Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

TOP STORY >> Cabot likes boom-town designation

By JOAN McCOY
Leader staff writer

Cabot has had its share of growing pains over the years, but city officials are pleased they’re getting new state and national recognition for their ever-expanding town.

City leaders, who have worked for decades to meet the needs of a fast-growing community, have received a pat on the back: BusinessWeek.com and a Little Rock marketing firm, in their search for the fastest-growing communities in the nation, have discovered that Cabot is a “boom town.”

Earlier this year, the Gadberry Group named Cabot the third fastest-growing city in the state behind Lowell in the Rogers-Springdale area and Maumelle. The boom-town designation is the result of a survey BusinessWeek.com conducted in association with the Gadberry Group, which considered such factors as continual population growth over the past 10 years and the whopping 83 percent increase in household income, which is now estimated at $98,555.

Eddie Joe Williams — now in his third year as mayor of the city with an official population of 22,092 from a special census in 2006 but an estimated population of 22,500 — is pleased with the recognition and confident that even though the national economy is in a slump, Cabot will continue to flourish.

Williams says Cabot needs a hospital, possibly built halfway between Cabot and Jacksonville where it could serve both cities.

“We’d love to have a hospital in Cabot, or at least a shared hospital out on the interstate,” he said.

Sometimes called “Little Rock Air Force Base North,” the Cabot area is home to about 40 percent of base personnel. And like all the former Little Rock-area civilians who have moved to Cabot, they come for the schools. Enrollment in Cabot schools is more than 9,000. There are already eight elementary schools and another will be built soon.

The economic development committee of the Cabot Chamber of Commerce, in a meeting to talk about the state of the city considering the economic downturn before the boomtown designation was announced, concluded that Cabot is in good shape.

Cabot’s strength is its schools, and that’s not likely to change, Mark Eisold, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church and one of 12 members of the chamber’s board of directors, said then. So even in a recession, Cabot should continue to prosper.

“Cabot is strong and we’re stable,” Eisold said. “We’re solidly based in education and we’ve got decades backing that up,” he said.

One truism city leaders count on when they are planning costly infrastructure improvements is that “commercial development follows rooftops.” When the population is large enough to support business, business will come.

“We had 43 ribbon cuttings last year,” Williams told the city council’s budget and personnel committee Monday night during a brief discussion of the boomtown designation. Those businesses give Cabot residents a place to shop and the tax revenue to pay for the facilities and services that the city must provide for those residents. Case in point: the $30 million bond issue, supported by a one-cent sales tax, for a new sewer treatment plant and to help pay for street improvements, an animal shelter, community center and the railroad overpass that is supposed to open in the spring.

The bonds were originally scheduled to pay off in December 2031, but with the increased population and more businesses producing more tax revenue, the bonds are now projected to pay off in June 2016.

If the schools are the biggest draw to Cabot, traffic has been the biggest drawback.

“Forget taxes,” Williams said Monday during a discussion about a city tax on the alcohol that is now being served in some restaurants in the city. “Traffic was keeping people from coming to Cabot.”

The $2 million for streets that was included in the 2005 $30 million bond issue was used to add lanes and repair streets all over the city to make traffic flow smoother. Williams maintains that the $7 million, mostly federally-funded overpass that is opening soon will help with that problem, but a north interchange in conjunction with the overpass would help more. That project would cost more than $19 million with Cabot paying about $4 million if the cost is split with the federal government 80/20.

Building homes for all the new city residents has been the biggest industry in Cabot. But in the past two years, home construction has declined. However, Bill O’Brien, a realtor who keeps city officials abreast of the housing market, pointed earlier to the steady sale of existing houses in the Cabot School District as evidence that Cabot’s growth is not slowing down.

Cabot Public Works records show that 183 building permits for single-family homes were issued in 2007 compared to 113 in 2008. But at the same time, the number of houses for sale in the Cabot School District fell from 590 to 460.

O’Brien says that means the inventory of homes is dropping and will need to be replenished soon. But the homes they will build in Cabot will be larger than in past years, he said.

“I don’t know if we’re going to see as many of the beginner houses because the price of land is too high in Cabot. Those houses are being built in Ward and Austin (also in the Cabot School District).”