story by Ryan Saylor
Van Buren is still feeling the effects of the Great Recession, as evidenced by a mix of sales tax figures, number of building permits issued and other factors. The assessment was part of Mayor Bob Freeman's eighth state of the city address, an annual update on the status of the second largest municipality in the Fort Smith region.
During his update on the city's status, Freeman highlighted a few key points. First among them was the amount of county sales tax the city receives. The figure has been flat during the last three years, only rising $10,843, or 0.0049%, from 2011 to 2013.
In the last seven years, the only massive increase in the city's sales tax receipts, county or otherwise, was in 2008 — the result of building supplies and other materials being purchased for repairs and rehabilitation of properties following a hail storm that caused damage throughout much of the city.
Regarding building permits, Freeman noted how activity had stalled in certain sectors as a result of the downturn in the economy during the last five years, a slump the Fort Smith region — Van Buren included — has been slow to come out of.
"I can remember as a member of the planning commission, numbers were much higher as far as plats and activities we were having," he said. "This is just a result of the economy, but numbers are pretty level. A little bit of increase as far as the plats are concerned."
Even though Van Buren saw an increase of 38.96% in building permits issued last year, much of the activity was either municipal-related, such as the city's newest fire station, or commercial-related, with the mayor specifically highlighting the upcoming CVS Pharmacy to be built at the intersection of Fayetteville and Rena Roads at a cost of $1.283 million and the upcoming expansion of the Legacy Heights Retirement Center.
Among the major capital projects underway or near completion, the mayor said the widening project on Rena Road was nearing completion, though not giving a specific time.
"My wife and I drove it on Sunday again. It's really close to completion. The biggest issue is getting that last layer of asphalt on it and that's going to be weather dependent. And we're really not pushing for that right now because we want to get it down when the weather's good. And we're close to getting Rena Road completed, a project that's been promised to the community since the 1980s, actually."
The revelation of further delays comes about two months after the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's expected completion date of Thanksgiving had already come and gone.
One milestone the city is looking forward to in the year to come is the completion of the Interstate 540 rehabilitation project, which is expected to take 15,000 cars per day off Van Buren streets and back on the interstate.
The city is also looking to install signalization at the intersection of 26th Street and Kibler Road, in addition to working with Crawford County on the replacement of the Pevehouse Road bridge, an area prone to flooding during rain events.
Freeman said the city is also moving forward with a variety of projects funded by a one cent sales tax approved by voters in 2012, including a new police department, an already under construction fire station and a new senior center. Prior to Freeman's address, the city council approved the acceptance of a bid from Crawford Construction for the building of the city's new police department for $3.568 million. The facility will be located at the top of Log Town Hill, at the site of the former Sherman's Grocery store.
The mayor referred to his first state of the city address seven years ago, recalling that the only capital project he could speak of was the city's new library. Alderman Donna Parker said it was the success of that project that lead voters to approve the current slate of projects, which includes parks improvements across the city.
"I like the fact that you brought up seven or eight years ago, when you first did (a state of the city address)," she said. "The library was the only item on here, and in my opinion that's what started the citizens realizing that the half-cent can really work wonders and create something in our city that we're so proud of. So it was a first step."
It was a sentiment echoed by Freeman.
"That was a great eye-opener for our community. I agree with you."
As for what the future holds for leadership in Van Buren, Freeman declined to discuss whether he would seek a third term in the mayor's office, which would result in another four state of the city addresses during his tenure.
"No comment at this time. I'm sitting behind a city seal. I'm not going to do it."
In other business, the city council approved a revised budget for 2013. According to Freeman, the revised budget replaces budget estimates with actual FY2013 year-end totals, essentially closing out the books for the previous year.
Freeman also presented a key to the city of Van Buren to Alderman David Moore, commemorating his 25 years of service on the city council.