Van Buren mayoral candidates talk leadership, vision and challenges

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 168 views 

It may have been a death match in Fayetteville Tuesday (Oct. 14) as the candidates for U.S. Senate duked it out in a televised debate over who should represent Arkansas for the next six years in Washington, but a candidate forum for the men vying to lead the city of Van Buren was the furthest thing from a fight to the death.

Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman, who is seeking a third term, took the stage at the King Opera House Tuesday in a Van Buren Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum with Alderman Max Blake as the two discussed leadership, vision and challenges facing the city they both call home.

Forum moderator Dr. Henry Rinne, dean of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith's College of Humanities, started the evening off by asking both men what they viewed the job of the mayor to be.

"In the mayor-council form of government, the mayor does serve as basically the CEO. A lot of people get confused (because of) what happens in Fort Smith. In Van Buren, we don't have a city administrator. In Van Buren, the mayor has the role of the public relations side as a cheerleader, as the leader of the community. And he's also the chief administrator," Freeman said, noting that his background as a retired Army lieutenant colonel had prepared him to lead the various city departments and manage budgets.

Freeman said while the job includes oversight of various departments and budgets, a key part of his job as a leader of the community during nearly two terms in office as been building relationships.

"It's about building relationships, it's about building partnerships, it's about reaching out to other organizations to make sure that they have whatever resources that they need that you can do within your power to make sure they're successful. Because that's what makes sure the community is successful are the partnerships.”

Blake said the job was about more than simply being the CEO, but was also about casting a vision for the community.

"The mayor should have a vision to lead Van Buren into the future with some economic development (ideas). The growth of Van Buren is critical to the (mayor's job)," he explained.

As a visionary, Blake echoed Freeman's statement regarding the mayor being a champion for the city he leads.

"With that said, we just need the mayor to be out front of every organization that we can be and just promote and cheer on and form a team that will take Van Buren into the future.”

The men also explained to the near-capacity opera house their visions for what the future of Van Buren would be should either of them win the next four years in the municipal complex's corner office.

Freeman said his goal has been to create a sense of place and leave a legacy.

"My vision for Van Buren is that everyone who lives here now, has lived here, will have that same sense of place (that brought Freeman home after retiring from the Army). My vision for Van Buren is that our heritage is not just our future. We're proud of our heritage and we're proud of who we are and we say, 'We're Van Buren, Arkansas.' We look to make the improvements and set the goals for what's going to be following on. My desire is to be the mayor for the next four years and after four years from now, I want to make this place better than (how) I found it. In four years from now, I want to hand that torch off and say, 'Here. You take it and you make it even better than it is today.' Let's continue to move forward. That's what we're doing.”

He continued by saying he envisioned the city growing its transportation industry through growth on the Arkansas River's navigation channel, as well as tapping into potential resulting from possible construction of Interstate 49 through southern Crawford County.

Blake said his vision was to be "the catalyst" that helped to create jobs in the city.

"My vision would be that we need to figure out some ways that we attract those folks, whether it's through our own (city-owned industrial park separate from the current industrial park near I-540 and the Arkansas River). Everybody needs a job and I would like to see the folks from Van Buren not leave the city limits of Van Buren in order to go work. … Van Buren is a great place, it just needs to be tweaked a little bit and polished up. And I think it can be better and we can attract more folks to live and open businesses and prosper in Van Buren.”

Blake's support of a city-owned industrial park in addition to the city's privately-owned industrial neighborhood had no firm funding proposal attached with it, but instead was cast as part of his vision for developing the Lee Creek Road and Interstate 40 area into an economic engine for the community, which he said has been largely untapped of its potential.

On the issue of challenges, Freeman mentioned the wet weather overflows that have plagued Fort Smith's sewer system, leading to what could become a possible federal lawsuit at any time. Freeman said Van Buren's aging water and sewer infrastructure was facing similar issues that he said should be addressed within the next 10 years before the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Justice have a chance to get involved.

Already, he said the city has conducted testing of the system for a report to be submitted to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, which will eventually come with a list of recommendations and possible timelines for correcting system deficiencies. It is an issue, Freeman said, that could be a staggering challenge within the next decade.

"The federal government may say (to Fort Smith), 'We don't care what you plan is. This is what you're going to do and this is where you're going to spend your dollars.' We don't want to get into that. We want to make sure that we submit a good plan and that we've got a plan moving forward. But that is going to be a major, major economic issue for dollars that we're going to be facing. And we may have to make some tough decisions that we don't want to make today.”

Blake said the challenge with the water and sewer issue and any other issues facing the city comes back to money and where does the city find money to address its most pressing needs.

"The money is the biggest challenge. Where do we find the money? How do we acquire the money? How do we secure it and what do we pay for first? With that said, we have to have a solid economic development plan and take a few risks and maybe spend some money on a thing we think will attract someone to Van Buren to spend some money. The biggest challenge is just finding the money to pay for the things that's going to be required, mandated now by ADEQ, the EPA.”

The non-partisan election for mayor will take place Nov. 4.