Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TOP STORY >> Jacksonville gets upbeat review

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

City officials and business leaders convening for an annual planning retreat last week seemed optimistic about Jacksonville in 2009. In the three-hour session, the 30 participants looked at milestones met in 2008 and set goals for this year.

Forging stronger connections with Little Rock Air Force Base, downtown revitalization and community pride, city-employee retention, Vandenberg Boulevard intersection modifications, and more parks and activities for youth and families topped the list of action items for 2009.

Better public schools for Jack-sonville through establishment of an independent school district was mentioned more than once during the evening as the steppingstone to a brighter future for Jacksonville. That hinges on a decision by the courts.

A LOOK BACK AT 2008

Ron Copeland, director of the university district partnership for University of Arkansas at Little Rock, facilitated the session that began with a look back at accomplishments and major events impacting the city in 2008.

Noted were the opening of the new library, approval of a charter school, the city’s $5 million donation to Little Rock Air Force Base for construction of the joint education center, new management of the city-owned hospital that ensures continuation of vital medical services, expansion of CenturyTel’s operations in Jacksonville, $4 million dedicated for a police and fire training facility, a failed annexation of Gravel Ridge, the school board’s endorsement of an independent Jacksonville school district, hiring of a new police chief and a national economic recession.

Thankfully, Jacksonville so far has not been hit hard by the downturn, with the exception of a cooled real estate and housing sector.

“Retail sales have remained steady according to sales tax revenues,” Mayor Tommy Swaim said.

“The economic downturn has affected the housing industry because of the psyche of all us; people have hit the bunkers,” said real estate broker Bart Gray.

The consensus in the room was that the city last year made progress on seven strategic fronts identified at last year’s planning retreat: developing activities to attract youth and families; securing the future of LRAFB; retaining employees; maintaining a clean city; improving Jacksonville schools; improving roads and transportation and improving housing.

Participants were not so sure that those who live and work in Jacksonville share in their sense of progress and optimism.

“If you go around the gossip coffee shops, most feel that not much has been done,” said Alderman Reedie Ray.

It was proposed that better communication to city residents, through the news media, city Web site and other outlets, was vital to getting the word out about the city’s vision, achievements and events. To that end, a Web site designer has been hired to revamp and update the city’s site, Swaim noted.

On each of the strategic fronts, participants divided up into small groups to talk about progress on last year’s goals and to brainstorm on goals for 2009.

BETTER HOUSING,
BETTER LOOKING TOWN


Attendants’ discussions of improved housing and the city’s overall appearance seemed to go hand-in-hand.

On housing, concern was expressed about the low rate of home ownership and the poor appearance of many rental properties owned by individuals who don’t reside in Jacksonville.

“Non-local owners don’t have a vested interest because they don’t see (their properties) every day,” said Alderman Marshall Smith.

Tax incentives, low-interest loans, better communication by the city with landlords, and a public education campaign to promote pride in home ownership were among suggestions for making Jacksonville a more attractive place.

Improving the appearance of the city involves not only pride of property ownership, but continued revitalization of the Main Street district, it was decided. The revamping of the Dupree-Main intersection, the new library, Walgreens, First Arkansas Bank and Trust’s headquarters, and the Chamber of Commerce building were seen as a foundation for future enhancements to the corridor.

A streetscape plan with landscaping and public art, continued support of Keep Jacksonville Beautiful, as well as removal of overhead utility lines, could all play a part, McCulley reported.

ATTRACTING YOUNG FAMILIES

On more activities to attract youth and families, city Parks and Recreation Director George Biggs pointed out that a ball tournament on city fields is planned every weekend but three this season. Recommendations were for more parks and green space, especially in the west part of town, and enhancements to Paradise Park that might include a water park.

EASING TRAFFIC FLOW

On improved roads and transportation, the widening of Vandenberg intersection was identified as a top priority. Engagement of air base representatives in the planning process and a design that serves the future joint education center, to be located at the west side of the intersection, are critical it was decided, as will be a feasibility study by the Arkansas Department of Highways and Transportation. But that one thing could bog down the process.

“They have so much on their plates right now, it may not be realistic with the department of Highways and Transportation,” said Susan Dollar, a city planning commissioner.

Work on other transportation goals set forth last year is moving ahead, officials reported. A study has been completed on how best to reconfigure the Dupree-Main intersection.

Widening of Hwy. 67/167 is in progress. The city will issue a request for proposals to redesign West Main Street for smoother traffic flow. About $280,000 has been appropriated for maintenance of existing roads.

It was agreed that an idea proposed at the 2008 planning retreat ­— using school buses while not in use for in-town public transit — should be put on hold until the day that Jacksonville has its own school district.

RETAINING CITY EMPLOYEES

Besides coming through last year on its goal of a 5 percent salary increase for city employees, the city has other means for keeping folks around – longevity bonuses, college tuition reimbursements and community center memberships. In 2008, the city had a 35 percent turnover rate.

Suggestions for keeping city-employee relations humming in-cluded making sure job descriptions and competitive salary data are up to date and rewarding employees for jobs well done. A good example, someone noted, was a recent breakfast for public works employees put on by department head Jimmy Oakley. Things like that can go a long way in creating a “family-type environment and keep them all there,” said city planner Chip McCulley, who reported for his discussion group.

SECURING THE AIR BASE'S FUTURE

The future of LRAFB requires continual efforts to strengthen community ties to the base, it was agreed, although the relationship is already strong. Swaim noted his briefings held weekly to welcome air base newcomers and that he as mayor, attends weekly briefings on base, where he is made privy to insider information.

“No other base (community) in the country has that privilege,” Swaim said.

Recommendations for improvement include stepped up efforts to engage airmen in civic activities and involve base representatives in city planning on issues of mutual interest such as the Vandenberg intersection.

Better public education in Jacksonville by establishment of an independent school district awaits a decision from the courts. Meanwhile, keeping the public informed that the effort is alive and ongoing is important, it was decided.

On that note, Alderman Mar-shall Smith summed up the evening by saying, “It’s been good tonight … but a lot of things are tied to our having a separate school district. When that happens, a lot of things will happen.” No one disagreed.

Meeting facilitator Copeland said that proceedings from the retreat will be compiled and distributed so that city leaders can monitor their progress on action items throughout the months to come. The retreat report will be posted on the city Web site.