urban development has encroached into the natural spaces intermingled with neighborhoods. Markham Hill was one of the few remnants of these sprawling urban forests Widder knew in his youth.

"It was definitely a natural area," Widder said. "And it was cool because it was so close to the city. So right in the middle of an urban, I was like an island in the middle of an urban environment. That was all natural. And also, when I was a teenager, I got involved in scouting and went camping a lot and kind of developed a huge passion for camping and it carried on till just recently, actually. And my wife and I have purchased some land over Newton County, Arkansas so we can kind of we hope to build a house over there, maybe move over there and get away from all the you might call it progress, but I say that facetiously because it's not really progress and Fayetteville. All the urban sprawl."

In August 2020, Specialized announced they had signed a letter of intent with the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust to pursue a conservation easement for more than 50 acres of Markham Hill. What's more, the 60 plus acres the city of Fayetteville owns will be protected in order to preserve it for trail access.

Ozarks at Large reached out to the land trust for more details about the easement, but they declined to comment as the agreement has not yet been finalized, and details are still unconfirmed.

Markham Hill is changing, yes. But it's always been a dynamic place. For much of the time humans have resided there, it's been a refuge for people seeking hospitality in Northwest Arkansas. From summer campers to guests of Pratt Place and numerous families who raised generations on its slopes, people will always call the hilltop home.

And though development threatens its natural landscape, conservation easements await on the horizon, offering a sustainable future for Markham Hill.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

Stay Connected
Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
Related Content