Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver was born at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and during his youth he thought his future would be in the military. The plans changed when he met his future wife and they moved to Jonesboro more than 38 years ago.
His call to service came in the form of public service, he told Talk Business & Politics. Copenhaver — a two-term state representative with a business background in banking and insurance — was elected in November to replace the retired former mayor Harold Perrin.
Copenhaver inherits a city enjoying consistent growth during the last decade and one that is dealing with the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new mayor said he’s familiar with the challenges of his elected office.
There’s an ongoing, record streak that Copenhaver would like to maintain as well.
Northeast Arkansas’s largest city collected $1.62 million in sales and use taxes during the month of December, a 1.2% increase from the same month in 2019, according to the city. For the year, the city hauled in $20.036 million — a 5.1% ($972,970) increase from 2019 and an all-time record for collections.
Perrin previously told Talk Business & Politics before he left office one of his proudest accomplishments during his 12-year tenure has been the unprecedented sales and use tax growth during his time in office. This growth occurred despite the two worst recessions since the Great Depression, a costly ice storm in 2009, and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sales tax collections were higher than city leaders projected for the year. It was an increase of about 3.5% over budgeted projections. Perrin added he thinks collecting sales taxes online have helped to buffer the numbers.
“It’s humbling. It’s humbling that the people in this city have this kind of confidence in me,” he said. “No one knows what it’s like sitting in that chair until you sit in that chair. … I’m excited for the opportunity to serve.”
The chance to become the mayor of the largest city in Northeast Arkansas almost didn’t present itself. Copenhaver tried unsuccessfully to unseat Perrin in 2016 when the former mayor sought his third term. Perrin won that election and declared in early 2020 he would seek a fourth term. A cancer diagnosis derailed Perrin’s re-election bid, and he threw his support behind Craighead County Judge Marvin Day. There was some question as to whether Day could seek the office since he’s already an elected official, and Day opted to drop out. Copenhaver, with Perrin’s support, decided to run a second time.
The pandemic will be the toughest challenge to face during his first year in office, Copenhaver said. Days into his term, the new mayor announced he will continue several safety measures put into place by the previous regime. Copenhaver is maintaining an order that city council meetings will remain virtual and city departments will rotate staff who can work from home to prevent spread within departments.
“We will not neglect or delay the work of the city, but it is important that we continue to proceed with caution,” he said.
Copenhaver has said he intends to work from the office at the Municipal Center, but departmental staff will continue to rotate work from home to maintain physical distancing policies. The new mayor has no plans to enact broader public safety measures, unless state leaders such as Gov. Asa Hutchinson opt to do so.
“We are going to follow all Arkansas Department of Health guidelines and those outlined by the governor,” he said.
During his first 100 days in office, Copenhaver said he hopes to establish a commission tasked with developing a long-term plan for the city. It will be composed of civic and business leaders and topics will include infrastructure, economic growth, and quality of living.
The need for such a commission is obvious, he said. Jonesboro is the second largest city in Arkansas in terms of geography. There are 84 square miles within the city limits. The city’s population has averaged about 3.5% annual growth for more than two decades and the total population is expected to crest above 80,000 residents in the next U.S. Census. It will take forward thinking and planning to accommodate that kind of geographic space and population growth, he added.
There are several projects Copenhaver hopes to complete. One is the Veterans Village. The Veterans Village is Arkansas’ first neighborhood providing housing and resources for homeless veterans. It is a block of new small homes at the corner of North Patrick Street and Aggie Road. The project, conceived in 2017, was initiated with a $1 million grant from the Arkansas Department of Finance Administration. It is on schedule for completion in March. The grant covered the cost of construction for the nine homes. The city has selected a 1.2-acre site, which will be operated by the Beck PRIDE Center for America’s Wounded Veterans.
Jonesboro Grants and Community Development Director Regina Burkett said grants, donations and public-private partnerships have paid for the entirety of the roughly $1.35 million cost for nine houses. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge donated $250,000 from her office toward the project.
Arkansas has 230,000 veterans, including more than 6,000 in Craighead County. It is estimated that more than 500 are homeless throughout the state.
Safety and beautification will be two other priorities this year. Beautification of the city is an extension of the quality of life metric crucial when recruiting and retaining high skill workers, Copenhaver said.
He said he will work with the police and fire chiefs to help improve public safety. One component of that will be to increase and improve the number of city sidewalks.
During his terms in the state legislature and his work in the banking industry, Copenhaver has developed a range of relationships with civic and business leaders locally and around the state.
“You can’t put a price tag on the relationships I’ve built here and in other communities,” he said.