In 2003, a few doctors eating lunch together in Little Rock decided they would help raise the money so that the two cities and Pulaski County could build a continuous 14-mile Arkansas River Trail for bicycle riders and walkers.
This was sort of a surprise. Generally it’s the wealthy businessmen, not doctors, who kick in to help cities and counties offer more attractions and activities to residents. When doctors contribute it’s usually to improve health. And that is exactly what doctors say they are doing because all of them are cardiologists.
“Thirty minutes of exercise every day reduces heart disease 20 percent or more,” Dr. Robert Lambert of North Little Rock says. He is the physician who persuaded his fellow cardiologists to help build the river trail. The group, Heart Clinic Arkansas, is made up of 23 cardiologists in Central Arkansas.
At first they agreed to raise $350,000 toward building the trail, and they did it by calling on hospitals, drug companies, insurance companies and making contributions of their own. They call their section of the trail the “Medical Mile,” and along the way there will be plaques and benches containing the names of the contributors. However, two weeks ago, the doctors found out that the building of the trail was going to cost much more than anyone thought.
The trail in Rebsamen Park in Little Rock is completed, but to reach downtown, expensive bridges over the railroad tracks along the bank of the Arkansas River have to be built, and the doctors, recognizing the city of Little Rock’s poor financial situation, agreed to raise the money for the right of ways under the bridges. According to Terry Eastin, the consultant hired by Little Rock to complete the trail, the doctors have agreed to raise something like $800,000. “What people don’t understand,” Eastin said, “is that we are dealing with high-dollar property along the river in Little Rock.” She says it will probably cost $3 to $4 million.
When the work is finished the trail will continue to the Clinton library and the old Rock Island bridge, which will take the riders and walkers to the trail in North Little Rock. While North Little Rock has completed almost all of its trail along the river, it has done nothing to build the exit from the old railroad bridge. But eventually, bicycle riders and walkers will have two ways to go from Little Rock to North Little Rock without stopping – the old Rock Island bridge and the bridge the Corps of Engineers is now constructing across the Murray Lock and Dam
When it’s finished, there will be a 14-mile loop. After it’s finished, County Judge Buddy Villines wants to extend the trail to reach Pinnacle Mountain State Park, making it 10 miles longer. However, that probably won’t happen for several years.
The river trail will attract thousands of visitors who love the outdoors, Eastin says. But it’s not the trees, the hills and the river that the doctors are concerned with. They know that obesity kills more people than anything except tobacco. Americans are eating more and getting less exercise than they did 20 years ago.
“We want people to want to exercise and give them something where they can walk or ride a bicycle without traffic,” said Dr. Lambert. “For people with heart trouble, exercise is just as effective as lowering cholesterol.”
Dr. Lambert and his wife have five children. Eleanor, the oldest, is 9, and she regularly rides her bicycle with her father. On North Little Rock’s trail the other day, she saw Mayor Pat Hays riding his bicycle along, and on her own, Eleanor rode up to him and thanked him for building the trail. Dr. Lambert likes to say, “Pat Hays has a way to get things done. He embarrassed Little Rock when he got people to give their land for the trail and has almost finished it.”
Dr. Lambert believes trails should be built anywhere so they would inspire more people to either walk or ride bicycles on them. He would especially like to see trails in poor neighborhoods so that those people could get exercise. “Maybe ride their bicycle to work,” he said. “And maybe kids would start riding bicycles to school like they used to do.”
Recently the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has heard of the River Trail and asked for information. Dr. Lambert, a native of Pine Bluff, liked the federal government’s inquiry. “I don’t want people to think we are just a bunch of overweight hillbillies who don’t think about health.”