Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

TOP STORY > >Group is collecting ideas for planning

By ALIYA FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

Jacksonville city officials are considering a consultant’s report of a recent strategy meeting on the city’s development.

When representatives from business and city government gathered last week to discuss how they envision Jacksonville meeting the city’s future needs and the improvements needed now, the session was taken as an opportunity by many attendees to air their concerns. Mayor Tommy Swaim asked Mary Dillard, a strategic planner based in Farmington, to lead the session.

“I thought it went well, everyone seemed to be positive and upbeat,” Dillard said Tuesday. “Everyone said they were pleased that everyone seemed in agreement.”

Dillard has worked for Jacksonville on various campaigns, including sales tax increases that helped contribute funds for the community center, financed sewer improvements and helped build Jacksonville’s new library, which is scheduled to open this fall.

She said it’s helpful to have someone not involved in the day-to-day operations of the city to lead such a strategy session. “It’s kind of a luxury to use a facilitator,” she said.

Dillard would not disclose how much she would be paid for the development session.
She thought main concerns at the meeting — to improve traffic flow and city beautification — are feasible goals.

“One of the most striking things was how proud this bunch was of the progress and things happening in Jacksonville,” she said.

“My role is not to be an advice person but to facilitate their discussion and in this role. My job is to be neutral,” Dillard said.

She has not yet heard if Swaim will decide if the planning session will develop into a more involved strategy to improve the city. The city council could look into how and if the group’s recommendations, summarized in a report by Dillard, should be followed.

“My experience working with other organizations is they tend to look at big picture stuff every few years,” Dillard said. “At this stage they will look at the report and decide.”

“I sent a summary of the meeting to the mayor and he will share it with staff to see if everything was captured correctly. What I give them back is feedback from the meeting,” she said.

“They will edit it and narrow things down and look at developing a wish list, and what are (their) priorities,” she added.

Dillard said she thought the meeting was successful. “People left feeling good about their work,” she said. “One thing they talked about is how proud they are,” she said. Dillard believes Jacksonville’s leadership has remained stable.

Dillard said she is pleased with the city’s leadership. She did say she took away a sense that the discussion group wanted more community involvement among Jacksonville residents. “We did an exercise on all the ways in which citizens could be more involved,” she said.

Many attendees at last week’s meeting said they were concerned that the city’s population has not grown. They said better services are needed to attract young families and the need for a sense of community.

Some said they wanted an independent school system, separate from the Pulaski County Special School District. There has been legal action initiated to attain an independent district.

“The biggest thing holding Jacksonville back is the schools,” Alderman Bob Stroud said.

“Our concern was over flight,” parks commissioner Bobby Altom said about people looking to move to the area. “They were directed away from Jacksonville,” he complained. Altom said, “The one thing Jacksonville can do to ensure a successful future (is to have) our own school system.”

“Jacksonville is not growing like other places are,” Jack Danielson, a water commissioner, said during the meeting held at the community center. The six-hour meeting began with conversation about what the city lacks.

After two hours of discussion, the group of about 30 — including Swaim, city aldermen, city employees, city commissioners and business owners — selected their top concerns as the need for school improvement, improvement of transportation and roads, maintaining the city’s good relations with Little Rock Air Force Base and attracting youth and families to the city.

Many attendees talked about the need for better services to attract young families and the need for a sense of community among its residents. Transportation problems were also discussed, specifically the widening of Hwy. 67/167.

Judy Beale of Dupree Brothers Ltd. said for Jacksonville to be a true destination, Hwy. 67/167 would have to be widened and the North Belt Loop completed. Concerns about Jacksonville’s appearance and crime rate were also expressed.

Bart Gray said he thought the city should “make people feel secure in their own homes.” Alderman Bill Howard said he is concerned about the city’s appearance. He complained that “unsightly conditions of the town” prevent people from moving into Jacksonville.

“I agree people come in and won’t locate here,” Alderman Marshall Smith said, pointing out that the city’s abandoned buildings add to its unsightliness. He later suggested the city should hire Rambo to clean up Jacksonville.

Alderman Gary Fletcher said aging housing deteriorates the city’s appearance.

“A lot of people relocate because of the air base,” parks commissioner Joey Price said.

Most attendees said partnering with the air base is critical, but they said the condition of the city might be stopping people from relocating permanently.