Jonesboro mayoral candidates discuss economy, COVID-19

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 2,001 views 

Four candidates will vie to replace retiring Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin this fall. Perrin, a three term incumbent, will not seek re-election due to health concerns. The candidates — former State Rep. Harold Copenhaver, businesswoman Amanda Dunavant, businessman Thomas Elwood, and physical therapist Andy Shatley — have all filed to replace Perrin.

The candidates agreed to answer a series of questions for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. Their answers appear in alphabetical order.

TB&P: What ideas do you have for improving the city’s economic fortunes during the next four years? What will you do to spur job and wage growth? Please give specifics.

Harold Copenhaver: Given the set of unknowns our local and national economy are facing, I think the immediate focus has to be supporting the local businesses we already have. We can’t look past that responsibility and risk losing all the progress Jonesboro has made in the last decade. The single best way to appeal to new industry is to show that you have a stable local economy.

Beyond that, as mayor I want to quickly put together an economic summit including the Chamber of Commerce and leaders in the industrial, educational, medical and other fields to help forge a strong plan for positioning Jonesboro for success. We need to be making every effort to attract and grow good-paying jobs to our city.

Harold Copenhaver.

I believe that investing in our infrastructure must be a priority. We need to be on the cutting edge of high-speed broadband, our electrical grid and roads need to be top notch, and we need to improve capacity at our airport. These are areas that an industry evaluates early on in their viability studies. We also need to focus on investing in revitalizing the core of Jonesboro and take advantage of incentives, grants, and opportunity zones to spark investment in the areas where we need it most.

Our medical community is a pillar in Jonesboro’s economy. There has been close to a billion dollars invested in new and expanding healthcare over a 10-year period. We should do everything in our power to support and capitalize on that. By working with Arkansas State University and the NYIT medical school we can ensure that we have a reliable, ready to work pipeline of talent that is a major factor in attracting more high-paying jobs here.

Amanda Dunavant: I have several ideas to improve our economic development. The first is to remove the $18,000 budgeted for mayor’s expenses. Second, I will be looking to industry, family entertainment, transportation companies, and small businesses based in Arkansas. I would invite them to Jonesboro. We have many blessings that will support growing companies. I will also continue to encourage, support, and buy from local businesses. We need to quit going to other towns to purchase items when, for the most part, we have it here in Jonesboro. I will also, out of public comment, look towards more family-oriented businesses. We have enough big business restaurants. We need more entertainment for families, kids, and teenagers. I will also encourage businesses to pay a livable wage.

Thomas Elwood.

Thomas Elwood: Hard to answer this question given all the uncertainties we face not only as a city, but as a nation as well. I think that we have to invest in public safety. As our city grows, so does our need to feel secure. Only in a secure environment can business function at a high level. I also feel that we must enhance and increase green spaces throughout the city. Given my background in the green industry, I am the only candidate running for mayor who can deliver on a promise of adding green spaces and do so on a budget.

Andy Shatley: Our local economy is strong currently. We have been quite fortunate during the COVID-19 crisis and our tornado last March to see retail sales and sales tax revenue exceed all expectations. We are currently running 3-5% ahead of budgeted revenues.

Moving forward, we will create an Entrepreneur Commission and Small Business Summit that focuses on streamlining the start-up and expansion process for new and existing local businesses. Establishing the Jonesboro Convention & Visitors Bureau is more relevant now than ever. With the construction of new hotels coupled with the availability of new convention space, this hospitality “incubator” will be tasked with continuing the economic growth of Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas by stimulating tourism and promotion of events.

Andy Shatley.

TB&P: The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to continue into the next mayor’s term. What proactive steps would you take as mayor to minimize the health crisis? Do you think enough is being done on the local level by the current administration?

Copenhaver: Even if the virus side of the pandemic is greatly reduced by January, the economic effects of the pandemic will be just starting. I believe it is imperative that the next mayor of Jonesboro have real government operations and budgeting experience or our city will be in a very tough spot.

On the public health side of the pandemic, I think it’s critical that there be an open line of communication between the mayor’s office and local hospitals with the Governor, the State Health Department, the Department of Education, and the Attorney General’s office. Having the most up-to-date information, data, and best practices saves lives, and that’s priority one.

We cannot gamble with our children. We need to make every effort to encourage our local school districts to continue to innovate and look for both traditional and non-traditional avenues of making sure our children do not fall behind during this crisis. But we also need to continue to work with the Health Department and the Department of Education to ensure that we are taking all possible steps to keep our children safe and to reduce the chance of school related spread.

When it comes to protecting our citizenry at large, it is important that we stay in contact with the Attorney General’s office so we can be on the lookout for scams and criminal attempts to prey on worried and vulnerable people. Open and transparent communication will help us navigate these uncertain times. We need to keep people informed on the virus, informed on what steps they can take to reduce risk, and informed on what steps we as a city are taking to build confidence that we will overcome this challenge and continue our path of growth and progress.

Amanda Dunavant.

Dunavant: I will continue on with what is right now. However, I would ask for public comment regarding face masks. I would ask about giving the decision back to the businesses themselves since ultimately the liability falls back on the business owners. The current administration has done a wonderful job. Other counties that are in comparison in size are not faring the storm as well.

Elwood: Yes, COVID-19 is real and will be a great health concern for up to five years. As mayor, there is not much that can be done except to follow CDC guidelines as much as possible. I never understood the need for a citywide curfew.

Shatley: Our administration will assemble the first ever Jonesboro Public Health Commission comprised of local healthcare experts, hospital administrators, business leaders, and legislators who will rely on a data-driven dashboard and clear metrics to recommend local public health decisions. This is the most efficient and effective way to protect our city. Additionally, we need to inventory our supply of PPE to be prepared for the future. Lastly, I appreciate the current administration and their effort to navigate this unprecedented health crisis and our local hospitals who are operating below capacity.