Monday, September 27, 2010

TOP STORY >> Mayor wants ’70s growth

IN SHORT: Expansion will mean better services, but critics are not convinced.

By Garrick Feldman
Leader executive editor

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher wants the city to grow again and has made it a top priority to annex 2,400 acres north of town, along with a smaller area off Hwy. 61 South.

Both city and rural residents will decide the fate of the proposal on Nov. 2.

Fletcher, who is running unopposed for re-election, said the annexation plans, along with an effort to land the state fair off Hwy. 161 South, are part of his administration’s goal to return Jacksonville to its glory days in the 1970s, when it was the fastest-growing town in Arkansas.

“Jacksonville has a lot of opportunities, but it will take money to realize them,” Fletcher said.

When business prospects look at a Google map of the city, he said, they realize there’s no place to build except in less-traveled areas such as Marshall Road between Main Street and the air base.
While many rural residents are against annexation because they don’t want to live in town, Fletcher said in an interview this week that the area near the air base is where the city should grow.

The annexed area would bring the city about $1.5 million in annual revenues, which would provide services not only to the affected area but also would pay for better, more up-to-date services for all residents, he said.

Fletcher mentioned a digital 911 emergency-communications network to replace the city’s antiquated system, which would cost $1.9 million. An automated garbage system would reduce manpower, which would reduce payroll and workers’ compensation costs.

He wants to see new homes built there and encourage new businesses such as national restaurant chains to move in.

“We’re hypersensitive to the needs of the people in the proposed annexed area,” the mayor said.

A committee is considering letting residents there keep their rural lifestyle — barns and horses and hunting and leaf burning.

But, he said, referring to the vociferous critics of annexation, “The loud ones often get the attention.”

Terry Weatherford is one of the rural residents who has spoken out quietly against the annexation plans.

He calls the proposal “a force-march situation” since rural residents are outnumbered 10-1 and have little chance of winning at the ballot box.

Weatherford says he has no problem with Jacksonville annexing the corridor along Hwy. 67/167, which “would solve Jacksonville’s revenue problems” since that’s where most of the businesses are located. “But leave the rest of us alone.”

Weatherford says the rest of the area is rural and much of it is in a floodplain.

“There are drainage issues,” he said. “Six hundred acres are in swamp land.

“Jacksonville hasn’t told us what it would cost to build a fire station,” he continued, “and provide police protection.”

People in the area are rural types set in their ways.

“There are seven and eight cars on some properties,” he said. “What will the city do with them?”
Fletcher said a group called Soaring Opportunities for Jacksonville has been formed to promote the annexation. Former Rep. Pat Bond is the group’s treasurer.

“This election is about the future of Jacksonville,” Fletcher said. “This election is about what people want Jacksonville to look like in five years. Jacksonville has a chance to excel in this recession. Most cities are playing it safe. We don’t want to be stagnant.”

“It excites me when people come to Jacksonville,” the mayor said.

He said 7,000 people visit the Memphis Flea Market in the old Walmart. Thousands more go to the gun and knife shows. More events are planned there.

“This is a time to grow,” Fletcher said. “Momentum dictates everything. This is a golden opportunity for our people.”