It’s another beautiful day in Cherokee Village, Arkansas, and the picturesque town of 5,000 is just waking up. Residents get in their morning strolls or cruise along on their bikes to greet the day, while elsewhere a hundred cups of coffee are polished off en route to the lake, the golf course or the office. As the sun warms the surrounding lush green forest and dances on the clear waters of the lakes, the community hums a peaceful tune amid spectacular natural scenery. 

 

To the first-time visitor, Cherokee Village might feel like any small town or just another of the planned retirement communities that are so prevalent in the United States today, but it’s not. Cherokee Village, the first development of the visionary Cooper family, drew the blueprint for an entirely new category of real estate development. 

 

Today, another local family is looking to take the concept and elevate it in ways the founders likely never imagined. As community developer Jonathan Rhodes of King-Rhodes and Associates Real Estate noted, Americans of all ages are rediscovering the joys of small-town life. Those communities that can effectively partner their natural attractions with amenities, as Cherokee Village continues to do, hold enormous potential for the future.

 

“As I like to say, there are two fundamentals,” Rhodes said. “One we just inherited, because of nature and because of what the original developer did. And two is amenities, the things that make this community a place where you want to retreat with family and with friends. Those things don’t change generation to generation.

 

“Our overall goal in community development is how do we do creative placemaking here and how do we bring growth here? My function in the last decade has really been to get our community refocused on thinking about long-term development. One of our opportunities is to take some of these assets, whether it’s the commercial town center or some other asset, and figure out a way to do creative placemaking so that we make sure that those centers of the community are vibrant and active.”

 

Rhodes has a long history with the place, as his family arrived in Cherokee Village in 1971. Jonathan’s father, Ron, joined the seminal real estate company, now known as King-Rhodes and Associates, in 1981. Jonathan Rhodes returned to town to work in the family business in 2012, and the company purchased the development rights and property to Cherokee Village about 10 years ago. Ever since then, the focus has been on creating quality of place to propel the community’s growth and development.

 

“When I came back in 2012, what I found here is a community that was still struggling to come out of the recession,” Rhodes said. “What’s happened over the last 10 years is the community started to rethink where it wanted to go. As a result, we’ve seen some gains in terms of new commercial businesses that have come to town.

 

“Then, something interesting happened, which was COVID-19. I think what COVID-19 did for small communities like Cherokee Village was it refocused a light on what we have here: an abundance of natural resources, nature, beauty, recreational amenities and small-town charm. It highlights places like ours as a destination to relocate whatever your age.”

 

The governance of the community is a mix of elected city officials (Cherokee Village incorporated in 1998) and an elected suburban improvement district or SID.

 

“We get to handle all the fun stuff,” said Betsy Waugh, general manager for the Cherokee Village SID. “We take care of the amenities, the fun things that people get to do when they are property owners or guests of property owners in Cherokee Village. We manage and maintain those items.”

 

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Stunning lake views, golf shots galore and fun community events come standard in the charming small town of Cherokee Village.

 

The inventory of amenities the SID is responsible for include Cherokee Village’s two 18-hole golf courses, seven lakes, various parks and campgrounds as well as the Thunderbird Recreation Center.

 

“This year we started upgrades at our campground,” Waugh said. “Since COVID hit, camping has begun something huge all over the country and we were just not up to par with that. So, the last couple of years we’ve been able to spend funds on upgrades so that we can accommodate the amperage on those bigger RVs. We also just did almost half a million dollars in renovations to our swimming pool at the Thunderbird Center.”

 

Cherokee Village was born in 1954 under the leadership of attorney-turned-developer John Cooper Sr. Originally of Earle, Arkansas, Cooper studied at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, the University of Arkansas and what was then called Southwestern, now Rhodes College, in Memphis. In 1927, he received a law degree from the Cumberland School of Law in Tennessee, the same year he and fellow Earle native E. C. “Took” Gathings became partners in a law practice.

 

Cooper represented insurance companies looking to refinance mortgages and he learned much about property titles. In time, he saw real estate as more lucrative than law. His idea for the as-yet unknown retirement community model came by recognizing the burgeoning mass of post-World War II retirees on the horizon and his own memories of childhood vacations on the Spring River near Hardy. Cherokee Village was constructed by marrying those two elements and making it affordable enough for the average person to afford to live the vacation lifestyle year around.

 

“The national interstate system was being built and you had this first generation of folks who were going to retire with social security benefits,” Rhodes said. “When John Cooper looked at this new generation, this post-World War II consumer generation, he saw that they were mobile and had the money to have a good retirement. He envisioned creating a place where they can come and buy in snd that’s what started Cherokee Village.”

 

Cooper formed the Cherokee Village Development Company to purchase land, divide those purchases into lots and construct homes to make Cherokee Village a reality. The concept, which originally envisioned families as well as retirees to help establish a generational population, was proven almost immediately. Less than a decade after opening, the development sought to buy more land, which it did through a property swap and improvement deal with the Memphis Boy Scouts Council to acquire its nearby summer campground Kia Kima. That and other transactions grew Cherokee Village to 13,500 acres by 1980.

 

In addition to housing, Cooper built lakes, golf courses, various community buildings, and water systems as amenities for residents. And almost from the beginning, the elder Cooper had his eye on other markets. He would clone his concept in Bella Vista (1965) before handing the company reins to his son, John Cooper Jr., in 1968. He remained active in the firm until 1989 and died in 1998.

 

“John Cooper [Sr.] started the first planned recreation community in Arkansas and the first of its kind in the nation. But he gets very little credit for it,” Rhodes said. “When you look at that generation of Walton and Tyson and Stephens and Hunt, Cooper was that generation. He was a little bit older than them, but he was blazing his own trail. All of the rest of those guys are very well known for what they did, but Cooper is probably the least known for the impact he had, not only on this industry but on the state of Arkansas.”

 

The younger Cooper took his father’s concept and ran with it, establishing Hot Springs Village (1970) and Sienna Lake in Pulaski County (2005) plus five more communities in Tennessee, South Carolina, Missouri and West Virigina between 1986 and 2004. John Cooper Jr. transitioned from president to CEO in 2002, a position he held until his death in 2013.

 

Rhodes said developing for the future doesn’t necessarily mean building more lakes or golf courses (in fact, there are no immediate plans to do either), but there are still plenty of things to consider to keep the community in-step with what current and potential residents demand. Rhodes said leadership tries to balance the original blueprint from which the community sprang with new ideas and thinking to broaden Cherokee Village’s appeal.

 

Whether full-time residents or as vacationers, Cherokee Village is becoming a favorite spot for young families.

 

“Cooper’s model was very interesting because he initially recruited younger people and families down here in the 1960s,” Rhodes said. “His original idea was what he called ‘graduated retirement.’ They would go out and recruit folks to come for a two-night/three-day vacation and typically they were in their 30s and 40s. 

 

“The idea was to get them here at a younger age when they were maybe starting their families or had young kids, and they would buy into the community. Over time, they’d develop their lot, build a house, use it as a vacation home, pay it off, and then when they were ready to retire, this place would be ready for them.”

 

As a result, Cherokee Village’s population looked a lot different in the 1960s and 1970s than it did in the 1980s and 1990s when residents started to reach retirement age. At that time, leadership made the strategic error of backing off recruitment of younger prospective residents, which self-perpetuated a reputation for Cherokee Village as being “for old people only.” This was a turn-off to young families as well as baby boomers who, even as they’ve become seniors today, recoil at being called old. It’s a phenomenon Rhodes has worked hard to counteract.

 

“I don’t use the word ‘retiree’ a lot; what we use is ‘relocator,’” he said. “You know, when Cooper was developing here, the idea of retirement was you finished a 30-year career in a factory or somewhere, you came here with your pension and your social security, and you played golf six, seven days a week. And I think retirement looks very different today.

 

“The baby boomer generation thinks differently than the generation Cooper was marketing to. It’s a much more mobile generation, it’s a generation that is not necessarily sitting or golfing every day. It’s a generation that may still want to work, that may want to do some part-time or contract work, may want to do a home-based business. As a community, I think it’s up to us to look at what we’re offering in a different way as well.”

 

 

This new attitude is on display in multiple ways in town. The community is finishing up a project funded by a National Endowment of the Arts Our Town grant, telling the history of the community back to Native American days. It’s also home to the Arkansas Pie Festival, which draws thousands to the community in spring, just one example of the power of tourism and event marketing as another pathway for future growth.

 

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Judges at the 2023 Arkansas Pie Festival take their instructions.

 

“We’ve got an eclipse task force together right now,” Waugh said. “We’re in one of the prime locations for next spring’s total eclipse. We’ve put a task force together in our community with the city and SID and a lot of our emergency services and we are working together to get prepared to build something around that.”

 

Other projects also reflect the all-ages mentality, including day-to-day amenities that make it easier for people to both live and work here. Rhodes said the key is having the vision to start the process of building such amenities early enough to beat the competition, but not too far ahead of demand.

 

“We’re doing a lot of creative grassroots work, what we’re calling tactical ruralism. We see something in another community, and we look at how we can retrofit that for a rural community,” Rhodes said. “About eight years ago, we saw what was happening in Little Rock with the Technology Park and co-working spaces. We decided we wanted to figure out how to do a rural version of that.”

 

Although they couldn’t have anticipated the pandemic effect, leadership’s timing in opening the Spring River Innovation Hub in 2017 turned out to be perfect, right in step with the remote workplace revolution that would soon follow. Last year, per Statista.com, 46 percent of all U.S. workers worked exclusively at home or in a hybrid work arrangement. 

 

“By the time COVID shined the light on working remotely in rural communities, we had already recognized how we needed to do something to accommodate that,” he said. “We got a Delta Regional Authority creative placemaking grant to help us create that space.”

 

Today, the center has become a focal point in the community for various programming and services, putting Cherokee Village on the radar of people who might have otherwise looked past moving here.

 

“The Spring River Innovation Hub has developed into a place where there could be some co-work space, where there is opportunity for small business development and networking,” Rhodes said. “We’ve showed folks who are looking to relocate to places like this that they can work remotely, that we are a place where you can plug in and do all that.”

 

Rhodes said community amenities tend to work hand in hand. A potential resident might initially be attracted to the local outdoor recreation – lake, woods, golf, etc. – but require certain resources in order to do their job. This also applies to seniors looking to retire, but who want more to do than endless golf or fishing.

 

“Cooper wasn’t building trail systems and mountain biking trail systems,” Rhodes said. “Today, if you’re doing community development, you look at trail systems and biking in a way that they weren’t in the ’60s and ’70s. If you’re not talking about trail systems and mountain biking, you’re missing a major growth opportunity.”

 

Tranquil scenes such as this appear nightly on the city’s clean, peaceful lakes.

 

The momentum of the last decade has put the community on a path to a very exciting future, Rhodes said, one that continues to accentuate the old with the new.

 

“Looking forward 10 years, I think we will remain very relevant,” he said. “People’s desire to be in a place like this, with the natural beauty and the amenities that we have, is still there. We haven’t lost that, we just continue to build on it. So, I think in the next 10 years, there’s definitely room for growth here. There’s a lot of land, a lot of undeveloped lots. What we’d love to see is some very strategic, smart growth that speaks to current market demands.

 

“Even in an age where we’re totally digital and we’re connected in so many ways, that desire to go back to the land, to reconnect with nature and with each other on a personal basis doesn’t change. And arguably, it’s even more important now than ever. Cherokee Village today is kind of like an old house that has great bones, but it needs updating. You don’t tear down an old house with history and great bones, you just figure out a way to modernize it or improve it or make it relevant for today’s market. That’s this community.”   

 

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