Tuesday, January 18, 2011

TOP STORY >> Groups hold unity meeting

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher called a meeting Saturday, complete with a moderator, to try and close a fissure that has grown between the city council, the advertising and promotion commission and the chamber of commerce.

The growing crack has the council and the commission on one side and the chamber on the other and has gotten personal over the last few weeks with chamber members trying to get the A&P commission chairman fired by spreading his personal financial information to the mayor, the media and others. But the city attorney said there was no basis for A&P chairman Mike Houchen’s removal.

The city has threatened to withhold more than $40,000 in annual support to the chamber, while chamber supporters say the city is wasting money paying a Little Rock advertising agency hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote Jacksonville and paying an economic-development director $60,000 who hasn’t brought any businesses to Jacksonville yet.

The meeting was the first step in trying to get all three groups pointed in the right direction and “on the same page,” a theme the mayor spouted numerous times during the four-hour meeting.

At the end, some issues were raised, clarified and discarded as all three groups are trying to start out this year with blank slates.

One decision the workshop group made was to create an umbrella group that would meet once a week to help quell rumors, take care of concerns and preserve harmony. The group would include the mayor, two aldermen, two A&P members and two chamber members.

It was suggested that each group pick permanent members rather than rotating them in and out. “We need to develop a trust factor here,” said Larry Biernacki, representing the chamber at the workshop.

The workshop, conducted by Dr. Mark Peterson with the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, had the groups—about seven from the council, the mayor, the director of administration, three from A&P and more than a dozen from the chamber—intermixed between three tables going through a number of generic scenarios to help bring the problems into focus.

But about an hour into the exercise, the workshop got to the heart of the matter: funding for the chamber.

The chamber is a nonprofit group that receives its funds from dues paid by members, but the money is not nearly enough to cover the cost of the chamber. The city had supported the chamber to the tune of about $45,000 for a number of years, but last year, in Fletcher’s first budget as mayor, he cut the funding.

The A&P commission promised then to take up the slack for one year. “It was a one-year deal,” Houchen, the A&P chairman, said. “It was not a guaranteed thing, but some felt that we owed it to them.”

In this year’s A&P budget, set to be passed at the commission’s meeting Tuesday night, the direct funding for the chamber is gone, but the commission will provide financial support for a number of chamber activities such as the WingDing Festival, the Christmas parade and some other tourist-related activities.

“We are restricted on what we can spend our money on,” Houchen said. “It has to be for advertising and promoting Jacksonville.”

He added that half the money generated from the A&P’s hotel-room and hamburger tax goes to the parks and recreation department. “We are not a cash cow.”

Beirnacki echoed that. “There seems to be more hands out and less money coming in for the A&P and that creates friction,” he said.

Peterson, the moderator, put it a different way for the group. “Oats get short, the horses start biting each other,” he said.

He added that there were only two ways for any city to move forward — first to forget the past and accept those decisions and work together to go forward or sit around and wait for the next crop of new leaders. He said Arkansas cities have done it both ways.

Jody Urquhart, a former mayoral candidate, hinted that it would be unlikely that a new crop of leaders would pop up anytime soon.

“You hear the call that more young people need to get involved in this city, but when they try, they get slapped down. We are losing 300 high school students—young professionals—every year and not getting them back,” he said.

Besides the weekly group meetings, Fletcher said everyone could get on the same page and work on getting an overpass at Coffelt crossing and Hwy. 67/167 at the northern end of the city. “We need to influence anyone we can to get it built,” the mayor said. “I can picture something like a Super Target center there once the overpass is put in.”

He also took a minute to talk about the Foxwood golf course and said there were a small handful of investors interested in buying it, but he reiterated that the city doesn’t need to get in the golf-course business.

“The city does have to help, just like the residents do,” he said. “It may take a whole village to raise a child, but it will take this whole city to save that golf course.”

Other highlights gleaned from the meeting include:

 All groups agreed that the schools were a major drawback to the city’s growth and all would continue to work in that arena.

 Over the last decade, the city has had a 5.8 percent growth rate, which Peterson called sustainable. “Too much growth, too quick, can cause its own set of problems,” he said. At the same time, tax collections have been down over the past three years.

 Urquhart wanted to know what that 6 percent growth looked like. “What kind of people are coming in?” he asked without an answer.

 Positives for Jacksonville include its location, Little Rock Air Force Base, the new joint-education center at the air base and a history of good leadership.

 Biernacki, who said he has lived just about everywhere, added that he was amazed by the willingness of the city to tax itself for worthy, important causes like the joint-education center, the Splash Zone and the new library.

 Chev Ergele, representing the chamber and a relatively new resident to the city, said it seems like Jacksonville’s “ship has three different captains—the council, the chamber and the commission”—and instead of barking out their own orders, they need to be following the mayor.

 Jason Wilkerson, this year’s chamber president, said it looks like a lot of things right now are personality-driven. “We need to all have the same jersey and be on the same team,” he said.

Wilkerson said sometimes the chamber is put in a bi-polar position. “One of our jobs is to fight for lower business taxes, but if we succeed, then that means less money for the A&P and for the chamber. We get stuck in the middle,” he said.