Leader Blues

Friday, July 31, 2009

TOP STORY >> New mayor settles in after first 30 days

Leader staff writer

It’s been 30 days since former Alderman Gary Fletcher took over the mayor’s seat in Jacksonville, but he says he needs to work on his patience.

“I want everything done now,” he said, “but I know it takes time.”

Fletcher admits the first week was a little strange and so was recently swearing-in former Mayor Tommy Swaim as a member of the city’s hospital board.

What Fletcher has discovered in these 30 days is the quality of people in and out of city hall.

“They are great and have all just jumped in to help me with my ideas. And not only are the people at city hall and all the department heads great, but so are the people of the city,” he said.

Fletcher tells of a woman who told him she was worried that he was going to burn himself out because he’s trying to do so much at once. “I told her you can’t get burned out in a job you love so much,” the mayor said.

So what is the mayor trying to do?

“Everything,” he quipped.

Fletcher keeps a list of his top projects written out under the glass of his desk. “This way I look at that list and ask, ‘What have I done to achieve those today?’” he said.

Topping that list is improving the schools, annexation, the newly founded landlord association, the Graham Road railroad crossing and bringing more top chain restaurants to Jacksonville.

Fletcher said the issue of Jacksonville getting its own district has made strides.

“Our boundaries are set with Bayou Meto being part of our proposed district, and now we wait for a hearing in federal court on Sept. 30. We’ll present our facts and show the judge where we are. He’ll determine where we go from there,” the mayor explained.

He did express dismay at a local television station “that just isn’t getting the story.”

He said, “First they say Bayou Meto Elementary didn’t want to be part of our district, but the vote was about three-to-one in our favor, and then it said we didn’t get our boundaries set, but we have,” Fletcher said. “I just don’t like that kind of misinformation out there about our city.”

On the issue of annexation, the mayor is working to bring into the city the Hwy. 67/167 commercial corridor north of Jacksonville to the Lonoke County line. City engineer Jay Whisker is working on that.

“We hope to bring that area into the city by the end of the year so that they’ll be counted in the census. We have to get everyone counted in our census,” Fletcher said.

The mayor added that he’s already received calls from businesses in the proposed annexation area and it’s been very positive.

Fletcher and city Administrator Jim Durham are excited about the landlord association they are working to put together to help clean up rental properties and lower the crime rate. “We had a standing- room only meeting at the library Thursday and I was almost speechless leaving that meeting with all the enthusiasm and excitement, and can you imagine all the power that was in that room? That group can do nothing but help us,” Fletcher said.

Part of what the mayor wants to do with the landlords is to create an abatement board that would speed up condemnation of buildings considered public nuisances. “We would follow North Little Rock’s lead in this area. Using their abatement ordinances, that city is condemning about 150 buildings a year. It makes a city much safer and cleaner.

“My goal is to get us above and beyond a maintenance mode into a manicure one. I want people to come to Jacksonville and say, ‘Man, you all are different than other cities,’” Fletcher said.

He said the city is also petitioning to reopen Graham Road. Durham said the way the railroad has explained it, the city officially can’t reopen the crossing and that’s a dead issue. But the city can petition for a “new” crossing at the same location. “And we are doing that,” he said.

Reiterating how great the city hall employees are, Fletcher talks about an idea that has just grown and grown from the input of everyone.

“First the police and fire training center off Marshall Road came in about $1 million under what we thought. That allowed us to go ahead and add classrooms back into the plan. From there we also had about $400,000 to remodel and expand the 911 communication center…it was suggested rather than remodel just go new out at the training site,” the mayor said.

“We also are budgeting money to remodel the police department and an idea came up to move the police department out to Marshall Road on the training site, too. It can’t be done right away. But the chief said he’d be happy to within a few years to get a better facility.

“This will then allow us to expand our court facility,” Fletcher said.

“See, it started with one idea and now we’ve got a multi-year plan,” the mayor said.

Fletcher also said plans are in the works to tear down the abandoned apartments in front of Dupree Park and give the park a better look and a better entrance. He said the Parks and Recreation Department is putting together a grant to purchase an additional 16 acres of land adjoining the park to expand it. “We want to move the skate park over to Dupree Park and expand it, too,” Fletcher said.

There’s also talk about expanding Splash Zone. “It has been so successful, we have to start looking at expansion plans now,” the mayor said.

The mayor said one of the best parts of his job was working with the base commander and all the people at Little Rock Air Force Base. “I’m the most blessed mayor in Arkansas to have this base as part of the city,” he said.

The mayor said he has heard from a number of sources that Jacksonville is the most receptive and friendliest city toward the military. “That’s a big plus for us,” he said.

In his 30 days as mayor, Fletcher has discovered it is taking him longer to get ready for work. “I’ve been in construction for 40 years and that’s jeans and a T-shirt. Now I’ve got to put on the suit and the tie and it’s against my nature to stay behind a desk,” he said.

He says he’s been behind the desk more than he’d like to be. “It’s so easy to get in that office and get tied down with paperwork and meetings and look up and it’s 6 o’clock. I want to get out in the community more and will work on that.”

Fletcher called his first 30 days very enjoyable. “I’m getting more comfortable each and every day,” he said.