Since taking office for his first term as mayor in 2019, Joe Hurst has had to deal with record flooding of the Arkansas River and a year-long national pandemic. But plans he has for the city have not been abandoned, just put on temporary hold.
“We have lots of plans. We’ve had lots of plans. We had to postpone some. We’re hoping things change, and we can have more normal progress in 2021,” Hurst said.
For now, the city’s main concern is protecting residents and visitors from COVID-19. There have been 6,516 total cumulative cases of the virus in Crawford County since last March with 97 total deaths. There are 340 active cases.
“The number of cases has started to decline, but have to remain diligent. We’ve started getting area residents vaccinated. Hopefully, we will have a lot more soon. But we have to continue to wash our hands, wear our facemasks, social distance and avoid large gatherings,” Hurst said.
City leaders have met with emergency management and health department officials to prepare for a future mass vaccination clinic if and when it is allowed, Hurst said.
“Our No. 1 goal is to get everyone in the city vaccinated,” Hurst said.
Though dealing with and getting the city out of the grasps of the pandemic is the city’s top priority, there are other areas Hurst would like to pay more attention to in the coming months.
One of those is the city’s economic plan. The city developed an economic plan in 2015 through community collaboration that provides “a comprehensive blueprint for improving Van Buren’s economy by setting policy direction for economic growth, and identifying strategies, programs, and projects,” the city’s website says.
HISTORIC DOWNTOWN WORK
The city began revisiting the plan to see what changes, additions or revisions might be needed before the pandemic in 2020.
A key component to Van Buren’s economic development is a streetscape improvement project for the Main Street area in the city’s historic downtown. The city received a $492,000 Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) grant from the Arkansas Department of Transportation for its downtown streetscape project in 2019. The 80/20 split grant includes federal funds and is being used to improve sidewalks and add landscaping and new irrigation and electrical making downtown more walkable, Hurst said. The city’s streetscape plan continues the whole downtown development project the city has been working on over the past few years.
“We’ve received so much attention to our downtown these days with new restaurants, new businesses, and parks that we’ve built from taxpayers investments. It’s been really amazing. It’s really kind of stimulated the growth downtown and we just really want to continue doing that,” Hurst said at the time the city received the grant.
The city slowed work on the streetscape program in 2020 because of uncertainty over how the pandemic would affect city revenue, Hurst said. Acting out of caution due to the mandated closings early in the pandemic that hurt city revenues, the city cut 10% off its operating budget for the year.
SURPRISE TAX REVENUE
The 2020 budget called for about $15 million in expenditures and $15.1 million in revenue. The budget projected $11.5 million in total taxes for the year, including $5.9 million in sales tax revenue. The city would receive $6.5 million in sales tax revenues in 2020.
“We ended the year surprisingly very well. Early in the year, department heads cut 10% from their spending. But as the months went on, we saw an increase in sales tax revenues rather than a decrease. We ended the year with well over 10% more than budget estimates,” Hurst said.
Hurst believes much of that came from strong shop local campaigns by the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce and from sales tax related to internet sales.
“It was the first year for us to see revenue from sales tax collected on internet sales. Time will tell whether that keeps up,” he said.
He said people being at home during the spring months also led to more home-improvement projects, which meant more shopping at Lowes, Yeagers and Walmart.
“Honestly, I really think our community came together to help our local businesses as much as they could,” he said.
REBRANDING, BUSINESS RETENTION EFFORTS
Along with continuing work on the streetscape project, Hurst said the city will focus on rebranding in 2021. Van Buren learned in early 2020 they would get help with its brand thanks to the University of Central Arkansas Center for Community and Economic Development (CCED). CCED, in partnership with nonprofit design firm Thrive, is assisting the city with a branding initiative.
The city held a workshop with stakeholders early in the year and was planning more meetings for the new branding, which will include a one-page creative brief, brand standards guide, tagline, logo for both print and digital contexts, social media icons and banner imagery, as well as other supplemental materials. The final product will be a new identity for the city, city leaders said at the time the announcement was made.
“We’ve had some (virtual) meetings on it, but we couldn’t really meet and brainstorm like we needed to because of (pandemic) restrictions. We hope to get more work done on that and have a new brand this year,” Hurst said.
The city is also working with Western Arkansas Planning and Development District on a Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) program for the city.
“We need to organize, outreach and communicate to see what they need from us, to learn how we can help them stay and expand,” Hurst said. “Last year we couldn’t really go into the businesses as much as we wanted, but we hope to be doing more of this. To see if there is a way we can help.”
PARKS AND REC GOALS
The city also will seek ways to improve even more on parks and recreation. The city, with help from Crawford County, was able to complete the Colley Park Trails in the northwest part of the city off of Dora Road. And the city will continue to apply for grants to invest in parks and recreation in the city, Hurst said.
“We had an amazing outpouring of support from the community for our Christmas at the Parks last year. We hope to be able to add to that and make it even better this year,” Hurst said.
The first annual Van Buren Christmas at the Parks featured thousands of twinkling lights bringing the city’s historic downtown to life with more than 11 displays setting the scene for the perfect holiday photos. The displays started at the Crawford County Courthouse and continued to Freedom Park, which boasted a 30-foot Christmas tree topped with a six-foot star and Santa’s sleigh. Visitors could also experience the winter wonderland at Dr. Louis Peer Memorial Park that featured a 60 foot lighted tunnel with over 14,000 pixel lights and over 25 lighted displays synched to Christmas music.
But mostly for 2021, Hurst hopes to get things back to normal. City plans call for a conservative budget for the year, and Hurst is “cautiously optimistic” for the year to progress smoothly, he said. The 2021 budget projects $15.195 million in revenue and $15.159 million in expenditures.
“It has been an extraordinary couple of years for my first term as mayor, but I have had a lot of community support,” Hurst said. “I am looking forward to more normal days and moving forward with our plans for the city. I’m just thankful to get to be a part of it.”