Friday, October 28, 2011

TOP STORY > >Arts center planned for school site

Leader staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District has no plans to reopen the Jacksonville Ele-mentary School or build anything on the 11-acre site, the superintendent told Jacksonville residents Thursday night.

“We can either sell it at fair market value or work a long-term lease agreement with another government entity like the city of Jacksonville,” he said.

Mayor Gary Fletch-er has made it clear he would like the site for the city.

“I’d like to move as fast as we can on the Jacksonville Elementary School property,” Mayor Gary Fletcher told about 100 people at a town hall meeting Thursday night.

He outlined his vision for the closed school which sits on 11 acres at the eastern end of Main Street.

The mayor’s vision is for a fine arts and sports complex, but the money would have to come from fundraisers, grants and other sources besides the city.

Pastor James Bolden said, “Anytime you have a vision, there’s a cost that should be welcomed. The name of our subdivision is Sunnyside, lets go on and make it sunny again.”

The mayor said, “The cafeteria would make a great community theater, and unlike many of the other buildings on the school property, is asbestos free,”

He also wants to keep one of the other buildings for a working art studio.

“The district has said it would leave the playground equipment for us and I’d like to see us add two basketball courts and a soccer field which could also double as a football field,” Fletcher said.

He also wants to add a through street to create traffic flow onto Spring Street to help revitalize business in those historic buildings. “It would also help with truck traffic turning off the overpass,” he explained.

Local artist Roberta Bonham McGrath loved the idea of an arts center and theater.

“Jacksonville has no shortage of artists in all disciplines. That includes painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians and literary artists. Our town has produced and harbors several world class artists,” she said.

“The establishment of a fine arts center could provide professional quality arts programming that would support, educate and inspire,” McGrath added

“We need to do something to bring people back into the area. If it stays as it is, transient traffic will increase along with thefts,” the mayor said.

Guess said it would be difficult, because of today’s codes, to build a good size school on the site.

He said the district had not had it appraised, but the mayor said the cost for asbestos abatement and removal would be between $30,000 and $70,000.

“As superintendent, I have to be a good steward of the district’s property, and I also want to be a good neighbor to Jacksonville.”

One resident asked if a multi-story school could be built on the site.

“A lack of a school hurts my property values,” she said.

This prompted Dorothy Broner to say that she liked the idea of the Jacksonville owning it, but didn’t want it to become an eyesore like a big storage site for the city filled with big trucks.

Fletcher said his plans weren’t etched in stone. That’s why I’m here to get ideas and suggestions from you, but I can say there are no plans to make it a storage site. It will have an educational use,” the mayor said.

Residents suggested adding tennis courts, a tutoring center and instead of the extending road cutting through the middle to have it at the southernmost end.

“Even if it becomes a pretty park, it will be better for area property owners,” Guess said.

Some residents had concerns with the lease. “Where would the money go that we give the district for the property, back into our schools?” asked Michelle Dutasaca.

Guess said the lease would not generate much money.

“I don’t care if its 50 cents, we need it put back into our schools,” she said.

The mayor envisions a non-profit foundation running the fine arts complex and has talked to Angie Mitchell, who puts together the annual Patriotic Spectacular, about being a part of that foundation.

Mitchell said she envisions a summer program that involves not just the fine arts and not just children.

“I see us expanding into music, having adult classes, and maybe even going into the culinary arts,” she said.

She told the crowd that the community center has no kitchen facilities for meetings and gatherings. “The school’s cafeteria has a full kitchen. It gives us another location for events and another selling point,” Mitchell said.

“It’s not a complex for the rich or for the poor, but a place for everyone to experience the arts,” she said, adding that the city has too much talent going outside of Jacksonville to hone their skills.

McGrath echoed those thoughts, “Jacksonville has the talent and expertise to create a proliferation of arts and culture in the city by virtue of a fine arts center. If done right, it would be the absolute perfect future for the former elementary school building,” she said.

“The minute this happens, the neighborhood and everyone will benefit. It will be like a magnet,” McGrath added.

The school property wasn’t the only item the mayor wanted to discuss.

He also said the city needs to have a board of volunterism and to push for more volunteers and new volunteers.

“We keep asking the same people to help and we are working them to death,” Fletcher said.

The mayor said the city is awash with volunteer opportunites.

He also took time to push the proposed gas severance tax issue that supporters are trying to get on the 2012 general election ballot.

“It would raise the tax on natural gas to seven percent, in line with surrounding states, and would not be borne only by Arkansans. “We are already getting our natural gas from those other states and paying seven percent or more. We shouldn’t take less when we send our gas out,” the mayor said.

He said the proposal would mean millions of dollars of new revenue for the state and $680,000 for Jacksonville to use on its roads.

And speaking of roads, he said he wanted Jacksonville to become a community for people, not cars. “I’d like to see the day when people stop driving through Main Street and stop and shop and walk down Main Street.

The mayor ended, the discussion, saying, “It’s time we update this city. Five years from now, you’ll tell people that you came out on a cold rainy night and changed the direction for the city.”