On Wednesday, Aug. 7, the day after Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor got a challenger in the November 2014 election, he was in Ash Flat, Batesville and Mammoth Spring checking out two economic development projects and meeting with government leaders.
"He had made an appointment to tour the aquatic center and fish hatchery," Mammoth Spring Mayor Jean Pace said. "His father had been to the fish hatchery before [when he was Senator], but he hadn't. He was really impressed with the aquatic center."
The Aquatic Conservation and Education facility will feature large aquariums of native fish, water insects and plants, and accompanying exhibits will educate about our fragile ecosystem, endangered species and the fish hatchery's role in protecting endangered species of fish.
The center was expected to open by last fall, but construction problems have led to months of delays.
"They had to completely re-do the floors and there were heating and air conditioning problems, but they are now making progress," Pace said. "We are shooting for a grand opening in the middle of October."
Mammoth Spring leaders expect the aquatic facility to compliment Mammoth Spring State Park, and draw more visitors to the area, providing an economic boost for the city.
"[Senator Blanche] Lincoln was the power behind helping us get the funding for the aquatic center, but I always copied the Senator's office and kept him informed when we were trying to make it happen. When Lincoln was defeated [in a 2010 reelection bid], I told Senator Pryor that he would have to help us make sure the project gets completed. I have contacted his office several times to let them know when work was not going on, so he has followed the project," Pace explained.
State Rep. Scott Baltz joined the Senator and Mayor on the Mammoth Spring tour. "He [Pryor] seemed real interested in learning about the fish hatchery and the work it does. He heard how it is having to deal with sequester cuts, but because it deals with endangered species, it hasn't been hurt as bad as some other hatcheries," Baltz said.
Mayor Pace, who is always promoting her city, hoped to take the Senator by the Mammoth Spring Ozarka College campus, but he learned he was running late for a fundraiser that evening in Batesville.
Earlier in the day, Pryor was in Batesville for a ceremony to mark the completion of a $7.4 million Bad Boy Mowers plant expansion that is expected to create 200 new jobs over the next five years. On the way to Mammoth Spring, Pryor stopped to meet with Sharp County Judge Larry Brown.
"He never discussed politics when we were together," Pace said.
First-term Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton of Dardanelle formally announced on Tuesday, Aug. 6, that he is taking on Senator Pryor in the 2014 election. Even though he is in his second term, Pryor is viewed by Republican leaders as the most vulnerable incumbent on the ballot next year. Republican groups forced Pryor to get in reelection mode early, by launching attacks on him months ago.
In becoming a candidate, Cotton stuck to a line of attack Pryor will hear often. "I'm running because I think Arkansas deserves a senator who stands with them and not Barack Obama," Cotton said. "Mark Pryor, by his voting record over the last four and a half years, has proven that he now stands with Barack Obama, not with Arkansas."
Pryor has, in turn, criticized Cotton's record during his first-term, pointing out Cotton was the only member of the Arkansas congressional delegation to vote against a farm bill compromise, and voted against a student loan bill aimed at heading off a big increase in interest rates on students loans. "He's not voting for us," Pryor said on Tuesday. "I don't know who he's voting for, but it's not the people of Arkansas."
In most races, such political bantering is still months away. But analysts say Arkansans are going to be caught in the middle of a big fight during what is expected to be one of the most expensive and heated U.S. Senate races in the country, leading up to the Nov. 2014 vote.
The next time north central Arkansas sees Sen. Pryor, he will likely be on the campaign trail.