Tuesday, April 22, 2014

TOP STORY >> Beebe economic development booming

Leader staff writer

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles taking an in-depth look at how area cities are pursuing economic growth.

Jacksonville is staking its economic growth on an outside consultant. Sherwood is doing with an economic developer jointly funded by the city and chamber. In Cabot, the city is the lead entity and has just formed a development committee.

So who’s leading the pack?

Possibly Beebe.

Beebe is in the midst of a commercial building boom.

The new Walmart is in full swing and the city has received plans for a new AutoZone store.

The city has also received site plans for The Shoppes at Beebe. The shopping center will have a Dollar Tree, Hibbett Sports, a Pizza Hut WingStreet restaurant, a fitness center and other businesses. Auto Zone is being built near there.

City Attorney Barrett Rogers is moving his law office to a new business complex on Dewitt Henry Drive. It will be home to the Beebe Flower Shop, Merle Norman cosmetic store and Sunset Breeze sandwich restaurant.

And another shopping center, Shadow Center, near the highway is planned.

That deal has already been closed, said Mayor Mike Robertson.

Why has Beebe become the place to be?

“There’s no magic formula at work here,” he said. “It’s a combination of hitting the magic number of about 10,000 area residents and the fact that we are easy to work with.”

“We are an excellent trade area with the population and access to all the highways,” Robertson said.

“Retail and commercial developers are seeing that it’s beneficial to be here, and we are growing in housing too,” the mayor said, adding that there are about 200 new homes in the works.

The mayor said, “It’s exactly what we want and planned for.”

Kristen Boswell, director of Beebe’s Chamber of Commerce, simply said, “The secret is out.”

She added, “We are a very friendly and warm community.”

Boswell said the chamber works hand-in-hand with the mayor when a developer is “shopping Beebe. We assist and expedite.”

Incorporated in 1875, the central Arkansas community of Beebe was named for Roswell Beebe, a member of a prominent railroad family and an executive with the Cairo and Fulton Railroad.

Beebe and its surrounding environs have been influenced heavily by four major events, according to city officials, in its economic development plan.

The first was the development and location of the railroad in the early 1870s, and then the city’s rejection of it.

Financier Jay Gould proposed the building of a railroad shop in Beebe. A town meeting was called, and it was determined that it would not be in the best interests of the community. So Gould subsequently bought land in Argenta [North Little Rock], and that area quickly saw growth.

The second event, according to the development plan which was last revised about 10 years ago, was the location of highways in the area. Beebe sat at the crossroads of two U.S. highways, 64 and 67/167, as well as a state highway.

Because Beebe was a trade center for surrounding agricultural interests, and because the highway network provided easy access, the commercial sector in the city thrived. Later, when U.S. 67/167 was relocated and designed to interstate standards, residential development was given new life. It became easier for families to work in the bigger cities of central Arkansas while living in the quiet, “small town” environs of Beebe.

The third event was the devastating tornados that swept through the town on Jan. 21, 1999. Besides killing two people and injuring 29, the path of destruction dramatically altered the look and feel of the community.

The school system had to be rebuilt from the ground up. For all practical purposes, the tornados acted as a kind of unwelcome urban renewal, according to the development plan. In a strange twist of fate, the school system suddenly went from average facilities to totally modern, state-of-the art campuses.

That ties in with the fourth major factor: The development of the Beebe’s educational facilities, and, more specifically, the presence of Arkansas State University at Beebe and the Beebe School District. A college campus has long been a part of the city, but the small college town went to the next level when it became affiliated with ASU.

“We are just easy to work with,” the mayor said, noting that developers don’t have to jump through a lot of hoops or get overloaded with a lot of restrictive regulations and zoning issues.

“Developers contact the mayor’s office and, from there, we walk them through whatever they need. There’s no layer of commissions or boards they have to deal with,” Robertson said. “They need us here or there, we’re there. They need an inspection, we are there. But we aren’t like some other cities and have inspectors hovering over a project all the time.”

The mayor said the city works hard to live up to its motto: “Your Dream Hometown.”