Tuesday, January 11, 2011

TOP STORY > >2010 Top 10 stories Base, PCSSD make news; voters shake it up at polls

Selected by Leader staff writer Rick Kron

In 2010, The Leader printed 104 issues. Each issue averaged 15 news stories, five editorials, a dozen pictures, plus police reports, news briefs, weddings, engagements and obituaries—that’s a lot of news.

Culling through all that news, some topics like the air base and Pulaski County Special School District were in just about every paper. The difference was that most of the time there was an air base story, it was good news, and for PCSSD it was troubling news. 

Other stories—like the joint-education center, possible state fair relocation and new schools—made our top 10 list because of the impact they will have on the area.

And politics was in the news because for an off-year election year, it was a rambunctious one at the local, state and national level.

Here are The Leader’s top 10 stories, in no particular order:

Joint Education Center

The facility is just now opening, but construction of the $14.6 million Jacksonville-Little Rock Air Force Base Joint Education Center was completed in late 2010.

In the coming weeks about six colleges and universities will begin holding classes and offering programs in the new facility.

The Joint Education Center is on Little Rock Air Force Base property, but outside the security fence in order to be more accessible to Jacksonville-area residents who approved a sales tax for a year to raise $5 million for the project. Jacksonville’s raising of the money and giving it to the Air Force to build the education center was such a unique event that it took some time for the bureaucratic wheels to turn in such a way that the money could be accepted.

At the time residents voted for the tax, the center was estimated to cost about $10 million, but as time went on the cost went up. The federal government did chip in the remaining $9.6 million.

The formal grand opening is Feb. 1.

Classrooms are designed to hold 24, 32 or 40 students, and many classes will be offered during the day.

Programs range from associate’s degree programs to master’s degree programs.

Air Base

Little Rock Air Force Base started the year with the Herculean task of providing humanitarian aid to Haiti which was hit by a savage earthquake in early January. Airmen and C-130s from the 41st, 50th, 53rd and 61st airlift squadrons helped deliver more than 1,500 tons of supplies.

Then in October, more than 225,000 people from across the state and region attended the base open house, aptly named “Thunder Over The Rock.” A tradition since 1955, the open house featured military aircraft, manpower, facilities and, of course, the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Army Golden Knights.

In between, Jacksonville and the surrounding area was recognized for their support of the air base, as Jacksonville was presented with the Abilene Trophy which is presented annually to a civilian community for outstanding support of an Air Mobility Command base.

A former C-130 pilot stationed at the air base in 1994, Col. Michael Minihan returned to become the new commander for the 19th Airlift Wing, and Lt. Col Paul Heye Jr. was named new vice commander for the 189th Airlift Wing. The base was named a Tree City USA community by the Arbor Day Foundation.

Senior Airman William Caram, with the 19th Logistics Readiness Squadron, was named Air Force logistics readiness maintenance airman of the year. Also, the base air-traffic control tower was named best in the Air Force in May.

The 19th AW reactivated the 345th Airlift Squadron in August and the 19th Security Forces Squadron started manning the base gates again, taking over for a private firm. The decision was mandated by Congress.

In November the base added a C-47 to its Heritage Park display of aircraft. The base has a C-47, a C-119, a C-123, and a C-130 on static display.

And let’s not forget that latest figures show that LRAFB has a $700 million economic impact on central Arkansas.


Jacksonville’s bid to capture about four square miles to the north of the city and a small section to the south failed in November when voters rejected the idea.

Saying no meant the city would not gain the $1.9 million in annual tax revenue the area produced.

It is only the second time in recent history that an area municipality lost in its efforts to bring land into the city. Beebe tried to nearly double its size about five years ago, and the residents said no.

In the Jacksonville effort, voters said no to annexing the two areas by a 5-point margin, 52 to 47 percent.

Vote totals showed 2,656 votes against the annexation and 2,392 for it. Residents of both the city and the proposed annexed areas were allowed to vote on the issue.

“The people have spoken,” Mayor Gary Fletcher said. “We were going to spend a half-million dollars a year in that community, but the people spoke and said they didn’t want it.”

The city tried to not only annex the income-producing businesses and commercial land along Hwy.67/167, but also tried to take in a number of residential properties, particularly to the western side of the highway.

That brought waves of objections, multiple town-hall style meetings, a committee of aldermen and officials to work out a solution, one arrest and a lawsuit.

The city plans a more narrow approach later this year. “We’ll come back and annex just the commercial property. We have to grow and go forward and bring in the businesses and retail that the people want,” the mayor said after the vote.

The northern section includes 297 separate parcels of land—2,454 acres or about 3.84 square miles.

The southern section that the city wanted to annex includes 79 parcels of land on 232 acres, or about 0.36 square mile.


Politics makes the list because of the number of incumbents who stepped down or lost. Both Democratic Reps. Vic Snyder and Marion Berry opted to retire. Republicans won both of those congressional seats in the November election. Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln fought off a number of opponents in the primary and beat back a challenge from Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a run-off. She lost in the general election to Rep. John Boozman.

The only Democrat to retain his congressional seat was Rep. Mike Ross. Sen. Mark Pryor was not up for re-election this go-around.

Locally, the Republicans reclaimed Lonoke on the council and quorum-court level.

Both Cabot and Sherwood mayoral elections went into overtime with runoffs. Incumbent Mayor Virginia Hillman held on to her seat defeating Alderman Sheila Sulcer in a runoff. In Cabot, Mayor Eddie Joe Williams opted out of the race and instead ran for and won a state Senate seat.

Bill Cypert defeated former Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh in a runoff.

Sherwood, Cabot and Jack-sonville all saw new people win seats on the city councils. For Jacksonville, the two new aldermen taking office is the most change the council has seen at one time in about a decade.

Golf courses

Two area golf courses made the news in 2010: The old North Hills Country Club in Sherwood and Foxwood Country Club in Jacksonville.

Sherwood spent $5.5 million to buy the 106 North Hills acreage, and then put in another $1-million plus on repairs and renovations –in all $7 million to be paid over 30 years to the city’s public facilities board–to reopen the private course as a public facility.

The course, renamed The Greens at North Hills, was expected to bring in $500,000 in revenue in 2010 with its April opening. By the end of December, it had brought in $600,000 and Alderman Charlie Harmon, chairman of the parks and recreation commission, called the golf course a success. Both the golf superintendent and golf pro were given substantial raises in efforts to make sure they would stay and continue the great work. The irrigation system and ponds are currently being reworked on the golf course.

After numerous attempts to get Jacksonville to step in and save the Foxwood Country Club, the longtime owner, Ted Belden, closed down the facility Dec. 20.

The move put about 20 employees out of work.

The closing also put a hold, at least temporarily, on the formation of a Foxwood property owner’s association geared toward keeping the facility open.

“I think the city benefits from having a golf course, but I’ve put several hundred-thousand dollars for improvements into the facility and it’s time for others to step up,” Belden said on the eve of the course’s closing.

Belden bought the 165-acre club and golf course outright in 1989.

Belden called the facilities—the clubhouse, golf course and parkland—a community asset, but with annual expenses hitting $1.2 million, it has “not been a financial success.”

“Our expenses are fixed,” Belden said. “But we need to increase the revenue. That’s where the city money comes in,” he told the council in November 2009.

Mayor Gary Fletcher said that Belden made different offers to sell the club to the city, all much better than the millions Sherwood paid for the old North Hills Country Club. “But it’s just not a priority for us. It’s a nicety, but not a necessity,” Fletcher said.

Late in 2009, Belden suggested the city become a partner, providing the club with at least $200,000 a year. The council formed a committee, held numerous meetings, but in the end had too many legal concerns, plus felt it was just not the best use of taxpayer’s money.

The city set a meeting this week to discuss options for the golf course.


Just as snow arrived this week and cancelled school for two days for most students, snow and ice struck the area in early 2010, and for some students it meant up to five days off. The days were made up at the end of the year and some districts turned scheduled days off during the year into school days.

Central Arkansas was hit with about five inches of snow in late February and temperatures for the month were about seven degrees below the average. The year saw the snowiest January in 10 years.

Overall, the year was hot and dry. It was one of the hottest summers on record and the year was the warmest since 2007 and it was the driest since 2005. The area saw 95 days with temperatures of more than 90 degrees, the highest amount since 1998. Forty-two of those hot days were consecutive and that hadn’t happen since 1980. There were also 21 days over 100 degrees.

Even though it was a dry year, the rain seemed to come in chunks. The area got 2.7 inches of rain on May 1 and 2.97 inches of rain on July 12. A strong thunderstorm brought 50-mile-an-hour winds through the area in early August causing damage. The state was hit with 32 tornadoes during the year with at least two of them hitting the local area.

But the big weather news, luckily, did not hit the local area but the tragic effects were felt across the state.

A flash flood roared through the Camp Albert Pike campground near Hot Springs in the predawn hours of June 11 killing close to 20 people.

New schools

Another new school in Cabot, continued expansion of the Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy off First Street and the charter school’s efforts to open a middle school on the air base were all top news stories in 2010.

Mountain Springs Ele-mentary School, a 32-room facility, opened in the fall and was the first elementary school in Cabot to teach without textbooks.

The 78,641-square-feet building cost about $7.5 million to build.

The school was needed because the district’s student population, kindergarten through fourth grade, had grown by an average of 176 students each of the past five school years including 2008-09. The school serves the Hwy. 5 and Magness Creek neighborhoods, where the fastest growth has occurred in recent years.

“We’ve looked at the infrastructure of the building and, we’ve really looked to make sure this building is prepared for 2015, 2020, 2025,” said Superintendent Tony Thurman.

The Cabot School District officials said most textbooks are usually obsolete within a year of publishing and offer limited resources. The digital network, they say, will allow instructors to stay on top of the latest information.

“This allowed teachers the opportunity to use Smartboard lessons, PowerPoints, video, other digital resources in the classrooms that our textbooks may not make available,” said Harold Jeffcoat, director of curriculum.

Jeffcoat says the network will also allow teachers to share their lesson plans across classrooms, while allowing students to work on projects with classmates across state lines or even other countries.

The digital initiative is expected to save roughly a quarter million dollars off the district’s budget.

Meanwhile in Jacksonville, the Lighthouse Charter School continued to add a grade level and get solid reviews for its efforts. A new principal came in to add to the enthusiasm. The school now teaches kindergarten through seventh grade. But besides the expansion, the school is working with the state board of education and the air base to convert the old officers club on the base into a middle school to open later this year.

Plans also call for building a new facility to house 500 students in grades 7-12, adjacent to the existing campus on North First Street in Jacksonville.

Construction, design and furnishing the old officers club for use as a school is projected to cost $950,000, but the charter school already has received commitments of gifts and loans totaling $875,000.

State fair

The state fair board continued looking for a new location for the state fair and Jacksonville’s offer to give the board about 450 acres of land near Hwy. 161 and I-440, if it would bring the fair out to the area, stayed in the running all year.

The current site, off Roosevelt Road, is considered too small, too old, and in need of too much repair to continue much longer, plus the traffic problems get worse and worse each year.

There were a number of meetings during 2010, but no action was taken. Even if the fair board does something soon, it’ll be about five years or more before the new site is operational.

The city is going ahead with plans to get the site ready and obtain all the land. The mayor has said if the state fair doesn’t use it, the land is still great for retail and commercial growth.

The fair board looked at up to 17 proposals and locations and the Jacksonville plan remained at the top or near it.

“We’ve been waiting on a financial-feasibility study and economic-impact study,” said Ralph Shoptaw, general manager of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association. “We can’t really move forward until we have that feasibility study.”

Shoptaw said the focus of the study was the Interstate 40 and 440 corridors near Jacksonville to see if it would be better economically to relocate the state fair or leave it at its current location and try to expand to adjacent properties.


Former Lonoke Police Chief Jay Campbell and his wife were back in the news early in the year, and then it was the Cabot man with Mafia connections, and also a Sherwood coach gone bad.

Campbell, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison on a laundry list of drug-related and other charges in 2009, had the charges dropped and was retried in 2010. A deal was struck and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison after he pleaded no contest to four felony counts, including two counts of residential burglary, one count of theft of property and one count of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.

But a few months later, he became a free man but is still on parole. His wife dropped an appeal on her charges and was granted parole and freed during the summer.

The Cabot man connected to the New York Mafia, who was indicted for a multitude of crimes more than a year ago was convicted in federal court in October, along with a Colombo Family street boss on three of those charges.

George Wylie Thompson, 65, of Cabot and Ralph Francis DeLeo, 67, of Somerville, Mass., near Boston, face sentences of up to 40 years in prison and fines of up to $2 million for conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver, and faced sentences of up to 40 years and fines of up to $2 million for possession with intent to deliver.

They also face sentences of up to four years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for using a communication device in a drug crime.

But that wasn’t the only trial for Thompson. Later in the year he was in court again in North Little Rock where North Little Rock Alderman Cary Gaines faced charges of public corruption for attempting to fix bids on public-works projects. Thompson faced charges of illegal-weapon possession, and former North Little Rock Alderman Sam Baggett faced charges of selling a weapon to a known felon (Thompson) and then lying about it to federal agents. Gaines also was charged with lying to federal agents.

Thompson will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Thompson fled to Thailand after federal law-enforcement officers searched his home in Cabot on May 12, 2009, and found 147 firearms, five silencers and more than 80,000 rounds of ammunition. He was arrested in Bangkok about five months later and brought back to stand trial.

Tim Ballard, former coach of the girls basketball team at Abundant Life High School, was charged with five counts of sexual assault involving at least two students from the school.

His trial was supposed to start in 2010, but a number of delays, the latest being a mental evaluation, have pushed it to at least March.


About the only good news from the Pulaski County School District was Arnold Drive Elementary on the base. The school was recognized by the University of Arkansas for its great benchmark-exam scores and was honored as a blue-ribbon school during the year.

Other than that, it was turmoil, infighting and accusations for the district.

Early in the year the school board almost settled on interim superintendent Rob McGill to lead the district, but balked and reopened the search. McGill went elsewhere for secure employment and the district hired former Arkansan Dr. Charles Hopson to lead the district.

He took over in July and was met with infighting on the board and between the board and the teacher’s union, a scathing state financial audit and poor test scores from most schools.

In November, two anti-teacher union board members were voted out and two pro-union candidates seated, and the new board reinstated the union, but one of the new board members got testy and possibly even racial over the actions of the new superintendent.

Executive sessions late in the year looked at the superintendent’s employment, but any effort to dismiss him was quelled, at least temporarily.