story by Ryan Saylor
Two longtime Alma residents have filed to be the city's next mayor following news that long-time Mayor John Ballentine would not seek re-election. The candidates, retired businessman Keith Greene and former Rep. Ed Thicksten, have both filed to appear on the November ballot.
Both men have said jobs and the completion of Interstate 49 through Alma would be their focus if elected mayor of the city of 5,400.
"For many years, Crawford and Sebastian Counties were considered part of Northwest Arkansas when it was convenient, " Greene said in a statement. "When (I-49) was completed that ended any dispute. It placed Alma in a most unique situation. It ascertained that growth would come. Few cities of Alma's size enjoy that benefit. As the next Mayor, my challenge will be to harness that growth and prepare the city to handle the demands as needed."
Thicksten, who served in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1975 to 1999, also spoke of the interstate's importance to the community and said his past experience with funding the construction would put him in position to advocate for completion of the next stretch of the interstate from Alma to Barling, where a section of what will eventually be I-49 is scheduled to open in the fall.
"When I was in the legislature, I was one of the chief sponsors of the (legislation that guaranteed) the state paid its share of what was then I-540 and what is now I-49. I have a long history with the highway. In fact, I was involved in the legislation in the House to name it after (former U.S. Rep.) John Paul Hammerschmidt," he said. "I am in charge of the Build the Bridge Coalition. And I am very involved in the work to get the remaining 12, 13 miles of what we have in Alma to bring it on south to connect to the section to be dedicated later this fall in Barling."
Greene and Thicksten agree that completion of the road will bring job growth to the city and both have said the Alma Public Schools were a factor in individuals deciding to settle in the community, with Thicksten going so far as to call it the "best school system in Arkansas."
Thicksten said the city must have more than a good school system to continue growing and that is where a combination of public and private partnerships, along with state and federal grants, could allow the city to possibly develop an industrial or technology park to fuel further growth and attract more families.
"We need to do more as a city. We can have great education, but if we don't have jobs and businesses to come to, we haven't done our job," Thicksten said. "Alma is one of the few cities our size that doesn't have an industrial park. We also don't have a business or technology park. Those are obvious things we can do in a relatively short amount of time."
He said using a combination of grants, state and federal funding and private investment would allow the city to develop a technology park for a small investment. And he said developing a technology or other business-type section of the city could spur additional private investment.
"If they see the opportunity to make some money, they'll be on board," he said of businesses who could make the decision to locate in Alma.
Greene's mayoral announcement said he would continue the work of Ballentine, who he said has set Alma on a "positive course."
"As mayor, I will work to continue the positive course set by the current administration to keep Alma a great place to live. As Mayor of Alma, my focus each day will be to promote the growth and prosperity of our city with the assets we now have and the possibilities to come and make Alma a marketable city."
He continued: "I cannot claim to have held any former political office, but I can claim to have over 40 years of seeking opportunities and solving problems successfully."
Thicksten said if elected, he would create a committee of 21 diverse residents to make suggestions to the mayor and city council on policies to improve the future of the community in a transparent way. He added that he looked forward to the next 88 days of campaigning.
"I'm excited about it. Instead of it being work, I consider it a great pleasure to campaign. I enjoy listening to (the voters) and meeting them."
Municipal elections will appear on the Nov. 4 general election ballot in Crawford County.