For Jonesboro, is past prologue?

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 729 views 

It’s a rare treat when a single document can provide a look at the past and a glimpse into the future simultaneously.

That’s the way it felt the other day as I perused a copy of a soft-bound, 50-page volume bearing the bold if somewhat grandiose title “Jonesboro Arkansas — Transportation, Land Use Population Plan Book.” This volume may be available at your local public library or perhaps at the Jonesboro city hall, but the copy that was lent to me came from a private collection. A friend was cleaning out some files and thought I might be interested in thumbing through it, and indeed, I was.

In the preface, the plan book says the project that produced it was “exploratory in nature — a pioneer effort in the use of Federal grants-in-aid funds for Urban Planning Assistance and for Highway Planning to accomplish a single project which would coordinate urban and transportation planning.”

The plan cost $20,000 to produce and was funded by state and federal dollars along with $6,000 in city money, which nearly 60 years ago was not an insignificant sum. The city’s fairly new Traffic Study Advisory Commission, the Arkansas Highway Department’s planning and research division, and the University of Arkansas prepared the plan in connection with two federal agencies.

The Data Book portion of the document was produced to provide “a base against which the characteristics of potential future changes in land use population, economy and transportation could be measured,” cautioning that the historical cannot by themselves serve as a plan for the future. The numbers, however, can serve as a “’springboard’ for actually planning for the Jonesboro of 1980.”

However, the planners missed the mark a bit when they projected the population of The Jonesboro of 1980 would hit 39,000. The U.S. Bureau of the Census counted just 31,530 inhabitants inside the city limits. Plus the planners said the topographic and land use characteristics indicate that most of this future population would live within the existing city.

The only demands for vacant or undeveloped land, the planners projected, would come from residential subdivisions and industry. Effective planning for residential development, redevelopment or rehabilitation within the city “could largely offset any demand for expansion outside the [urban] area.”

That hasn’t exactly been the case — consider the mass annexation of the late 1980s and the explosion of housing developments in the southwest sector of the city as well as significant growth in areas in the northern and eastern areas of the city.

The document also called for the city’s planning to provide for large industrial sites with highway and rail access. The planners were spot on here – witness the industrial park area on Jonesboro’s east side that is home to a variety of manufacturing operations.

In terms of what types of industries the city should seek, the 1960s planners felt that food processing and its corollary truck farming “should be encouraged and stimulated.”

A couple of decades later, Jonesboro’s economic development leaders began focusing on attracting value-added food processing to the city’s manufacturing mix. As a result, a wide variety of such products, ranging from frozen meals to deli meats to snack foods to breakfast cereals are made and shipped from Jonesboro’s industrial parks daily.

That might not have been exactly what the planners envisioned, but the value added food processing is an integral part of Jonesboro’s diverse manufacturing base. The truck farming, perhaps not so much, though the farmers’ market at Arkansas State certainly offers consumers fresh fruits and vegetables.

Here’s something from the study 60 years ago about which those of us who live in and around Jonesboro are often heard to complain: “The 1960 roadway transportation system suffers mainly from inefficiency. Neither the state highway, county road nor municipal street system was designed and laid out to serve either the present character or degree of land use in the study area.”

I don’t think anyone would argue that we now have a 1960s road system, but at certain times there are several congested roadways and intersections. To their credit, the city of Jonesboro and the Arkansas Department of Transportation (in 1960 the Arkansas Highway Department) have partnered and contractors are working to address many of those problem areas.

One thing the planning document recommended that all of us in this area use — and use very heavily — is an expressway. The plan called for a four-lane U.S. 63 in a new location with what was termed “planned access.” Drawings in the plan book show the expressway route running along the route that was actually chosen much later for the U.S. 63 Bypass.

The route, built in somewhat an arc curving around the south edge of the city, indeed bypassed the old U.S. 63 through town. You will recall, however, that it opened as a two-lane highway with at-grade rather than controlled access intersection, and the new road was plagued with a number of traffic accidents with fatalities. Later, the Highway Department, using funds secured by Congress, formed a federal “access control demonstration project” and made the roughly 9-mile stretch of the Bypass into an access-controlled divided highway.

It’s worthwhile to study what yesterday’s planners thought Jonesboro would look like two decades in the future and to compare their predictions and recommendations with today’s reality.

Jonesboro will have a new mayor beginning Jan. 1, 2021, with Mayor Harold Perrin retiring after 12 years due to health concerns. Six of the city’s 12 city council seats also are up for election, so there also could be changes there also.

2021 seems like a good time to begin some long-term planning for what we want the city to become in the next two decades.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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