Tuesday, March 25, 2014

TOP STORY >> HUD seeks ideas for city

Leader staff writer

From too many renters to dilapidated schools and lack of new industry, Jacksonville is rife with issues that need to be addressed, according to attendees at a recent community meeting hosted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD senior management analyst David Blick explained that the purpose of the meeting was to develop a community needs assessment.

Another meeting will be held in April to finish compiling that.

“HUD wants to solve locally identified and locally driven community goals,” Blick said at the March meeting. “We want to focus existing federal, state and local resources for a resolution of those goals.”

He told the crowd of about 40 at the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Shooting Sports Complex on Graham Road, “This is kind of an experiment.”

The Little Rock field office had to identify from a list one or two communities that met certain criteria and that the staff wanted to work with, he noted.

The staff chose Jackson-ville for its “engaged leadership” and because the city fell under the jurisdiction of Metroplan, which has an existing HUD grant.

Wanda Merritt, director of HUD’s Little Rock field office, welcomed everyone to the meeting.

She said, “(The department wants) to provide avenue such as this for increased collaboration across HUD programs (that support) sustainable communities.”

Merritt added, “We want to come together to look at do we have any money? How do we spend the money? Where is the money?”

After introductions, participants were grouped by the six tables they were seated at. Each table was given a poster board to write down things they wanted to see addressed in Jacksonville.

After an hour of discussion, they reported that Jacksonville needs to:

• continue the rehabilitation of dilapidated houses and structures, especially those in the Sunnyside Addition;

• provide resources, like a shelter, to its homeless population;

• recruit more industrial leaders and retailers with tax credits;

• partner with the Delta Regional Authority the Housing Trust Fund and banks to accomplish goals;

• feed more low-income residents;

• increase the amount of affordable housing to encourage more home ownership;

• encourage faith-based organizations to provide labor and/or materials for residents who need home improvements but are unable to do them because of their incomes or because they are elderly;

• improve public transportation options;

• see if more than two pharmacies will deliver medicines to homes;

• improve schools;

• turn around the negative perception many have of North Metro Medical Center;

• work through being landlocked by finding spaces to build houses or businesses;

• get the wet/dry issue on the ballot by completing the petition;

• figure out a plan B if Little Rock Air Force Base were to close at some point;

• develop a city center where people can meet for any large celebration;

• provide even more opportunities for recreation;

• lower its high crime rate;

• fix potholes and

• adjust planning to urbanize the area by putting houses with businesses and becoming more walkable.

Code enforcement officer Charles Jenkins said, “With more industry, with more business you have people earning wages…they can afford better housing and a better quality of life.”

Deen Johnson, an executive broker with Century 21, said, “We’ve got a great hospital here, but there’s a perception that people don’t want to go to that hospital and we need to try to turn that perception around.”

Jim McKenzie with Metro-plan said, “One of the tests that urbanists say is if your team won the high school state championship, where would the community go to celebrate? We decided it was the Walgreens parking lot.”

He pointed out that Jacksonville’s split main street is unique. McKenzie suggested looking at form-based zoning that would stress aesthetics and, if the city owned all the property in the middle of the city, turning the split island in the middle of West Main Street into a park.

McKenzie agreed that Jacksonville is land-locked, so it needs to put more on what it has instead of look for more land to spread out.

Gwendolyn Harper said the city needs more families. She said, “We don’t get the young child-bearing people here” because of how the city is perceived.

Harper explained that people see the high crime rate, that the city lost the state fair, that it lost the veterans’ home and that it lost a large chicken plant.

Mayor Gary Fletcher kicked off and ended the meeting with optimism, sharing the vision he has for the city.

The mayor said, “Jacksonville is fixing to turn a corner and create a new city” because it will detach from the Pulaski County Special School District to form an independent school district soon.

“This city has more potential than any city around,” Fletcher continued, adding, “I believe there are two things that grow a community, education, and we’re taking care of that, and health care.”

He said a Dallas consultant is working on a health study that could provide suggestions for improvement there.

But, Fletcher also said, “I believe that Jacksonville needs to focus on something and that is moving people from rentership to ownership. We have one of the highest rates of rentership in central Arkansas.”

He noted that there is a “mindset difference” with the children of homeowners being more likely to graduate high school, receive a post-secondary education and graduate from college, according to several studies.

Fletcher said, “People need to feel they’ve got a stake, they’ve got a say, in something…The one thing that I think we lack and need to work more on is a sense of community.”

The mayor concluded the meeting by repeating, “The reality is this town is on the move.”