2018 marks my 12th year as your mayor and I am excited to bring you the State of the City.
Each year as I prepare for this address I am humbled by the trust you have placed in me, and by the phenomenal support and encouragement that you continue to show me. The lifeblood of any city is progress and I am thankful that you continue moving Batesville forward by electing city council members who have our community’s best interests at heart. I am fortunate that you have given me a team of community-minded individuals who are dedicated to working together to bring about positive change in our city. Working with these individuals has been rewarding. I am also mindful of the trusting relationships that we have formed with other community partners including the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce, Main Street Batesville, The Independence County Library Board, White River Medical Center, UACCB, Lyon College and others. Without these relationships, much of the phenomenal progress our town has witnessed might not have otherwise occurred. Electing leaders with a strong community spirit and a burning desire to work with other trustworthy elected officials is vitally important to the success of any city.
For most of my life, Batesville has been known for being the oldest existing city in Arkansas, the White River Water Carnival, and the home of NASCAR’s Mark Martin. 2017 was a turning point in Batesville’s history with the opening of the Batesville Community Center & Aquatics Park and the outpouring of community support for the revitalization of Main Street. Other improvements include the creation of the downtown Maxfield Park, the relocation of the library to the historic Barnett Building, and especially our restored Melba Theater, which serves as a major downtown anchor. New businesses continue to locate downtown and plans by several individuals to build loft apartments are continuing to move forward.
On June 8th the city formally held the ribbon cutting for the Batesville Community Center and Aquatics Park elevating our “quality of life” and “quality of place” to a position that few, if any, cities in Arkansas our size, have attained. The June 9th edition of the Batesville Daily Guard carried a fitting headline entitled “A Promise Fulfilled.” The new 105,000 square foot facility is one of the largest facilities in the state and its iconic architecture and modern amenities have made Batesville the envy of many other cities. We have hosted many groups, meetings, and events. A few of these consist of the Las Vegas act, “Recycled Percussion”, the MMA Fights, several banquets, craft shows, wedding showers, birthdays, and even the start of a new church. The center has helped to improve and grow our youth and adult programs as well. I am most proud of the fact that so many of our citizens have the opportunity to improve their quality of life. I have received numerous testimonials of members becoming independent after being on a walker, losing weight, quicker recoveries from the use of our therapeutic pool and eliminating their dependence on medications.
In November, the city was notified that its entries in the Arkansas Business Trendsetter City 2017 program had won in four of six categories for cities of 5,000 to 20,000 in population. The Trendsetter City program is designed to honor cities that are leaders in innovative programs and initiatives for improvement and growth. Being a “Trendsetter City” is an honor that speaks to the commitment of city leadership and its citizens, and creates a great economic development selling point. The December 2017 insert to the Arkansas Business magazine detailed the awards with the formal presentations made at the Arkansas Municipal League’s Winter Conference in Ft. Smith in January. The importance of this statewide recognition cannot be overemphasized.
Batesville was a Trendsetter Winner in the Public Safety Category for the Batesville Police Department’s Community Relations Team and the programs and classes it offers to our citizens. Its non-profit arm, the Law Enforcement Public Safety Partners, helps provide for non-budgeted training and equipment for both the Batesville Police Department and the Independence County Sheriffs Department. Batesville was recently named as the 2018 sixth safest city in Arkansas by the National Council for Home Safety and Security. The recent addition of four new officers for 2018 brings the total number of employees to 29 and provides the citizens of Batesville with 5-6 officers on our streets at all times. With a focus on community-based policing, advancements in training and education, our department has quickly become a leader in Arkansas.
Batesville was a Trendsetter Winner in the Infrastructure Category for the new Wastewater Treatment Facility and its innovative use of “moving bed bio-reactor technology” to effectively double the city’s wastewater treatment capacity to 9.0 million gallons per day. With the construction of this new facility, the city of Batesville was recognized as going “above and beyond”, setting new standards, statewide, for wastewater treatment.
The city, and its engineering firm, McGoodwin, Williams & Yates, received top honors at the 2017 American Council of Engineering Companies of Arkansas’ Engineering Excellence Awards for the new Batesville Wastewater Treatment Plant and collection system infrastructure upgrades. The project also received the “People’s Choice Award” designated by event attendees as the single best overall engineering project.
Batesville was a Trendsetter Winner in the Wellness and Fitness Category for the development of the Batesville Community Center and Aquatics Park and the city’s development of the Batesville Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. The Batesville Community Center and Aquatics Park also received the “Facility of the Year Award” in the over $500,000 category by the Arkansas Recreation & Parks Association. Members from all over Independence County have embraced the new facility, which currently has a membership base of 6,447 individuals. The center has seen well over 200,000 visitors in the ten months since its opening last June and is used on a daily basis by an average of 750 people.
At the American Council of Engineering Companies of Arkansas’ annual banquet recently held in Little Rock, the city, and its engineering firm, Crafton-Tull, won the 2017-2018 Engineering Excellence Award and the “Peoples Choice Award” for the Batesville Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. Batesville’s dedication to health and wellness for its citizens continues to attract statewide attention.
Batesville was a Trendsetter Winner in the environmental category for the new wastewater facility, and in particular, the 1,800-foot wastewater tunnel under our golf course. The use of Archimedes screw pumps should save our citizens thousands of dollars in annual energy costs. By returning treated wastewater to the White River, much cleaner than the White River itself, Batesville leads the way in environmental stewardship of our state’s natural resources.
At the Trendsetter Awards ceremony in Fort Smith, the first ever Pinnacle Award was introduced. Each winning or honorable mention city was eligible to compete for the Pinnacle Award. As the anticipation of the announcement began to build, the over 500 in attendance wondered if the winner would be Little Rock, Bentonville, Ft. Smith, El Dorado, Fayetteville, Maumelle, Crossett, Magnolia, Berryville, Danville, Paris, Prescott or Batesville. Fayetteville and Batesville had both won in four categories, and most people expected Fayetteville to win the Pinnacle Award. When Batesville’s name was called as the winner of the Pinnacle Award as being “THE city in Arkansas whose programs and initiatives are truly innovative, represent a commitment to progress and are an example for other cities to follow”, the crowd cheered as myself and members of the city council proudly took the stage to receive this coveted award!
Leaders from every corner of Arkansas are talking about Batesville and the exciting things happening here. Community leaders from all around our state are coming to Batesville to see firsthand our improvements in “quality of life” and “quality of place”. Investors have taken notice and we have new inquiries by groups and individuals wanting to be a part of our progressive community.
Batesville has been transformed from the BACKGROUND to the FOREGROUND with these prestigious awards.
Now let us shift gears for a moment and touch on a just a few other noteworthy things that happened in 2017.
In January, the city council passed the first-ever lodging tax and created the Batesville Advertising & Promotions Commission to market and support the assets and events of Batesville and Independence County. The new position of Director of Tourism was created in order to increase economic development by bringing new dollars into our community through tourism. This was a central goal of the Impact Independence Project. Just last week, at the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism’s 2018 Governor’s Conference on Tourism, the city of Batesville won the “Community Tourism Development Award”. This award is presented annually to a community or organization that has achieved substantial success in the enhancement of its local resources through imaginative and innovative development efforts. Also at the event, the Ozark Gateway Tourist Council’s Executive Director and Batesville Advertising & Promotions Commission Chairwoman, Cathy Drew, was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame.
In March, the council continued planning for Batesville’s future by authorizing the city engineer to begin the design phase of improvements to the Water Treatment Plant facilities. The council also approved a resolution to offer for lease, the 2.63-acre riverfront site, previously occupied by the Firefighting Training Center, to developers interested in locating a new hotel on the river. Talks with several developers continue, but nothing definite has emerged.
In July, the council voted to close Broad Street between 15th and Sidney Street to allow White River Health Systems to move forward with the continued development of the medical center campus and the long-term planning needed to meet the future healthcare needs of our region. White River Health Systems is Batesville’s largest employer with over 1,700 employees and an annual payroll of $120 million.
In September, the council passed an ordinance creating a long-term, perpetual maintenance fund for the Batesville Community Center and Aquatics Park and the adjacent tennis courts. This ordinance requires that a minimum of $75,000 per year be placed into a separate fund for the long-term maintenance of the new facilities. In addition, monies from sponsorships, of various areas in the new facility, are also deposited into the fund. Any expenditure from this fund requires specific council approval.
Continuing the support for sports and tourism at the Terry Sims Diamond Sports Complex, the city applied for a $176,000 grant to build restrooms adjacent to the T-Ball fields. The bids came in over the grant award, but the council approved additional funds for the project to ensure the new restrooms would be ready for the 2018 spring T-ball season.
In October, Fire Chief Brent Gleghorn announced that the city’s ISO Fire Rating had improved from a Class 3 to a Class 2, saving most property owners additional money on their fire insurance.
In November, Police Chief Alan Cockrill briefed the council concerning the condition of Officer Michael Dickinson who had recently been shot multiple times while on duty responding to a domestic disturbance call. Chief Cockrill also presented life-saving awards to three of our citizens who helped save the life of Officer Dickinson. This was a sobering reminder of the dangers faced by those we place in harm’s way every day.
Building permits were up over $8 million from 2016 with the largest of those, $12.957 million, being for Citizens Bank’s new St. Louis Street headquarters. Recently, Merchants and Planter’s Bank opened its new state of the art facility on Harrison Street. Residential construction growth continued in 2017 with fifty new apartment units and twenty-three new single-family homes. Two new subdivisions are in the works, one near the Eagle Mountain Golf Course called Eagle View Estates, and another located near Big Pine Road called Hammerhead Estates.
Sales tax revenue in 2017 continued to increase from 2016. New business announcements have included Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steak Burgers, T.J. Maxx, Casey’s General Store, and a new Pizza Hut location just to name a few. The recruitment of additional retail opportunities was a goal of the Impact Independence Plan.
There are several things concerning our community that cannot be overemphasized. First, the prestigious awards bestowed upon the city of Batesville have brought significant statewide recognition to our community. This heightened awareness, especially with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, will help keep our community at the forefront when companies seek to expand into Arkansas and investors decide what communities they will invest in.
Second, is the focus of the Impact Independence Strategic Plan Initiative that was developed by the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce, Lyon College, and UACCB. The plan’s focus on economic prosperity, tourism, educational excellence, healthy living, and wellbeing has already demonstrated important and meaningful results.
As I looked back over the highlights of the past year, I could not help but think “Wow, what a difference 12 years can make in the life of a community!” Batesville has gone from being down, and nearly out, in 2007, after suffering massive job losses with a looming economic downturn on the horizon, to being acclaimed as the most innovative and progressive city in the state of Arkansas.
What changed? Mostly what changed was the attitude of our citizens. Our community realized it couldn’t continue doing the same things we had always done and expect different results. Rather than “throwing in the towel”, in 2008, citizens filled the Batesville High School Cafeteria to consider a new land use plan for our community. What began as an effort to get input from the community on where different type land uses should be located; the group quickly propelled the discussion into their dreams for Batesville. Facilitators encouraged those in attendance to “Dream Big!” If you look back at the recommendations and dreams of this group, you will see that these have now become a reality.
I did not make these dreams and goals come true. City government did not make them come true. The Chamber of Commerce didn’t make their dreams come true. Their dreams for our community came true because our citizens chose to work together for the good of Batesville. Their dreams came true because they were determined to elect individuals who share their vision for our future and who are dedicated to working together with an atmosphere of teamwork and cooperation.
In closing, it would be remiss of me not to mention all of our dedicated employees, staff and department heads. These individuals go “above and beyond” to perform their duties and share my love and commitment for this city. My heartfelt thanks and appreciation goes to each of these special individuals. After twelve years, we have become somewhat of a “family” and they contribute daily to making Batesville an amazing place to call home.
2017 witnessed the recognition of many of Batesville’s greatest accomplishments. As your mayor, I am extremely honored to accept these awards on your behalf. I will always remember that it was your vision for our future and your unwavering determination to make our community a better place that empowered these successes for our city.
The future of Batesville and the community we all call “home” is bright. The events of the past year serve to remind us of what we can accomplish when we work together for the good of our community. The cooperative spirit of our citizens working together to make Batesville “the best it can be” shines a brilliant beacon of hope lighting the path of progress for those who come after us.
May God continue to bless our city, state and country!
Image via Bob Qualls