Tuesday, February 22, 2011

TOP STORY >> Austin boom town

Leader staff writer

In 1990, Austin had a population of 235 living in an area just barely more than one square mile. By 2000, that number had increased to 605 because developers were starting to see Austin as a good alternative to Cabot which was already starting to run out of room for the starter homes needed to house military personnel.

But even though Austin was beginning to grow beyond the sides of the railroad track that runs along Hwy. 367, Austin leaders were always fearful that Cabot or Ward would try to annex their little town.

Then about six years ago, developers, who were angry with Cabot leaders over the price of sewer connections, annexed the land where they intended to build about 400 homes into Austin instead of Cabot. And Austin grew from a tiny town into a city of the second class with population of 2,038 covering about three square miles.

Former Alderman Laurel Carnes, who was active in Austin politics for many years, spoke to The Leader in August 2004 about why she thought it was prudent for the town to take on the subdivisions even though Austin’s sewer wasn’t adequate at that time and all its water was purchased from Cabot and Highway 319 Water Association.

Annexing the subdivisions would ensure Austin’s autonomy, Carnes said.

“We need to grow and the more we take in, the more chance we get to stay in Austin,” she said. “We haven’t lost a thing if we don’t get them but we gain a lot if we do.”

In addition to gaining population, Austin now has a branch of First Arkansas Bank and Trust, a second fire station and a promise from the Cabot School District that the next school built will be in Austin.

Austin Mayor Bernie Chamberlain had just learned about the official count from the 2010 census Friday when she signed the papers to finance the clinic on Highway 367 that will become the new city hall.

James Moore, one of the developers who have helped the city grow as well as a former Cabot council member and current Austin council member, got to the heart of the problem with the old city hall Monday saying it’s about appearances. Austin is growing and it needs to look more professional, he said.

To say the old city hall is cramped is an understatement. The police department is a 10-foot by 12-foot room and the district judge shares space with the city clerk.

The water office is separated from the front door by an entryway so narrow that if there are more than two customers at a time, it’s crowded.

It is built so low to the ground that the floor is level with the parking lot. The ceiling is lower than the eight-foot standard and covered with Styrofoam tiles. And the walls are covered with the type of brown, plywood paneling that was popular during the 60s and 70s.

The new city hall is adjacent to the old one which is one of the reasons Chamberlain said she wanted it. The other reason is that it is large and attractive.

Chamberlain said she first asked about buying the building from Northside Healthcare about five years ago and was told that the price would be $274,000. The city couldn’t afford that. But late in 2010, the owners agreed to sell it for $125,000 and the council easily approved the purchase.

First Arkansas Bank and Trust is providing $75,000 of the total cost, and the city is paying $50,000 from the general fund.

The plan is to move in by the middle of March. In addition to the purchase price, the city will have to pay for a new roof. A few shingles are off on the back of the building, but the ceiling isn’t damaged.

Chamberlain and Alderman Tammy Williams have washed the walls with Clorox Cleanup, and a crew of misdemeanor offenders working off fines is supposed to strip and wax the floors this week.

Chamberlain said she will buy used office furniture in Little Rock. There isn’t enough furniture at the old city hall because there are only three offices there that must be shared by the mayor, the water clerk, city recorder, fire chief, public-works supervisor and the district judge.

In the new building, each department head has an office. The police department will use a back entrance and will have an office for the chief, an interrogation room and an evidence room.

The old city hall will still be used for council meetings and court.

During a tour of the city Monday that took more than an hour, Chamberlain spoke about the evening the council decided it would welcome the new subdivisions that started the city growing.

“Quapaw and Shadow Creek both could have gone to Cabot,” Chamberlain said. “When you have 605 people, someone will try to take you over. These subdivisions are a godsend.”

In addition to those two, the subdivisions in Austin include Weathering Heights, Austin Village, Carriage Court, Orchard Estates and Cross Creek.