Improving infrastructure and enhancing quality of life for the region’s growing population was the main theme discussed by city, county, regional and national leaders on Friday (Jan. 23) in Bentonville.
About 150 business professionals heard reports from Bentonville and Bella Vista Mayors Bob McCaslin and Peter Christie, respectively, as well as Benton County Judge Bob Clinard, and Northwest Arkansas Council President Mike Malone at the Bentonville, Bella Vista Chamber’s Business Matters breakfast. A surprise visitor was U.S. Rep. Steve Womack R-Rogers.
Malone shared a glimpse of how far the region has come in the past four years reflecting back to the 2010 Greater NWA Growth Strategy plan sponsored by the council.
“It was to be a 5-year plan and I am here to say we accomplished our goals in four years because of the strong cooperation among city, county and business leadership,” Malone said.
Population has grown from 470,000 to 505,000, up 7.44%. The region adds 24 new residents daily. Malone said 19,000 jobs were added since 2010, helping to take unemployment rate to 3.9%. He said 27 lane miles of interstate highway have been added and 75 miles of new bikes trails have opened since 2010.
The big gain was in gross domestic product growth for the region which boasted a 30% increase in the period. Malone said that was nearly three times the state’s growth and twice the national GDP growth of 16%.
Malone the council continues to hear from outside investors looking at new opportunities with Benton and Washington counties.
“We had real estate developers in yesterday from Atlanta to look at our regional economic statistics. Their consensus was that this region is leading much of the nation in growth. They saw opportunities and planned to tell others,” Malone said.
Next week Malone said the council will reveal its growth plans for the next five years that will continue much of the ongoing work. The plan will include more work to meet the need for more talent development and recruitment as employers continue to discuss their inability to find qualified applicants to grow their businesses.
Mayor Bob McCaslin said the city of Bentonville is in an “enviable fiscal position” as 2015 gets underway.
“Our city council mission is to be a point of change always moving forward,” McCaslin said.
In his ninth year as mayor, McCaslin said he continues to be amazed at the national recognitions the city attains on a regular basis. Most recently 21-C Museum Hotel downtown was ranked as the No. 7 best among 8,100 hotels in the country among the hospitality industry.
He said the city’s new community center is 85% completed and will open later this spring offering activities to everyone from toddlers to elders in wheelchairs.
McCaslin said road infrastructure work continues around the city. He updated the group on the 8th Street extension to Interstate 49 from Wal-Mart’s Home Office.
“We are in the midst of acquiring right-of-ways at this time. The next phase for the 5-lane expansion will be moving the utility lines which take about a year to complete,” he said.
Clinard said he’s thankful for the good weather this winter because it helped the county go further with road paving projects.
Two issues on the heart and mind of Clinard involve historic landmarks — War Eagle Bridge circa 1907 and the Benton County Court House circa 1928. He said there are plans to bypass the War Eagle Bridge with new construction that will better handle the traffic load. The historic bridge will be kept and perhaps used as part of the trail system.
A bigger issue is the courthouse which anchors the downtown square in Bentonville. Clinard said the building is inadequate and fails to meet nearly every code in the book.
“We are in need of about 100,000 square feet of space and we are at 60,000 in the three buildings we have downtown. There are safety factors to consider as well as space needs,” Clinard said.
He said something must be done to ease the crowding issues.
“I don’t want to move the courthouse from the square, but I do want to put all the county offices and courts under one roof and still provide segregated entrances for prisoners. As it is now jurors have to walk through the crowd, defendants and plaintiffs just to use the restroom. We have plaintiff families housed in the same waiting area as the defendants’ families. There is a need for an updated facility. If that can be built downtown that’s great but if not, we will have to move it,” Clinard told The City Wire.
The timeline for potentially moving the courthouse to a larger facility is about three to four years, he said.
“Ultimately, the voters will have their say on this issue,” Clinard added.
Newly elected Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie said the city has two big anniversaries this year. The city name was originally inked in 1915 and the Property Owners Association will celebrate its 50th birthday.
“We are streamlining the building permits process in the city and calling investors to the area. We are open for business,” Christie said.
He said the city in 2015 will open a 15-mile trail in June that loops from Lake Bella Vista into Missouri. He said a paved trail is also in the works. The Wonderland Cave area has announced plans to open a miniature golf range as well this summer.
The city is also finalizing a 21,000 square-foot building for the streets department and a new fire station near the Highlands area in an effort to bring the fire rating down from a 5 to a 3.
“We are working on a five year plan for the city development,” Christie said.
Rep. Womack said he hopes to dispel the myth that “all things are good now” for the Republican majority.
“It’s not so. 54 votes in the Senate won’t get it done,” he said. “We have several cliffs from which to dive this year,” he said.
The first being immigration. He said a funding plan on that issue is being tossed. The transportation bill is another hurdle Womack said could benefit Northwest Arkansas if it is adequately addressed. The biggest elephant in the room, according to Womack, is figuring out a sustainable solution for the $150 billion Medicare problem.
“I expect we will flirt with raising the debt ceiling again this year. It’s going to be a tough year for Congress. I suspect I will swallow hard, add a spoon of sugar and hope it all goes down well,” Womack concluded.
Mayor McCaslin during his speech had some advice for Womack to take back to Washington.
“We, in Bentonville, overestimate our expenses to the worst degree, then we under call our revenue projections and that has been a success. That’s a good way to run a government, Congressman,” McCaslin said.