Friday, July 08, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Nightmare in Dallas

The moment we heard the terrible news Thursday night from Dallas, it was obvious that at least one experienced shooter was responsible for this latest domestic terrorist attack at a Black Lives Matter march that killed five officers and injured seven. President Obama called the murders “vicious and despicable.”

The ambush was so deadly, the police at first assumed three gunmen were responsible for the massacre. But when a robot detonated a bomb near their suspect, Dallas police announced their colleagues were gunned down by an Army veteran named Mica X. Johnson, 25. He appears to be the lone suspect. He was killed by a robot rigged with explosives, apparently a first for a police department in the U.S.

Johnson, an Afghan war veteran, used his military experience to turn on police officers who were keeping the march peaceful as it moved downtown until he used his sniper’s perch and turned his rifle on the officers below near Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

The march had been orderly until then, as described to one of our colleagues whose son-in-law was at the protest as an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco wearing civilian clothes.

Johnson told police he was taking revenge for the police shootings of civilians in Louisiana and Minnesota and wanted to kill white police officers. He was a member of the New Black Panther Party in Houston and was involved in such Facebook communities as “The Black Matrix,” which seeks to dismantle “white social elites” that have repressed black people. He also belonged to “Filming Cops” and “Police the Police” on Facebook, which, coupled with his Army training, ended with Thursday night’s massacre.

Too many deranged individuals with deadly weapons are on the loose, many of them professionally trained like Johnson and Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, who was a licensed security guard.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the Dallas massacre was the deadliest attack on police since 9/11, when 72 officers perished in the line of duty. The Dallas tragedy was the worst shooting incident in the U.S. and its territories since 1950, when seven police officers were killed in Puerto Rico during a political uprising. Back in 1932, two suspected car thieves shot and killed six officers who came to arrest them in Missouri.

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) said in a statement, “We, as a nation, must come together in support of the brave and selfless men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities.”

Conner Eldridge, the Democrat running against Boozman, said, “We must come together and work to prevent this continued violence that impacts us all.”

Fine sentiments, but Congress must take action against domestic terrorists and identify them before they commit mass murder.

We mourn the loss of all innocent lives, including the civilians killed in Louisiana and Minnesota as well as the heroes who were gunned down in Dallas. Like law-enforcement officials in our area, they risked their lives every day for modest pay and frequent abuse. Too often, they make the ultimate sacrifice and we salute them, even if they can no longer hear our words.

TOP STORY >> Police work is ‘ruff’

Leader staff writer

Like most Jacksonville police officers, when not on duty, Maik hangs with the family and plays with the kid, and oh yes, he likes his couch potato time. And he works as hard as he plays but unlike most other members of the department, he’s a real dog.

Quite literally.

K-9 officer Maik (pronounced Ike) is a seven-year-old, highly-trained Belgian Malinois — the breed the Navy Seals depended on when making their now famous nighttime raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

The same year, Maik reported for duty in Jacksonville.

Like the Navy Seal dogs of European origins, 85-pound Maik can do more than sniff out a variety of illegal drugs, run down suspects and work in tandem with his partner and handler, says Jacksonville Police Department Officer Joshua “Josh” Wheeler. The two work 40 hours a week, and unlike most human partnerships, Maik rides in the back and goes home with Wheeler at the end of their shift.

Wheeler says the two are a great fit and like most other dogs, Maik enjoys a good treat and his favorite ball.


Belgian Malinois are now the preferred dog when it comes to law enforcement and a dog can cost upwards of $4,000, and training is also expensive.

A Plus Kennels north of Sherwood is in the business of training K-9s for law enforcement duty, and owner and certified instructor Criss Gardner says the cost is minimal compared to training and paying an officer.

Normally, he says a dog and training can cost as much as $9,500 but a canine is cheaper than an officer in the long run.

“These dogs are great law enforcement tools. They’re energetic and strong, with a great work drive,” he says.

The dogs are easily trained by using yellow tennis balls. When they successfully locate a drug stash or obey a command, they’re allowed a few minutes with their beloved ball.

Wheeler says, “It’s a game for them.”

Gardner, who strictly trains dogs for law enforcement, says training usually starts when the dog with the right temperament is between one and three years, and he prefers to work with “green,” or untrained dogs.

It takes about two months, and it’s as important for the officer as the dog to go through training. Usually, there’s about two weeks of officer training.

Generally, its takes about 16 hours a month of maintenance training to keep a dog in top form, Gardner says.

Wheeler and Maik did a short training course at A Plus Kennels, but Jacksonville Police Department’s dogs come from a breeder in Oklahoma.

According to experts, the dogs are expensive on the front end but are worth it. The dogs generally work for about a decade and are generally trained for a single or dual purpose. For instance, the dogs that patrol airports, might specialize in drugs or explosives, while the Jacksonville dogs’ have to be schooled in a variety of areas, says Officer Regina Boyd, who is in charge of the K-9 unit and has worked with dogs for about 19 years.

While Jacksonville’s three dogs aren’t trained in rescue, they’re able to assist in search and rescue, Boyd says.

Once the dog is ready to start training, handler and dog train for several weeks, learning to identify various illegal drugs like marijuana and heroin. In addition to learning to give commands, how to correctly instruct and reward the dog, the two learn by doing in a controlled setting, Gardner says.

When the handler has completed about a two-week program, the team is ready to hit the streets.

Boyd says the dogs and handlers must recertify at the state and national level each year.

Wheeler also had to learn a few words of Dutch because that’s the language Maik understands. The two trained together for two weeks in order for Wheeler to get the basics down but in reality, he says the two do some form of training everyday.

Wheeler joined the department in 2008, and is a member of the Special Response Team the Honor Guard and is also a field training officer.

Wheeler says, “I’m impressed with Maik’s abilities and his loyalty.”

Maik doesn’t do tricks, except hold a treat on the end of his nose and wait for Wheeler to give him the OK to eat it, but Wheeler says Maik’s a great ambassador and doesn’t mind letting little kids rub his belly.

Like the department’s other human-canine teams, the two have their own baseball-like card with their picture on the front and fun facts on the back, like “Maik likes to run and play…Maik likes to sleep on the couch with all four paws in the air.”


Wheeler says he’s confident in their partnership and that Maik is a valued member of his family.

It takes a special kind of officer to take on the responsibility of partnering with a dog and requires 24/7 of the officer. In some ways, it’s the equivalent to caring for a young child who needs constant care and supervision.

Wheeler had a family dog named Ringo prior to partnering with Maik so he fully understood the requirements and demands of a dog. Nonetheless, he applied for the position of handler, and says, “You have to be committed to the dog.”

The two have been a team for about two years, and Boyd says, “It takes a special kind of person to work with a dog.”

But more than the officer’s devotion to the canine, the officer’s family has to be on-board because at the end of the day, the dog goes home with its handler.

Wheeler says Maik is an “inside dog” and was a welcome addition to his family that includes his wife and their 5-year-old daughter who Maik adores.

“He’s very gentle with my daughter,” Wheeler says.

But the dogs are much more than that. Boyd says the dogs are loyal, they don’t talk back and are right by your side whether it’s raining, snowing or 100 degrees.

And, she says the department’s three dog are much-loved members of the department.

People still remember Trixie, who recently retired, and Roby, who retired after getting injured while on duty. Roby died last year, Boyd says.


Maik never complains about long hours spent in the back of the cruiser. Instead, he’s ready to go when he hears the rattle of Wheeler’s keys. The dog’s demeanor changes and he goes into work mode, Wheeler says.

The use of police K-9s was recognized as valuable in Europe as early as 1859, with the police in Ghent, Belgium, using dogs to do patrol with night-shift personnel.

“Every dog is different, but they’re added security,” Wheeler says. In Jacksonville, police officers ride alone.

He says that Maik is “always watching me,” and is ready to respond to any stressful situation.

The difference between these K-9s and any other law enforcement officer isn’t their speed, agility, intelligence, bravery or commitment, it’s that they have four legs.

Wheeler says dogs never hesitate to chase down bad guys and when they start barking orders, crooks listen.

Boyd says the relationship between an officer and a dog “is a bond that’s beyond words.

A dog will work day-in and day-out, ready to lay down its life for its partner, and Wheeler says the Jacksonville Police Department takes great pride in its K-9 program — still the dogs are listed as “equipment.”

However, Wheeler says, “They’re more than that” and at the end of workday, he doesn’t mind sharing the sofa with Maik, explaining, “They’re our partners at work and our family at home.”

TOP STORY >> Cooling stations open around area

Leader staff writer

For those looking for a way to escape the summer heat, Cherry Godwin, site director at the Cabot Senior Center at 600 N. Grant St., says, “If anyone is in need, especially when a heat advisory has been issued, we want to help them.”

Even non-members, she says.

The senior center is part of the Lonoke County Council on Aging and is a “cooling station,” but it has not officially been declared open at this point. If or when it is, the center’s hours will be extended.

Currently, the Cabot Senior Center is open Mon-day through Friday from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. Lunch is served but it’s strictly on a donation basis, so Godwin says, “No one will go hungry.”

For more information, call (501) 843-2196 go to:

While Mayor Gary Fletcher has not officially declared a need for the Jacksonville Senior Center at 100 Victory Circle to serve as a cooling station, the staff welcomes all seniors who need relief from the soaring July temperatures.

The center is open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., and Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m. until 2.

Lunch is served daily and it’s a suggested $3 donation for members but it costs non-members $6.

If the Jacksonville Mayor declares a need for a cooling station, the senior center’s hours will be extended.

For more information, call (501) 982-7531 or go to:

TOP STORY >> June: Hot and humid

Leader staff writer

Every day in June saw temperatures higher than the 30-year meteorological average. Couple that with higher humidity than normal and the month was the warmest June in five years.

With rainfall below the 30-year norm, the month was also one of the driest Junes in several years.

The average high temperature of 90.5 was the warmest since 2012, the average low temperature of 71.6 was the warmest since 2011 (and the fifth warmest lows on record), and the average daily temperature of 81.1 was the warmest in seven years and the eighth warmest on record.

The high humidity caused the temperature to feel 10 to 15 degrees warmer most June days, meaning the heat index was often over the century mark.

Four low temperature records were broken or tied with new higher lows.

June 15th’s low temperature of 78 degrees tied the record set in 1925; June 23rd’s low temperature of 79 degrees was warmer than the 78-degree record set in 2010; June 24th’s low temperature of 79 was one degree warmer than the record set in 2010 and 1930; and the low temperature of 79 degrees on June 26 was one-degree higher than the record warm lows set in 19801 and 1902.

The month saw 22 days where temperatures surpassed 90 degrees.

Total rain for the month came to 2.76 inches, almost an inch below the average of 3.52 inches.

As the heat continues through July, the National Weather Service reminds everyone that heat is the number one weather-related killer across the United States (more than hurricanes, floods, lightning and tornadoes).

On a dry day, sweat evaporates into the air, which creates cooling. Adding moisture, or humidity, to the atmosphere cuts down on evaporation. Over time, the body temperature rises and shuts down.

The heat index considers the effects of the temperature and the humidity. When these variables combine to make it feel like 105 degrees or greater, it is considered dangerous.

When heat index values meet or exceed 105 degrees for several hours over a fairly large area the National Weather Service will usually issue a Heat Advisory.

When heat index values reach 115 degrees for one hour over a fairly large area an Excessive Heat Warning may be posted.

SPORTS STORY >> Searcy rolls past Jacksonville Junior

Leader sportswriter

Searcy’s Junior Amer-ican Legion team gave Jacksonville’s Gwatney Chev-rolet Junior team a lot of trouble in the final three innings of their Tuesday night game at Dupree Park, as Searcy scored six runs in the third inning before adding four more in the last two to leave Jacksonville with a 10-1 win over the Chevy Boys.

Jacksonville scored its first and only run in the first inning. Leadoff hitter Kameron Whitmore singled to start the inning, but Searcy starting pitcher Austin Williams struck out the next two batters. Cleanup hitter Quentin Stallard came through, though, with a two-out single that drove in Whitmore for a 1-0 Jacksonville lead.

The game stayed at 1-0 until the third inning, and that’s when Searcy took control. Searcy nine-hole hitter Easton Reaper walked to start the inning, and leadoff hitter Sam Lane also drew a walk the following at-bat. Williams then drove in a run with a single before three-hole hitter Gavin Barnett was hit by a pitch.

Three of the next four batters walked before Bryce Woods grounded out to third base for the final out of the inning. Before that, though, two more runs scored to give Searcy a 6-1 lead after three.

The visitors added three more runs to their side of the board their next at-bat. A one-out single by Lane got things started for Searcy in the top of the fourth, and Williams drove him in with a double. Barnett then hit into a fielder’s choice at third, but an error on the play left everyone safe.

Williams scored the eighth Searcy run and Barnett scored the final run of the inning to put the visitors up 9-1.

After another scoreless inning by Jacksonville, Searcy added its final run of the night in the top of the fifth. Bradley Chalk led off the inning with a single to center field, and he stole second base with Ethan Whitworth at the plate.

Whitworth eventually walked, and Chalk advanced to third base on Whitworth’s ball four because of a passed ball, putting runners at the corners for Searcy. Paxton Hitchings was next up for Searcy, and with him at the plate, Chalk scored the 10th and final run on an errant pickoff play at first base.

Whitworth advanced to second on the error, and Hitchings eventually walked to put runners at first and second with no outs. Jacksonville’s Peyton Williams took over pitching duties immediately after, and he picked off Whitworth at second base with a nice move and perfect low throw near the bag for the first out of the inning.

Lane and Austin Williams both walked, though, loading the bases with one out. But, Barnett grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the top of the fifth. Jacksonville, however, went three up, three down in the bottom half of the inning, with Austin Williams ending the game with a pair of strikeouts.

Even though it was a lopsided win, Searcy only had four hits, but it was twice as many as Jacksonville had. The big difference was that Searcy had 10 batters reach base via walk and one batter reach base on a hit-by-pitch. Conversely, Austin Williams gave up zero walks.

Searcy’s winning pitcher also led all batters with two hits. Whitmore and Stallard had Jacksonville’s two hits, both of which came in the first inning.

SPORTS STORY >> Jacksonville alum to play in Argentina

Leader sports editor

Former Jacksonville Red Devil Tirrell ‘Tee’ Brown signed last week to play professional basketball in TNA League in Argentina. Brown was a two-time Division II All-American at Ouachita Baptist University the last two season. He was the Great American Conference Player of the Year after his junior season, when the Tigers won the regular-season conference championship. He was named the GAC Tournament MVP after leading the Tigers to the 2016 conference tournament championship.

As a 6-foot-6 post player, he’s slightly undersized for the NBA, but has known foryears he could go overseas to play professionally.

“I pretty much knew my freshman year at UCA,” said Brown. “College coaches were telling me then that I could go somewhere and play. I’m real excited to have a chance to go to other countries and see how different things are. I’ve never been out of the country before, so this is pretty exciting for me.”

Although Brown had an idea he’d play somewhere overseas for a while, the opportunity to play in Argentina was somewhat of a surprise.

Someone still unknown to Brown got hold of his game films from OBU, prompting them to reach out to an agent, who contacted Brown with the offer.

“I still don’t know how they got all my game film,” Brown said. “But the agent is from Argentina. He lives here and everything, he’s just from there originally. So he knew who to contact and stuff. He said there were like three or four other teams that were interested in me.”

Brown signed with Atletico Echague, a team based in ParanĂ¡, the capital city of the Entre Rios province in the northeast portion of Argentina. It has a population of about 250,000.

“Basketball is real popular there from what I’m told,” Brown said. “There are a lot of little basketball leagues, but the TNA is the big one in that country. The major cities play in this league. I think it’s going to be good competition.”

TNA, in Spanish, stands for Torneo Nacional de Ascenso, which translates into National Promotion Tournament.

Much like the NBA, the league is divided into two divisions, the North and South, with 13 teams in each division.

Echague finished eighth overall last season.

Brown reports to the team in mid-September. He will play a seven-month regular-season and another month if Echague makes the playoffs.

SPORTS STORY >> Cabot’s AA gets pair of victories

Leader sports editor

The Cabot AA American Legion team went 2-1 this week in a trio of home games at the Cabot Sportsplex. The Centennial Bank squad swept Central Arkansas Christian 11-5, and 14-2 on Tuesday, then lost 4-2 to North Little Rock on Wednesday.

In game one on Tuesday, Cabot posted three runs in the first inning and never trailed.

Caleb Harpole scored on a double by Gavin Tillery to start the rally. Michael Crumbly then singled to score Tillery and Brandon Jones doubled to drive in Crumbly for the 3-0 lead.

CAC cut the margin to two in the top of the second on a walk and Cabot error, but Centennial Bank got it back in the bottom half. Brian Tillery singled with one out, stole a base and scored on two wild pitches.

The Mustangs answered with another unearned run in the top of the third. A walk and two errors brought in the second CAC run, but Cabot scored three in the bottom of the third.

Gavin Tillery led off with a single and scored when Jones’ grounder to third was mishandled. Nicholas Belden then singled to score Jones, and Geno Germer drove in the third run for a 7-2 Centennial Bank lead.

CAC’s best inning was the fourth when the Mustangs scored three runs on two walks and two base hits. Cabot didn’t score in the bottom of the fourth and led 7-5 going into the fifth inning.

Caleb Wilson, who took the mound with two outs in the fourth, sat the Mustangs down in order in the fifth, and Cabot added the game’s final four runs in the bottom half.

Wilson and Belden hit back-to-back singles to start the inning. Jack Broyles drew a one-out walk and Brian Tillery picked up an RBI with a walk that scored Wilson.

Harpole singled to score two more runs and Gavin Tillery’s third base hit put the final run across the plate.

Gavin Tillery went 3 for 3 with a double, a walk, two runs scored and two RBIs. Belden also went 3 for 3 with an RBI and two runs scored. Brian Tillery went 2 for 3 with a walk, two stolen bases and two runs scored. Harpole went 2 for 4 with a stolen base and scored two runs.

Michael Shepherd threw three and two-thirds innings for the win on the mound. He gave up three hits, three two walks and three earned runs while striking out five. Wilson pitched the remainder of the game, giving up no hits while walking one.

Game two was over quickly. Cabot scored six in the first and eight in the second and the game was called after the top of the fourth inning.

Shepherd capped the big opening frame with a three-run, inside-the-park home run to straightaway center field.

Cabot (9-10) scored all eight runs in the second inning with two outs. There were only six hits in the inning, but that went along with two hit batters and five bases on balls.

Shepherd, Wilson and Brian Tillery each got two base hits. Tillery was hit once and scored all three times he reached base. Shepherd finished with four RBIs.

Germer gave up two runs on two hits and two walks in the first inning. He struck out two and retired the side in order in the second to get the win.

Broyles pitched the last two innings. He gave up one hit in each inning, allowed no runs while striking out two and walking no one.

In Wednesday’s game, North Little Rock scored all four runs in the top of the first inning, and pitcher Christian Goshen did the rest.

Brian Tillery started on the mound and struggled to find the strike zone. He hit three of the first four batters before giving up two hits and a walk to account for the Colts entire offense.

Gavin Tillery took the mound in the second inning and scattered three hits over his five innings of work.

Cabot scored twice in the fourth to set the final margin. Easton Seidl reached on an error at second base to start the inning. Gavin Tillery then doubled to drive in Seidl. A sacrifice grounder by Jones moved Gavin Tillery to third, and a deep fly ball by Crumbly drove him home.

Cabot threatened again in the fifth with runners on first and second with one out, but Goshen got Koleton Eastham to hit into a 6-4-3 double play to get out of the jam. Goshen retired six in a row in the sixth and seventh innings, including closing the game with back-to-back strikeouts.

The Centennial AA team played Morrilton at home last night after Leader deadlines. They take today off before embarking on four-straight days of games Sunday through Wednesday. They play Conway at Hendrix College at 8 p.m. Sunday, host Russellville at 6 p.m. Monday, host Bryant for a Junior/AA doubleheader on Tuesday, and are at North Little Rock for a Junior/AA doubleheader on Wednesday.

SPORTS STORY >> GC seniors avenge Searcy loss

Leader sportswriter

A pitchers’ duel between Jacksonville lefty Brandon Hawkins and Searcy right-hander Austin Allen led to a low-scoring ballgame between Jacksonville and Searcy in their Senior American Legion game Tuesday night at Dupree Park.

Gwatney Chevrolet trailed 1-0 for the first five innings before breaking through with two runs in the sixth, and Hawkins struck out the last three batters of the seventh to give the Chevy Boys a 2-1 victory.

It was a good win for Jacksonville against the same Searcy team that beat the Chevy Boys pretty handily last week, but Jacksonville played that game with only 10 players, forcing Gwatney to use several players from its junior team.

Jacksonville had the bulk of its seniors playing in Tuesday’s game, which resulted in a much more competitive game than last week’s.

“We played pretty good,” said Gwatney Chevrolet coach Bob Hickingbotham. “We have four guys that have not been in here in a week. They went on vacation. We played them guys (Searcy) last week and we only had 10 players there, and they (Searcy) wore us out.”

Searcy scored its lone run Tuesday in the top of the first. Searcy’s Aaron Decker led off the game with a walk. A fly-out to right field followed and Jacob Rose hit into a 5-4 fielder’s choice the next at-bat for the second out of the inning.

With cleanup hitter Austin Passmore at the plate, Rose advanced all the way to third base from first on a bad pickoff attempt by the Jacksonville catcher. Passmore eventually walked, and Rose scored on the ball-four pitch because of a passed ball, giving Searcy the 1-0 advantage.

Jacksonville had several runners on base over the next five innings, but could never push a run across the plate, and as a result, the game stayed 1-0 until the sixth. Hawkins gave up his first hit in the top of the sixth inning, but held Searcy scoreless for the fifth-straight inning, and Jacksonville finally broke through in the bottom of the sixth.

Allen was pulled after the fifth inning, and Searcy lefty Bradley Chalk took over pitching duties at the start of the sixth. He struck out the first batter he faced, but walked the next two batters with the top of the order coming up for Jacksonville.

Shortstop Mickey Ivey took over on the mound, and Gwatney leadoff hitter Tyson Flowers drove a 2-2 curve the opposite way in right field, scoring Peyton Traywick for the game-tying run.

Mike Havard then came to the plate for Jacksonville, and with runners at first and second with one out, Ivey tried to pick off Flowers at first, but the throw was off.

That allowed Caleb Smith to score all the way from second base for the go-ahead run.

Flowers was thrown out at third on the same play, and Havard hit into a 1-3 groundout to end the inning with Jacksonville leading 2-1. Passmore singled to left field to lead off the seventh, but Hawkins struck out the next three Searcy batters, swinging, to end the game in Gwatney’s favor.

Hawkins dominated from start to finish. He threw all seven innings, finishing with a game-high 14 strikeouts, while issuing four walks and only two hits.

“Hawkins pitched outstanding,” Hickingbotham said. “Threw 101 pitches and did an outstanding job, and didn’t give up a hit until the sixth.”

Allen also threw well in the first five innings for Searcy. He struck out nine, walked two and gave up five hits, getting the no decision.

Jacksonville outhit Searcy 6-2. Jacksonville’s Caleb McMunn led all batters at the plate, going 2 for 3 with a single and double. Flowers, Brandon Hickingbotham, Jordan Wickersham and Kameron Whitmore had Jacksonville’s other four hits.

Passmore and Kory O’Neal had Searcy’s two hits, both singles.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Bolting for Oakland is easy way for Durant

Leader sportswriter

If you can’t beat them, join them. Kevin Durant did just that Monday when he announced he’s leaving Oklahoma City to sign with Golden State, the team that overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat Durant and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Since it happened, Durant’s decision has been the hottest topic of the sports world, but only because he made the very tough choice of leaving the organization that drafted him to join the most successful regular-season team in the league’s history – a team that has already proven it can win a championship without him.

Durant took the easy path to a championship; which is fine, if winning a championship is his ultimate goal, because in all likelihood that will now happen, and happen soon. But just because it’s the easy path to a championship, that doesn’t mean everything will be easy for Durant going forward, at least off the court.

If Durant would’ve chosen to stay with OKC, which is what he was reportedly leaning strongly towards when his free agency began, it would’ve been a mere blip in the news feed. That’s because it would’ve been the easy decision to make, and one that might have been expected by Thunder fans and the NBA fan base that had this delusion of Durant – a person with an undying love and devotion for Oklahoma City and the Thunder organization.

That delusion is at least in part Durant’s doing. When LeBron James left Cleveland for South Beach six years ago, Durant tweeted: “Now everybody wanna play for the heat and the Lakers? Let’s go back to being competitive and going at these peoples!”

Nine days before that Jordan-esque tweet (because it sounds like something people think Jordan would’ve said), Durant signed a five-year extension with the Thunder, putting his loyalty to the franchise in ink. Based on that tweet and extension, both of which took place in July 2010, Durant and the Thunder quickly became viewed by many NBA fans as the ‘good guys’ of the league.

When the up-and-coming Thunder, a team that looked poised for multiple championship runs with Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden leading a very talented cast, took on James and the Miami Heat super team in the 2012 NBA Finals, there was one poll question on a popular ESPN show that asked if the Thunder vs. Heat matchup was good vs. evil. It’s obvious who the ‘good’ team was in the poll question.

The idea of that matchup as good vs. evil is a bit dramatic and ridiculous, and a good example of how all-too seriously fans can take their sports. But regardless of how ridiculous that view/question was, it’s how many fans did indeed view that matchup.

When Miami ousted the Thunder in five games, it appeared to the bulk of the NBA masses outside of Miami that evil had triumphed.

That Thunder team, especially Durant, got off the hook relatively easy for losing four-straight games in the Finals, because they were the likeable ‘good guys’ of the league and were a team that appeared destined to get back to the big stage sooner rather than later. But then things took a turn.

After Harden and the Thunder failed to come to an agreement on a contract extension the next season, Harden was, of course, traded to Houston. Several other players and multiple draft picks were included in that trade, but the big fish in that deal was Harden, and at least part of that decision made by the Thunder organization was so the small-market franchise wouldn’t have to pay the luxury tax penalty that would’ve come with keeping him.

Harden’s departure turned out to be far more costly than any luxury tax penalty, because when he left, so did OKC’s dynasty dreams. After Harden left for Houston, it was reasonable to think that if the Thunder couldn’t capture the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him, then they probably weren’t going to do it without him, especially since it was an annual requirement to scratch and claw through the ultra-competitive Western Conference just to go against a LeBron James-led team in the Finals.

The Thunder did everything they could to make up for letting Harden get away. When Durant and Westbrook were both on the floor and healthy, OKC remained among the top teams in the Western Conference, but the Thunder could never get over that hump and get back to the big stage.

The closest they came to getting there again was when they had the defending champion Warriors on the brink of elimination. If it were a best of five series, they would’ve done it. But that’s not the case, and they couldn’t get it done.

Their best chance of ousting the Dubs came in game six at Chesapeake Arena, when OKC had them on the ropes. The two-time league MVP had gone cold, but the other Splash Brother kept the Warriors in it, draining a playoff record for 3-pointers in a game. Steph Curry woke up toward the end, and he and the Warriors did just enough to escape OKC with a hard-fought win and force a game seven.

The Thunder gave all the effort they had left in game seven, but the better team prevailed.

The case could really be made that OKC overachieved in this year’s playoffs. The Thunder beat a legendary Spurs team that was considered the favorite in that series, but history has shown the Spurs tend to lose those types of series a year or two after winning a championship and the Thunder have always given San Antonio fits. So that wasn’t much of a surprise.

The shocker was OKC winning three of the first four games against Golden State, but like they did against the Spurs, the Thunder provided several matchup problems for the Warriors that showed throughout that series. Still, not many would’ve predicted the Thunder ever being up 3-1 against the winningest regular-season team in league history.

That leaves many wondering why Durant chose to leave a very good Thunder team for a team they had on the cusp of elimination. As good as Oklahoma City was, especially in these playoffs, it just wasn’t good enough to win a championship.

The Warriors’ pitch to Durant couldn’t have been better, either. Included in that meeting were the owner, execs, coaches, their top three players and Andre Iguodala, who played an integral role in the recruitment of Durant, but the X-factor was Jerry West. The Logo, Laker legend and current adviser for the Warriors called Durant on Saturday night and probably hit the 2014 league MVP the hardest with his message.

West, who talked Shaq into joining the Lakers in 1996, spoke to Durant from the perspective of an all-time great player who continuously fell short of winning a championship. West, 78, lost in his first seven trips to the Finals with the Lakers before finally winning his first and only championship in 1972. West also came up short in his last Finals appearance, finishing his playing career with a 1-8 record in the Finals.

West told Durant that those losses in the Finals still bother him and he pitched the obvious to him – that playing alongside Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and company would make things easier on him and that he’d be more appreciated for his all-around game, rather than just his scoring.

The Thunder led the league in rebounds this past season, and their leading rebounder was Durant. It’s doubtful that many people knew that.

Making things easier for a nine-year veteran is one appeal, but what had to impact Durant the most was West’s talk of coming up short of a championship time and time again – something that had to sound all-too familiar to the former league MVP.

Falling short of an ultimate goal year after year takes its toll on a person, and sometimes a change of scenery feels necessary, especially if that change can in all likelihood lead to that ultimate goal in much easier and quicker fashion.

Had Durant chosen to stay in Oklahoma City, the Thunder would have been contenders for the next several years, but actually winning the championship would’ve been very difficult, and Durant doesn’t have all the time in the world at this point in his career. So, if Durant’s goal is to win a championship for himself, then this was the right move for him.

Durant’s a veteran now. These are his best years, and it appears as though he got tired of coming up short time and time again. He likely took West’s words to heart, and realized if he was ever going to make this move, now’s the time, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it.

SPORTS STORY >> Beebe beats and ties with Clarksville

Leader sportswriter

The Beebe-Post 91 O’Reilly Auto Parts Junior American Legion team had a big sixth inning in the first game of its doubleheader against Clarksville on Saturday at the University of the Ozarks Field, scoring all seven of its runs in that sixth inning en route to a 7-4 win.

Beebe trailed 3-0 entering the sixth inning, but that’s when the game changed in O’Reilly’s favor. Starting pitcher Mark Clairday and Randy Smith led off the top of the sixth with a pair of walks and the Beebe bats came to life afterward.

Callie Neal, Hunter Free and Bryce Nance hit consecutive singles and Hunter Warden followed their at-bats with a double that gave Beebe the lead for good. Warden’s hit was the fourth in a row for the Post 91 team. Warden later scored Beebe’s sixth run, and Blaine Burge added the final run of the inning on a base hit by Smith. Burge reached on a hit-by-pitch two batters earlier.

Clarksville added its final run its last at-bat, and Burge closed the game for Beebe in the bottom of the seventh to seal the win for the visitors. It was a good ending for Beebe, who struggled in the field and at the plate before exploding in the sixth inning.

“We started off struggling a little bit, defensively,” said Beebe assistant coach John Finley, “a little wild, pitching-wise, and it was a tight strike zone, so that didn’t really help.

“Offensively, we really just didn’t hit any hard balls, any hard ground balls or line drives – just hitting weak pop-ups and weak ground balls. Then in the sixth inning we just exploded for seven runs.”

Clarksville’s starting pitcher showed signs of fatigue by walking the first two batters of the sixth inning, and Beebe took advantage with the four hits that followed.

“He was getting a little tired,” Finley said of Clarksville’s starting pitcher. “After that it was just contagious hitting.”

Clairday threw the first four innings Saturday. He struggled to find his command early, but once he found his groove, Clarksville struggled to hit him. Once his pitch count got up, Smith threw the next two innings before Burge closed it in the seventh.

Smith earned the official win on the bump, but Finley thought all three pitchers threw well, considering the tight strike zone.

“Once he did find (his command), they didn’t really hit him or anything,” Finley said of Clairday. “The three runs we gave them, I think two were unearned. His pitch count got a little high, so we brought in Randy Smith, and he was in the zone and got going. Then we let Blaine Burge close it.”

Warden led Beebe with three hits in the first game. Nance had two, and Hayden Crafton, Clairday, Smith, Neal and Free had one hit apiece.

The second game only lasted three innings because both teams were running short on players and pitching, and that game ended in a 3-3 tie.

Both of Beebe’s runs were scored in the first inning, and were set up by a pair of Clarksville balks. Clarksville then added its two runs in the third inning to end the game in a tie. Nance threw the first two innings of game two, giving up no runs.

SPORTS STORY >> Henderson wins trials, Rio next

Leader sports editor

Jeff Henderson’s coach, Al Joyner, said nothing was going to deny his star pupil’s dream of making the United States Olympic team in the long jump.

Nothing did. Not a Razorback phenom, not an NFL star, and certainly not an equipment crisis.

The McAlmont native and 2007 Sylvan Hills graduate soared more than 28 feet Sunday in Eugene, Ore., to win the U.S. Olympic Trials, beating out Arkansas Razorback Darrion Lawson by a half-inch for first place.

The jump launched Henderson into the 2016 Games in Rio De Janeiro that begin next month. The men’s long jump will be Aug. 12-13. Henderson already has a Gold medal in international competition. He won the Pan Am Games last summer in Toronto, but the Olympic stardom has been his dream and goal for years.

Henderson, who spoke to The Leader on Monday from the Portland airport, insists that winning wasn’t the goal for the weekend, but is happy about his personal-best performance.

“I just wanted to get top three,” said Henderson. “The fact that I won, that makes it even better.”

Henderson took the lead in the preliminary round on his very first jump of 27-feet, 11-inches (8.5 meters), and no one beat it the rest of the day. He was four inches short of that mark with his first jump in the finals on Sunday, and his second jump Sunday was a disappointing 26-4.

His third jump left little doubt about his Olympic status when he set a personal best 8.59 meters, or 28-feet, 2 1/4-inches, the fourth-best jump in Olympic Trials history.

Lawson also went over 28 feet on his fourth jump, which was 28-1 3/4.

Making Team USA for the Rio games has been Henderson’s goal for the last three years, but he didn’t get there without some obstacles.

Henderson, who is also an elite indoor sprinter, packed his sprinting shoes instead of his long jump spikes, and didn’t realize the mistake until he arrived in Oregon from his home and training facility in Chula Vista, Calif.

But things turned out OK.

“I just had to go with what I had,” Henderson said. “And really, I felt like the sprint spikes helped me get off the board better. Sprint spikes are very flimsy, but I liked how they felt off the board. So hopefully I can get Adidas to modify the sprint spikes a little bit and I’ll continue to use them.”

While Henderson won the Olympic Trials, he will enter the games officially as the third longest jumper on the team this year. Lawson’s jump on Sunday is officially the longest jump in the world this year, because it was with a 1.8 meters per second wind. A jump with a wind of 2.1 or more counts in competition, but does not go into record books. Henderson’s jump on Sunday was with a 2.9 wind aid.

Marquis Dendy, who finished fourth Sunday but made the team because the third-place finisher Will Claye did not have an Olympic standard jump this year, has the third-best wind-legal jump this year at 8.42 meters. Marquis Goodwin, a 2012 Olympian and wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, had the longest jump this year until Sunday.

He won Silver at the Pan Am Games, but finished a disappointing seventh in the trials.

Henderson’s teammate and training partner, Mike Hartfield, finished fifth and is the first alternate in case one of the three qualifiers cannot compete.

Americans performed most of the top jumps in the world this year. Henderson’s performance on Sunday is unofficially the longest jump in the world this year. Henderson, Lawson, Goodwin, Dendy, Hartfield, Claye and Jarvis Gotch have 11 of the Top-15 wind-legal jumps.

Athletes from South Africa, Australia, China, South Korea and Great Britain have leaps of at least 8.2 meters and could contend for the medal podium, but Joyner says Henderson’s toughest competition will be from his USA teammates.

“We have the best long jumpers in the world,” said Joyner. “The thing about Jeff is, right now, he’s not thinking about anything or anybody else besides Jeff Henderson. Because he knows that if he does his best, nobody can beat him.

“His best is the best in the world. It’s all a matter of putting it all together at the right time. We had planned this three and a half years ago. The only wrench in our plan that whole time was the world championships last year. It just wasn’t our day, but it was the greatest learning tool Jeff could have asked for.”

At the 2015 championships in Beijing, Henderson struggled to get his steps right. He had two jumps of 8.3 meters or longer, but stepped over the board on one, and took off from almost 30 centimeters behind the board on the other, landing for an official distance of 7.95.

Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford, who is also the 2012 Olympic champion, won the 2015 world championship with a distance of 8.41 meters.

Henderson said Joyner was right about his main concern.

“I worry about myself,” Henderson said. “I feel like I’m on the rise. I just did a personal best, but I just feel like I can go farther.”

Joyner is giving Henderson this week off, but he will return to training camp on Monday. The coach and former Olympic triple jump champion had another date besides competition dates he wanted Henderson’s fans to know about.

“The medal ceremony is Aug. 14,” Joyner said.

EDITORIAL >> Department to the rescue

Southbound traffic on I-440 headed toward the Arkansas River Bridge was backed up for miles early Wednesday afternoon. Traffic stopped for at least 15 minutes and then started to crawl at a snail’s pace. If you were headed for the airport trying to catch a flight, you were probably out of luck.

Or you could try calling friends at the state Highway Department and find out what was going on. Sure enough, Danny Straessle, the affable spokesman for the department, picked up the phone. He looked up on his screen and said, yep, there was major construction going on near the airport but no accidents.

He said if we made it over the bridge, which didn’t look like we would for an hour, we should get off before the airport exit, which was closed for construction and take the detour to the airport, which would delay us more.

But then a couple of state troopers cruised by on the shoulder, as if on cue from Straessle, and traffic started to move and resumed full speed ahead. It was as if Moses had parted the Red Sea for the Israelites, but more humid than Egypt.

The detour around the airport exit wasn’t much of a detour since it paralleled I-440, and travelers going to the airport should have had no trouble making their flights. We made it to our gate long before boarding.

Thank you, Danny Straessle, and all the fine state employees who make an extra effort to help stranded motorists get to their destinations. Now if the Highway Department would only complete the final leg of the North Belt Freeway….

EDITORIAL >> Our readers help us win

For the eighth time in nine years, The Leader has been named “Best of the Best.”

What makes this newspaper so strong, packed with news, features and editorials, that it is a winner in the eyes of the judges, who come from a variety of states?

That’s simple: The reporters and staff and you, the reader.

Unlike many other media in the area that has a new anchorman every week or a new editor, people tend to stay at the Leader.

On the reporting side, senior staff writer John Hofheimer has been with the paper for 14 years, writer Rick Kron for close to 20 years, creative editor Christy Hendricks for 15 years, photographer David Scolli for 14 and reporter and photographer Jeffrey Smith has nine years under his belt.

And editor Jonathan Feldman, well, you can say he was born to be the editor, having been hanging around the newsroom since birth.

What this shows is a dedication to the communities we cover. These reporters have an in-depth knowledge of local government operations. They know who the movers and shakers are and have built connections of trust with the local leadership and area residents. They have compiled volumes of phone numbers, names and sources to call, even when something hits at midnight.

It is nice that the mayor, aldermen and department heads don’t have to start from scratch each time they talk to the newspaper because some new person is in place.

Having reporters, photographers and design people around this long shows the strength of this family newspaper, which will mark its 30th anniversary next spring.

Longevity goes beyond the news side of the paper as John Henderson, our general manager, has been here for 23 years, account manager Susan Swift for a decade and publications manager Matt Robinson started here as a teenager pushing a broom.

Our layout and design experts Clayton Knupp and Lisa Tigue have a combined quarter century here. The advertising department has also been honored for general excellence, along with news and sports.

For a family-owned newspaper, it works out to more than 200 years of experience and that’s not counting the office staff, pressroom or carriers.

It’s that experience and commitment that has given The Leader a dozen blue ribbons in the past 10 years with expectations of a few more down the road.

But none of it would be possible without you, the reader, picking up a copy of our newspaper twice a week or reading the highlights on the website and responding both positively and not so positively to the news.

It is that interaction that keeps us motivated and on our toes to do better every year.

TOP STORY >> Latest hirings at JNP

Leader senior staff writer

The Jacksonville-North Pulaski School Board recently met in special session to hire more teachers and other personnel.

The July school board meeting has been moved to Tuesday to avoid conflict with the Fourth of July.

There’s still a lot to do before school opens in about six weeks, JNPSD Chief of Staff Phyllis Stewart said Tuesday.

Elementary school teachers hired were: Kayla Bar, Bruinna Bedford, Amanda Chapin (media specialist), Pam Childress, and Angela Cooley;

Marissa Hawkins, Whitney Hillman, Kayla Jackson, Alicia Ketron and Belinda Lawrence (special education);

Amanda Lercher, Billie Molly Looney, Bayley Miller, Katelyn Miller and Ashleigh Moore, Courtney Perez and Robyn Sanders;

Jana McWilliams, and Alicia Williams (vocal music)and Aaron Zachery Sloan, elementary physical education and high school football coach.

The board also hired Paula Mannis, special education coordinator; Ron Atkinson, middle school math and science; Michael Boyd, middle school instructional facilitator; Paula Gentry, special education, and Rodney Gilmore, alternative learning teacher;

Deborah Lutz, middle school English and math; Macy Pleis, middle school business education and Monica Ring, math facilitator.

Secondary teachers hired included: Rachael Beene, family consumer science; Melba Bartlett, special education; Michael Dean, social studies; Brandon Fenwick, math; Sheila Gilmore, math; Erica Harrod, marketing; Justin Huckaby, special education; Amanda Mason, science; Ralph Russell, part-time drafting teacher; Jaime Briggs, assistant varsity volleyball; Henry Hawk, head coach cross country, and Erica Harrod, head ninth-grade volleyball coach.

The board hired special education teachers Christina Brown, Mary Craig and Angela Moone.

Robbin Kokinos and Yvette Rivera will teach English as a second language.

A dozen bus drivers, 10 custodians and 28 cafeteria workers were hired.

Bus drivers hired were: Selena Adams, Shamika Boxley, Deeadria Cobbs, Glenda Fletcher, Johnny Hasan and Alfreda King, Jacoby Roark, Freddie Taylor, Junitha West, Bobbi Willhite, Robert Willhite and Travis Wright.

Custodians hired were Rose Alvarado, Vanessa Austin, Jason Evans, Elizabeth Fowler, Larry Hamsher, Joyce Harris, Darrell Joes, Marilyn Jones, Doris Steele and Terry Waggoner.

The board hired as cafeteria workers: Yolanda Bell, Treva Bradley, Wilda Britt, Sherri Brown and Barbara Bures, Hermethia Eubanks, Rowena Gray, Kimberly Grimes, Heather Hambrick and Starla Henry, Michelle Holder, Jennifer Johnson, Guillermina Johnston, Better Meneses, Brenda Oginski, Valerie Pickens, Marilyn Seigrist, Robin Simmons, Yon Simmons, Katrina Simpson, Maria Slutts, Margaret Smith, Terry Strohm, Andrea Vent, Jac-queline Wallace, Heather Woodall, Ann Wudkewych and Amy Yagel.

It hired David Buchart, Sean Calhoun and Lawrence Hendrix for skilled maintenance jobs.

Registered school nurses Amber Abbott, Leslie Eagle, Rowena Lowe, Meredith McGinty, Adam Sodosky and Chastity Stephens were hired.

Also hired, Lana Brooks, technology support specialist; Venisha Brown, attendance clerk; Karen Carney, counselor secretary; Tami Caswell, para-professional (special education CBI); Scott Coleman, alternative learning para-professional; Sharon Cousins, para-professional (special education); Karen Gentry, school secretary and Thedra Hall, para-professional (special education); Carrie Helsley, para-professional (special education); Karrie Jarrett, para-professional (special education); Kristi Linkwiler, attendance clerk; Ebony McKinzy, attendance clerk; Dorothy Nunis, para-professional (special education) and Sharon Rodgers, school secretary; Tandrea Rogers, para-professional (special education); Amanda Self, secretary to assistant superintendent; Josalyn Tillman, para-professional special education; Stephanie Whitfield, counselors’ secretary, Stephanie Wilkins, attendance clerk; Samantha Williams, school secretary, and Elizabeth Beattie, bookkeeper for free and reduced lunch.

The board accepted resignations from former hires, including five elementary school teachers, Tiffany Brandon, Jonathan Gunsolus, LaSonya Hillard, Erica Mack, Rhiannon Sniffin and Richard Wrightner.

Other resignations include: Kaela Ake, special education; Morgan Collins, middle school social studies; Warren Max Hatfield, special education; NaToya Norwood, middle level; Jennifer Oakley, secondary English; Lamont Page, middle school social studies, Karen Ratliff, special education; Jeffrey Rion, secondary social studies; Derek Shaw, science and ninth-grade head boys basketball coach, and Jennifer Tauton, gifted and talented.

TOP STORY >> Hero’s quick actions save two

Leader staff writer

A neighbor, who luckily had a tough day and couldn’t get to sleep, thwarted a late night out-of-control grease fire that threatened the lives of two Sherwood residents and an entire apartment building.

The Sherwood Fire Department and city council honored that neighbor, Kyle Johnson, last week for his brave action in the April 28 fire.

“What he did is not something we recommend, but he did everything right and saved those people,” said Sherwood Fire Chief David Teague, “and everyone is grateful for that.

Johnson said he didn’t hesitate once he found out people were still in the apartment. “I had already put the fire out, so it was just the smoke that was an issue and I figured I had a better chance than they did,” referring to the young boy and his bedridden grandmother trapped inside the home.

Johnson, who works at the state fairgrounds, said he was just about ready to lie down about 2:30 in the morning when there was banging on his door. “It put me in a panic for a bit hearing that banging and the screaming,” Johnson said. When he answered the door it was his neighbor. “He was clearly in a panic and was screaming ‘Oh, no. Oh, no,” Johnson said.

According to Teague, the individual was warming up some food on the electric stove top, but had turned on the wrong burner, left the stove unattended and forgot about it until he smelled something burning and saw smoke coming out of the kitchen. The occupant attempted to pick up a flaming pot from the stove and carry it outside. He started to get burned by the flames and dropped the pot in the living room, catching the carpet on fire and partially blocking the only escape route from the apartment.

That’s when he ran out and started banging on doors for help.

Luckily for him Johnson kept a cool head. “I knew the building had four fire extinguishers posted in various places and one was almost outside his neighbor’s door. I grabbed it and knocked the flames down.”

Johnson said it was then that the neighbor told him there were two people (a nephew and a grandmother) in the apartment. “He might have said something earlier to me, but it was in a scream and incoherent,” Johnson said.

Johnson hollered into the apartment for the two to get down on the floor under the smoke and that he was coming in.

The young boy was crying from his bedroom that he was scared. “I got him out first,” Johnson said, and then asked where the grandmother was. I was told she was in a bed in the living room right by the fire.”

The fire chief said had the pot dropped a foot closer it would have caught the elderly woman’s bed on fire very quickly.

Johnson went in and carried her out just as Sherwood police and fire rescue were rolling up to the scene.

In presenting a certificate of appreciation to Johnson, Teague said, “The Sherwood Fire Department wants to recognize Mr. Johnson for his quick thinking, and his bravery in assisting the victims in the apartment. His actions possibly prevented two deaths or serious injuries. Because he acted as he did, heavy property damage and the spreading of the fire to other apartments did not occur.”

The mayor told Johnson, “Thank you for getting involved.”

Johnson took the accolades in stride. “This was not my first time to be in this type of situation. I just did what I needed to do,” he said, adding, “But my mom sure will hang on to the certificate.”

The fire chief told the council that two of the biggest mistakes that exacerbated the fire were the occupant’s attempt to carry the flaming pot outside “Do not attempt this,” Teague said, “it almost always ends badly.” He told the council the best thing to do, if it can be done safely, is to put a lid on the pot to extinguish the fire. “You can also use a fire extinguisher, but never use water on this type of fire.”

The chief also pointed out that the battery had been removed from the smoke alarm a few days earlier. “If the alarm had been energized, it would have gone off and alerted the occupant before the pot burst into flames.”

Teague added that the fire department will install free smoke alarms. “If you need a smoke alarm or a battery for one, call us at 835-0342, and we will arrange to bring one to your house.”

TOP STORY >> Widening could run into more roadblocks

Leader senior staff writer

Area mayors are taking a closer look at the state Highway and Transportation Department’s plan to widen I-30 eight to 10 lanes over the Arkansas River bridge.

Mayors north of the river along Hwy. 67/167 seem agreed they want to lessen congestion on that highway and on I-40 and I-30 across the bridge so people in their bedroom communities can get quickly to and from work or to shopping or the medical corridor on I-630.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said he had mixed feelings about the Little Rock-North Little Rock portion. He said the project was complicated and controversial. “We’re trying to find out how the six-lane waiver or repeal would serve us…in the future,” Fletcher said.

He also asked what would happen on I-30 toward Benton. “This is not an end-all project. We need to find out how that decision would impact the grid in central Arkansas,” the mayor said.

Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert says his town had an analogous situation recently when some residents wanted to widen Ninth Street, but it could reduce parking “and cause consternation down the road.”

Regarding the highway plan through downtown Little Rock, Cypert said, “I’m beginning to think we need to do more due diligence to make it more palatable….It’s important to have a vibrant downtown. I think they have some legitimate concerns.”

Cypert says the Highway Department has promised a public meeting in Cabot on the project soon.

Many residents of Jacksonville, Sherwood, Cabot, Austin and Ward are concerned about the difficult one-mile segment of I-40 between Hwy. 67/167 and I-30 toward the Arkansas River Bridge. That section leaves local traffic weaving and merging across as many as four lanes with through traffic—much of it big trucks—in time to either continue on I-40 or to get to the Hwy. 67/167 interchange.

The state Highway and Transportation Department asked Metroplan last Wednesday for a waiver to exceed the six-lane highway limit so they can build an eight- or 10-lane Arkansas River Bridge and approaches through North Little Rock and Little Rock.

Metroplan Executive Director Jim McKenzie said staff would meet with the Regional Planning Advisory Council and the Highway Department to evaluate the justification for waiving the six-lane limit. While the department wants to know within 30 days, McKenzie said the information was not time critical.

The department says it wants public input on its two alternatives, but has not responded to an alternative popular with many downtown Little Rock businesses and residents—a boulevard style bridge which returns to grade level and is covered by grassy park-like structures through much of downtown.

Downtown Little Rock, including the River Market, is a pedestrian friendly area where hotels, apartments, condominiums and businesses are growing and some see a 10-lane bridge and approach as an impediment.

Those proponents say Highway and Transportation Director Scott Bennett has essentially told them and Metroplan, “My way or the highway.”

He has said if the department doesn’t get its waiver—or repeal the six-lane policy—the money will be used on other projects across the state.

The entire 30-Crossing project covers about 6.7 miles from the I-30, I-440, I-530 confluence in the south to the I-30, I-40, Hwy. 67/167 north terminal and is expected to cost about $631 million.

Bids will be accepted in 2018 and the project should be completed sometime in 2022.

The Highway Department says construction of a wider bridge will lessen congestion, but opponents say when you increase capacity, traffic increases and you get more congestion.

Tom Fennell of the Little Rock architecture firm Fennell/Purifoy, has designed and fine-tuned the alternative popular with many residents and organizations, but essentially ignored by the Highway Department.

Fennell says that even as other, more progressive cities and Highway Departments are tearing down big highways that interrupt their downtowns, the Highway Department may have 1950s ideas—set in concrete—that will leave them behind when it’s time to retire the next bridge.

Metroplan, the local, federally mandated metropolitan planning organization, has design standards and policies that must be followed whenever federal money is spent on a project or it involves an interstate highway.

Without approval by the Metroplan board of directors, the Highway Department can’t build a highway wider than six lanes. Bennett has asked Metroplan to amend its six-lane policy, but to expedite construction of the I-30 Crossing project, Bennett has asked Metroplan to proceed first with a waiver specific to this project.

The six-lane policy limits construction to six lanes until all interstates and state highways are built out to six lanes and feeder roads built out to handle robust traffic, according to McKenzie.

“If the Highway Department wants more lanes, it needs to look at building out the grid. We’ll have analysis at the staff level with more information on why this corridor deserves a wavier,” McKenzie said.

“There’s an argument to be made that in this short corridor, with several short and major interchanges, it’s helpful in order to handle the lane mergers and weaves,” he said.

The planning and advisory committee will want more information on what an enhanced (less ambitious) six-lane system would look like, but so far the department has refused.

“It’s not a done deal,” McKenzie said.

“If Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County are strongly opposed to an alternative, the Federal Highway Administration would have to take that seriously,” he added.

Little Rock Alderman Kathy Webb, a former state senator, has tried unsuccessfully to get the city council to oppose the highway proposal.

“This thing has a lot of moving parts, and there’s an election between now and then,” McKenzie said. “Everybody needs to be moving their heads up and down at the same time.”

The Highway Department wants to fulfill its environmental responsibilities with an environmental assessment, instead of a longer, more substantive Environment Impact Statement. There’s been talk of a lawsuit if necessary to force the EIS for a project of this importance, especially one crossing a major river.

It’s been about 10 years since any central Arkansas highway change or construction has required a complete EIS. That was the North Belt Freeway.

Fennell and others say that for the I-30 Crossing project as envisioned by the Highway Department to be at all successful, it would require billions of dollars of widening and reconfiguration of other interstates.

“No city goes quietly into a progressive future with entrenched politicians,” Fennell said.

He said the Highway Department’s plan would suck up all the highway money for the next 20 years. It would have to widen I-30 south to Benton, I-630, I-40, I-440 and I-430.

“Why are we spending all that money if it doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “They are just going to move the bottlenecks.”

Eight opponents to the plan, including Fennell and Kathy Wells, president of the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods, spoke at the meeting.

“Please call for a complete environmental impact statement as soon as possible,” Wells said.