Tom Cogan is working on a hand-built cedar canoe when I arrive outside the large geodesic dome he uses as a work space. His dog, Scout, comes up to say hello. Tom calls the large building the boat shed because his father used to build boats inside its angular walls. Now he’s building his own, and plans to float it down the Buffalo River as soon as it’s complete. This boat is his retirement project. “I just got everything ready so that first thing when I retired it was my project,” he explains. “And it helped me thru my transition. It gave me some focus and a place to get up and go to work everyday. So I started on it about Christmas. Need about another month to get it finished and in the water.”
Tom retired from his position as director Parks and Recreation for the City of Clarksville this past year after 18 years with the department. During his tenure he oversaw the creation of the Marvin Vinson Multi-Purpose Center, the paving and expansion of the Spadra Creek Nature Trail to include ADA accessibility on the west side from University of the Ozarks to the iron bridge at exit 58, a skate park, a dog park, and the well-known Clarksville Aquatic Center. For a rural Southern town with a population of nearly 10,000 these are huge undertakings.
He talks about trips to the Buffalo with his grandchildren and his ongoing volunteer work as a longtime Scoutmaster for the local Boy Scouts. His dog Scout was named by one of the troops after they found her on the Buffalo River banks where she followed their canoes for miles. He calls the river his “favorite place to be.” Floating the water,” he says “is my favorite thing to do.”
“My parents were from Kansas City,” says Tom. “My father was in the Air Force and came to Clarksville to visit Bill Kenner who owned a boat company.” Together the two men went in the boat business in 1959. Tom was six years old. He’s been in Clarksville ever since.
His father also worked construction and built the geodesic dome where Tom now works on his own creations. Tom remembers his Dad spending hours in the building, always creating something new. Today Tom has four children and seven grandkids, all living in Clarksville. “With seven grandkids in town that just makes it real important that we have a great place to stay here if they want to. Clarksville is just home,” he adds.
Tom is known for getting things done. Expansive trails and a state of the art aquatic center are the kinds of things you expect to see in larger, well-funded cities like northwest Arkansas or Little Rock, not a small town in a largely low-income area. He’s quick to speak to Clarksville’s unique willingness to support such projects. And he’s quick to credit the people who live here. “The citizens of Clarksville are amazing,” he says. “Everyone works together; I didn’t do this stuff.”
When he took the park director job the city had just started construction on the softball park and there were plans for a community center. But for the most part, the parks system was just focused on keeping lawns mowed. “First thing we actually delved into and built was the Marvin Vinson Multi Purpose building,” says Tom. That was in 2002. “Then 2004 we did Spadra Creek Nature Trail.” The trail had been there for years but under his leadership it was paved and made ADA accessible, connecting the paths to the University of the Ozarks.
The parks systems also started adding more trails, connecting paths to increase usability. The city built a new trail from Iron bridge to Crawford Street and one from Cherry Street out to the new Palmer Road.“We completed the trail system from the new high school down to exit 58 to the University and then all the way out to Cline Park and Palmer road,” says Tom. “And it’s on the old railroad track at Palmer road, a quarter of a mile from city limits.” For a small town, this kind of connectivity is unparalleled. “The ultimate goal,” he says, “would be to get on the old railroad track and complete it to Lamar and it would connect with Lamar high school.”
To create the trails the city passed a one-cent sales tax right after Billy Helm became mayor, Tom explains, “and it was for 70 percent streets, sidewalks and drainage and 30 percent for community development.” Tom says the trail system was the start of the funding source and set a lot of things in place. “And it also showed people what they could have with a penny. So when we got ready to build the Aquatic Center the citizens passed another one-cent tax.”
The Clarksville Aquatic Center is regionally famous and unique for such a small town. When asked about the inspiration for such an undertaking Tom says, “It’s what the people wanted.” Tom studied what other towns were doing and spent a lot of time learning from other parks departments around the state. To a large degree the Clarksville Aquatic Center drew inspiration from similar project in Paragould. But moving from idea to fruition wasn’t easy. The project took eight years from beginning to end, and the timing had to be just right. “When I started we had a little outdoor pool, and Mayor Vinson said, ‘I need you to take care of the pool; you need to run it.’” The city intended to have a new outdoor pool in three years. Instead the citizens asked for a larger indoor and outdoor complex. So rather than put efforts into the small existing pool, they began work toward the expansion. “Ten years later…” he laughs.
That old pool has since been filled in and is now a nursery for the city says Tom. “We filled in the pool and put in a green house, hired a woman who used to work for the local Blossomberry Nursery and started growing plants for city parks.”
Tom says the creation of the Aquatic Center was a huge undertaking and continues to be a challenge years later. “You’ve got to make it work out financially,” he says. “It doesn’t let up; 24/7 that pool is running. Every storm that comes up and pumps quit and people have to be there. There’s a lot to it.” Tom says his background in business especially helped him with this project.
“It’s very expensive to operate. A quarter of a cent goes to maintenance and operation and that makes up the difference from what we take in. You don’t spend it all because you have to keep enough in the bank for repair and fix.” He also acknowledges the importance of marketing the pool to regional citizens and keeping it in the public eye. “Years ago people drove to Alma,” he says. Now there are places like the Russellville Aquatic Center and Parrot Island Water Park in Fort Smith. “The cities have managed to slice the pie. You have to have a good business plan. You have to understand advertising.”
Before becoming parks director Tom ran a printing business and credits that business with teaching him how to build something. “You have to understand copy and how to produce something from someone’s vision,” says Tom. In speaking about his former work as a business owner, Tom says the transition from business to government “was probably one the most difficult things to learn — how to go from a point where I can just make decisions and make things happen to learning how to work thru and work with people to get things done. Because so many times it never gets past the meetings.”
But how exactly did the taxes for these additions get passed, I ask. Other towns routinely try to pass one cent sales taxes and the initiatives fail. So what makes Clarksville different?
Tom speaks to what he calls the cultural mentality of the town. He notes that Clarksville owns its on electric company, the same thing that laid the groundwork for the town’s recently constructed solar plant. In fact, the Marvin Vinson Center was largely supported by the utility company. “The electric paid half of that and the city the other,” says Tom.
Clarksville has owned its own utility company since the turn of the century. What drives Clarksville’s innovative spirit today?
Cogan recalls a particularly formative gathering over 20 years ago when he was the owner of Sherwood Printing and Office Supply. “We [the community] had a meeting that was then in the basement of Pasta Grill and all the community leaders came together and had a meeting to write down ideas,” Tom explains. Everyone came to the conclusion that for Clarksville to grow they’d need a bigger water source than Lake Ludwig. The participants agreed that Piney Bay could be the source, but they’d have to pump water all the way to town. At the time it seemed impossible. “How can we make that happen? Well they did. And they have expanded that at least twice since then. It was the beginning of we can do this,” says Tom. “We have an idea, we sit down to work together, asking how are we going to make these things happen.”
Tom recognizes the uniqueness of Clarksville’s disposition. He jokingly calls it the “biggest little town in the state.” “Even though it’s a small town, the amenities that they have managed to have are that of something larger like Fayetteville and Springdale, Rogers,” says Tom. He notes the town’s adaptability and willingness to work within their strengths and means. Every town does things differently, he says. A town has to figure out what they can do with the resources they have. “It’s amazing what Clarksville has now.”
Tom admits that retirement hasn’t been as easy as he’d hoped. “I need something to focus on and keep me real busy,” he explains. “Not having as many things to take care of is more difficult than I thought it would be.” He mentioned the importance of goals and staying focused. “Otherwise you get kind of scattered.”
His boat has certainly given him focus. Tom says he needs about another month to get it finished and in the water. He plans to float with his oldest granddaughter. “We are avid Buffalo River people,” he says, sharing a story of their 100 mile trek up the river when she was 14. He plans to continue working with the Boy Scouts, taking his new boat with the scouts for another 100 mile trek.