by Jeremy Peppas | Photographs Courtesy of Russellville Chamber of Commerce, Arkansas Tech University and Kellie McAnulty
The settlement that became known as Russellville was started two years before Arkansas was granted its statehood in 1836.
The Pope County seat, roughly halfway between Fort Smith and Little Rock, also sits on the Arkansas River and along the intersections of Highway 64 and Interstate 40, both running east to west, and Highway 7, with Harrison to the north and Hot Springs to the south.
Being a crossroads town has been good to Russellville and its steadily growing population of roughly 30,000. It also sits at the crossroads of what’s next for Arkansas as the area debates adding a casino and even a medical-marijuana dispensary.
This isn’t what Ben Cross expected when he ran for county judge in 2018. After serving three terms on the quorum court, Cross won the May primary and didn’t face an opponent in the November general election.
“At the time of my election, the ‘casino issue’ had not even been approved for the ballot in Arkansas, and therefore was not even an issue of my campaign,” Cross says. “That being said, I have never taken a political or moral stance on the casino issue other than to uphold and respect the will of Pope County voters.”
While state voters approved Issue 4 to legalize casino gambling in Arkansas, the measure was handily defeated in Pope County by 60 percent of voters who opposed it. And casino opponents have promised lawsuits to fight any future casino development in the county. At least for the foreseeable future, a casino in Russellville seems unlikely.
For more than a century, Russellville has been home to Arkansas Tech University.
Tech was created as the Second District Agricultural School by Gov. George Donaghey’s signature on April 1, 1909, and Russellville was chosen to be its home on Feb. 10, 1910. The following fall, classes met for the first time with 186 students and nine faculty members.
Now, Tech has 12,101 students (93 percent from Arkansas) and approximately 900 faculty members, according to university spokesman Sam Strasner.
“ATU is proud to be an Arkansas-serving institution that provides value for the taxpayers by preparing the next generation of leaders for our state,” Strasner says of the state’s third-largest university.
Tech is active in the Russellville community. The school is a member of the International Town and Gown Association, described in its mission statement as an organization that “strengthens town/gown partnerships by providing a network of professionals and resources, identifying and sharing promising practices, innovative solutions and professional development opportunities for municipal and university communities.”
To further that partnership, Tech partners with the Russellville Area Chamber of Commerce in the annual Paint the Town Green and Gold program. It also sponsors the annual March to Main, in which student and faculty members are encouraged to walk from campus to downtown Russellville on a fall semester evening.
“We will be one community, inextricably tied together,” says Arkansas Tech President Robin E. Bowen of the March on Main effort. “That is representative of a flourishing community, and it is the perfect metaphor for the relationship between Arkansas Tech University and the City of Russellville. For the truth is, we are one people, working together to make this a better place to live.”
Athletically, Arkansas Tech competes on the NCAA Division 2 level in the Great American Conference with schools from Arkansas and Oklahoma. Since the founding of the conference in 2011, Tech has won six of eight GAC all-sports trophies recognizing success across all sponsored sports.
Tech students are thriving on the field and in the classroom.
“A fundamental culture of grit and perseverance supports Arkansas Tech University students in the pursuit of their academic goals,” Strasner said. “As a result, Tech is the top performing institution of higher education in the Natural State when it comes to providing access to a better life after graduation.”
Arkansas’ nuclear landmark
Russellville’s most famous landmark also is one of its most important employers.
Featured in season three of HBO’s True Detective, the cooling tower of Arkansas Nuclear One doesn’t look like any other building in Arkansas with its near-constant plume of white steam billowing up and out into the sky.
With its two units, the power plant employs approximately 900 full-time people with another 100 contractors, says ANO spokesman Mike Bowling.
The first unit began operations on Dec. 19, 1974, and Unit 2 started on March 26, 1980.
“New nuclear plants are licensed to operate for 40 years with an option to seek license extensions,” Bowling said. “For more than 40 years, the station has provided low-cost power to customers in Arkansas. Entergy already has requested and gained license extensions at both units, allowing them the opportunity to operate through May 2034 and July 2038, respectively.”
Russellville’s nuclear-reactor units are the only ones in the state and two of only 98 across the country.
The site covers 1,100 acres and sits on the shores of Lake Dardanelle, which is nearly 40,000 acres.
“That area was selected in 1967 because of the easy availability of water, plus good access to rail and road transport,” Bowling adds. “A 150-foot shale-and-rock layer 20 feet underneath the site provides a solid foundation, and it somewhat reduced initial foundation construction work.”
Bowling says the site has enough capacity to supply the majority of power used by Entergy Arkansas residential and commercial customers.
ANO is a generous corporate citizen of the Russellville community, donating more than $100,00 to local nonprofits while Entergy has given more than $230,000 to the River Valley United Way.