Monday, January 20, 2014

TOP STORY >> 'Our time is now,' mayor tells council

Leader staff writer

“Our time is now,” Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said during his state of the city report, which was read at Thursday night’s city council meeting.

“There is a new day dawning for Jacksonville as we start 2014, but as we face the future, we also need to reflect on the past as the ground work to bring about this promising future,” he said.

A stand-alone, locally-controlled Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district and the largest trap- and skeet-shooting range in the state will greet that new day on a four-lane Graham Road.

Jacksonville could also see a new state veterans’ home and a vote on whether to allow alcohol-by-the-drink sales.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. approved a settlement in the 1989 desegregation case that also permits Jacksonville to break away from the Pulaski County Special School District.

Advocates have been working toward the detachment for more than 30 years. Fletcher said they have gone through “six feasibility studies, endless town-hall meetings, discussions, frustrations from the condition of facilities; lack of vision, control and professionalism; of school boards ignoring the needs of our city and its children.”

The next step in the detachment process is a September election — if approved by the state Board of Education — in which voters will decide whether they want their own school district.

About the election, Fletcher quipped, “By the way, that will be 34 weeks from Tuesday, if anybody’s counting.”

Another accomplishment looming on the horizon is the $3.5 million trap- and skeet-shooting range on Graham Road. A soft opening for the facility will be held within a week or two, officials say.

Fletcher added that the $3.6 million widening of Graham Road for one mile, which has been underway for two years, is nearing the finish line. “And what better timing as the state-of-the-art trap-shooting facility will be hosting shooting events this spring that will draw people from all over the country to this area,” the mayor said.

Fletcher also said the city’s proposed site for a new state veterans’ home is in the top three and a decision on where to locate the facility will be made soon.

Of the wet/dry petition, he said the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce has collected 1,471 or the 4,839 it needs to get the issue on a ballot.

Fletcher said, “It has the potential to level the playing field and make it easier to attract nice family restaurants on the national chain level. It is costing our city when our citizens go to another city to eat by using our local money to support another city’s tax base. The money needs to stay in our own hometown, financing city services and projects. I have maintained all along that no city has the potential that Jacksonville has, yet our hands are tied to do anything about it.”

The mayor recalled the “ups” of 2013 too, such as completion of the $6 million public-safety complex that houses the police department, police/fire training grounds, the 911 center and a FEMA safe room on Marshall Road; the passing of a state law that allowed Jacksonville and Sherwood to petition for a vote on whether to allow alcohol-by-the-drink sales, completion of the new Lighthouse Charter High School and the covering of a dangerous drainage ditch on Redmond Road.

Fletcher said the public safety building “brings about a more organized system and even carries over into a higher degree of professionalism due to the pride each (police officer) has.” And the nearby grounds mean firefighters and police officers don’t have to go elsewhere, including out of state, for training, he said.

The mayor also praised former Fire Chief John Vanderhoof, who retired after more than 40 years with the city and after taking Jacksonville from an better ISO rating of 2 from 3.

Fletcher said the new chief is local and set himself apart from other candidates with his “energy, frankness, vision and preparation to carry out his vision along with his qualifications and training.”

Alan Laughy, the assistant chief at the fire department on Little Rock Air Force Base, was hired to replace Vanderhoof.

The mayor added that the 911 center now participates in the statewide AWIN network. AWIN and the state maintain the transmitter site, which saves Jacksonville between $65,000 and $100,000 annually, Fletcher said.

One “down” Fletcher mentioned was the 14-week sequestration when civilian employees at Little Rock Air Force Base were furloughed one day per week, losing 20 percent of their pay. And, shortly after the furloughs ended, the 17-day government shutdown sent the same people and more workers home. The mayor said, “Let me say here that, with the challenges that do face our military, and I can tell you by knowing and observing the leadership of our base personnel, that they will adapt and come through stronger than going in.”

Despite trying economic times, “believing the public wants results, not excuses, we have trudged ahead plowing the fields with persistence and making the city and its potential known on a national level,” Fletcher continued.

About Jacksonville’s controversial contract with Rickey Hayes of Retail Attractions, an Oklahoma-based economic development firm, the mayor said, “As anyone with real estate experience knows, due to the high cost of investment and compounded by lack of raw developable commercial property, the wheels turn slow. But the good news is there is serious interest in Jacksonville and the market it has. We look forward in the very near future to several announcements.”

Hayes has been under contract with the city for several years. The only business he has been credited with recruiting to Jacksonville is Firehouse Subs, though they were in the process of opening several locations in Arkansas.

With its aging population, Fletcher continued, the financially-troubled North Metro Medical Center is more important than ever, he pointed out.

The mayor said, “The personal care and time they give each patient is unmatched by many of the much larger facilities. This hospital has been faithful to this community for over 50 years and was there for thousands of people in times of great need and made a difference. I call upon our city to be there for her as she works to make this transition to survive in a very difficult field in today’s environment, as her success is really our success.”

Fletcher also said, “I believe that cities that have a strong future will be those that focus on three areas. These areas are education, health care and economic development.”

The mayor thanked department heads, their staffs, council members and other officials for their hard work.

Of the council, Fletcher said, “I know quite a few of the 500 or so mayors around the state and we talk on a regular basis. It is so common to hear of intergovernmental fighting and bickering. In some cases, there is nothing short of just pure hatred that makes the people’s business suffer.

“I know sometimes a harmonious relationship of mutual respect and common focus and priorities becomes boring to some folks, but the byproduct of such relationships is strong progress and a healthy future,” the mayor said.