November 27, 2022

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Clear skies. Low 47F. Winds NNE at 5 to 10 mph..
Clear skies. Low 47F. Winds NNE at 5 to 10 mph.
Updated: September 29, 2022 @ 6:39 pm
McGlawn
Faulkner
Osborne
Butler

McGlawn
Faulkner
Osborne
Butler
The four Searcy mayoral candidates running in the Nov. 8 general election discussed their plans for bringing businesses, jobs and visitors to the city during Thursday’s virtual forum held by the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The “In the Know” Zoom forum featured candidates Jason McGlawn, Mat Faulkner, Mayor Kyle Osborne and April Butler and was moderated by RiverWind Bank President and general counsel Casey Cullipher.
Each candidate was given two minutes to answer each question and if a candidate wanted a rebuttal, one minute was given to provide one. A one-minute closing statement also was allowed. The forum has been posted on YouTube by the chamber at https://youtu.be/gAUDl0pidE4.
Early voting in the election will begin Oct. 24 and be held at the White County Cooperative Extension Service Office at 2400 Old Landing Road and the Carmichael Community Center at 801 S. Elm St.
Cullipher: What role would you have as mayor in attracting and retaining businesses, jobs and tourists?
Osborne: “Well as the mayor and CEO, it falls to City Hall, and I would lean heavily on the chamber of commerce and SREDC [Searcy Regional Economic Development Corp.] to assist me in that. But being the ambassador of the city, again, it’s my responsibility and, believe me, we take a lot of phone calls at City Hall from businesses that are looking to come to Searcy and possibly build or buy property here to establish their business. More times than not, we pass that off to the chamber and let them handle that; sometimes, we take care of it ourselves.
“Nothing is off the table. We will do whatever we need to do if it can be dome to attract new business to Searcy and retain the businesses that we have. Again, it’s a full-time job, not just to run the departments of the city but to grow the city. My job as mayor is to retain the businesses that we have and help the city grow, and we do that pretty well.”
Butler: “I just like to echo what Mayor Osborne says, working proactively with our chamber to attract businesses and working with the businesses we have to keep them here, our workforce where it should be. That’s just something that you would do. If it means going to Little Rock and talking with the economic development committee and say, ‘Who are you looking at bringing to Arkansas?’
“Our recreational events, that definitely attracts tourists. Our arts and entertainment. Get Down Downtown [last] weekend [did] attract a ton of tourists. We have to spend time looking at those activities. A true community center would attract more people. It would attract more tourists and conventions that way. The 2024 eclipse. There is already a planning commission that has been put together. Thousands of people are expected to descend on Searcy during that time, so we have to be ready for our tourists first of all and we have to be ready to attract new businesses by keeping our city clean, maintaining our streets and sanitation. Those things are important to build on economic development and tourism.”
Faulkner: “As I mentioned in the introduction, I currently serve on the Searcy [Regional] Economic Development Corp. board. I have helped lead the chamber’s small business committee. I’m the community connection for Global Entrepreneurship Week, so this is something we actively work on and have been working on for a long time. And it’s multilayered, so if you’re talking about jobs, trying to fill the 300 and 400 jobs, active recruitment and trying to get families to move here, enhancing the quality of life so Searcy is the top choice when looking at a place to live and raise your family.
“We’ve worked with The Conductor [which works with businesses] out of Conway, the Waldron Entrepreneurship Center here at Harding [University] as well as chamber programs, so training and empowerment of our small businesses so if they know they are a retail shop, have them get on to e-commerce.
“One of the things that I helped initiate was the revolution fund while we were going through ‘Small Business Revolution’ because only six businesses were going to win makeovers [on the online reality show], so we raised money for local small businesses, and the chamber and SREDC is using some of those funds now to launch a free e-commerce solution to local businesses, so if you’re a chamber member, that’s something you need to dig into if you have not already take a part of that.
‘We have to generate an ecosystem that we’re business friendly, that we are consistently pushing shopping local. As far as industry goes, Searcy is very limited as far as available land to prep for attracting industry. That is something we are actively looking at and trying to identify some optimal sites so that we can work with the AEDC [Arkansas Economic Development Commission] and the state on attracting industry. That is something we’re working on right now and marketing, so that is something i can definitely help with; I’ve been doing it over 20 years. We actually do marketing for tourism for other towns around Arkansas and do it for Searcy as well, so that’s definitely something I can aid in.”
McGlawn: “Just like everybody else has said, it’s a matter of getting out and finding what’s available to come to the city and once it’s in the city, being able to support that.
“A lot of our small businesses, if we could help them continue to succeed and give them more business from the city itself, it will help them as well. Also just meeting with various members of the community, including state and local leaders and people on the street like with my running adventure, just finding out what people want and just getting with the chamber of commerce and like the different committee with the state. And then also we could look at different cities and the mayors of different cities and see what is being successful in their towns, what they are doing differently, so that we can learn from the cities that are growing and expanding. Not that we want to be like a Conway, but to have that to where we can make our city successful. They’ve had so much growth, if we can see what they are doing right and be able to learn from that. I think that’s a big part of it is just being able to learn from others and being able to attract the jobs and tourists.”
Cullipher: What can the city do to help local employers find and develop qualified workers?
Butler: “We have to look at three sources that I feel are underutilized in our city. ASU [Arkansas State University] Searcy is a huge factor. They have so much technical training and students who are graduating from their programs that would be assets to a lot of employers here. Same with Harding. Their students, their graduates have added so much to the Searcy community over the years, starting their own businesses and maintaining those businesses, but also they make wonderful employees as well.
“And so I think the public school system does a really good job of trying to host events where employers come to the high school and they talk to our kids about openings and what it would take for them to have a job there and then they take a look at the training necessary for that. So I just think we keep doing these job fairs that we’ve been doing, we keep encouraging our people who are here in the city to stay here and work here and they can find sustainable incomes here.”
Faulkner: “This is a hard nut to crack. This is an issue not just in Searcy but all throughout Arkansas and the nation, trying to find, recruit, develop a qualified workforce. It is multilayered, so yes, we have to continue the collaborative efforts between our school systems, our higher education systems. We also need to work with other organizations for upward mobility, programs for those who need a GED or there’s some barriers why they’re not getting employment. We have to market the fire out of our community. We have to really lean into our points of differentiation, why we are the best place to raise you family and try to recruit in.
“As I mentioned before, efforts to try to promote Searcy as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) hub for robotics and recruit more families in here. There’s innovation centers in Newport and Benton where they’ve got training development programs. That’s something we need to look at, too, but ASU is doing a good job. Searcy schools and Riverview and the chamber’s got a workforce development committee. It’s a hard nut to crack and it’s an issue a lot of people are working on, but that’s something that we got to spend a lot of time with and we need to think outside the box.”
McGlawn: “Just like they’ve all said, we need to need to have the jobs fairs where people can come and meet up with the employers. They also mentioned having working relationships with the schools and universities, but there are some people who can’t go back to school for whatever reason so it’s finding those people and getting them training outside of those organizations like ASU and Harding and just offering more development opportunities for the people to try to get them more qualified for the jobs that are open.
“As I mentioned, during one of my runs, I met this guy and he said, ‘I’m a felon; is there any way you can help me find a job?’ and I said, ‘Definitely.’ There’s a lot of people who aren’t able to work at various places because of their past and we need to get past their past to take that stigma away and help them become successful members of society – not just leave them to fend for themselves but finding things they can do to grow as people and not just keep working on the streets, trying to go day by day, but try to actually get them help to get them off the streets.
“And to be able to give as many people jobs as possible because there are a lot of people who are willing to work, they are just not able to find the jobs, so it’s just a matter of trying to get the people connected to the organizations that are able to hire them and get them developed to be able to succeed in that.”
Osborne: “I have to echo everything that the other three candidates have said. It all starts with the education from high school to ASU Searcy to Harding to more job fairs. We deal with this constantly from employers when I meet with them, having difficulty being able to find the workforce without having people drive in the long distance to Searcy. So this is nothing new. It is a hard nut to crack.
“We’re doing everything we can with continuing education in the city. We have a program at sanitation as far as CDL [commercial driver’s license] drivers. It’s difficult to hire and retain CDL drivers and the city is willing to pay for the training if the individuals are willing to go through it and they are willing to stick around and work with us for a while. I mean, this is going to be a problem for a while. It’s not going to go away anytime soon and it’s been here a long time.”
Faulkner: “One thing we’ve been working toward over the past few years is a public transit option and solutions. We have visited with Jonesboro, with Eureka Springs, with northwest Arkansas to find out what are they doing as far as public transit. And this goes along with jobs and filling jobs. If people have mobility issues, if they cannot get to their jobs, then that’s one of the problems, so we’re actively working on trying to find a solution so we can meet people where they’re at, get them to work and get them back. So that’s just something I want to throw out there as well.”
Osborne: “I just want to add this: I started that with Mat three years ago, I believe. I approached Mat about trying to get public transportation in Searcy and we have worked off and on on that for quite some time. It’s not dead but it’s going to take some work.”
Cullipher: What amenities is Searcy lacking to attract young adults and families? How and when can those be funded?
Faulkner: “Well, there’s a lot of opportunities for improvement in this area. Unfortunately, a lot of our families are going to Cabot, are going to Batesville to use their facilities there, whether it’s their community centers, whether it’s their swim centers, whether they’re going to others towns to use their bike trails, things like that. That’s part of the process of the 20-year plan [being developed by engineering firm Crafton Tull]. I highly encourage the public to get engaged and participate with the surveys, also to come to the focus group that’s coming up Oct. 4th because it’s up to the community to decide where we want to go.
“But there just needs to be clear expectation, right? We may say that we want to develop Riverside park. We may say we want an outdoor waterpark to go along with the indoor one. We want to improve our park system and bike trails, and that’s one of the top responses that I get and that is more options for youth to do, more options for youth, but I just want to be clear on expectations and I think this is important. We don’t need to beat around the bush about it. The community needs to decide and prioritize what amenities that we want to tackle next.
“And then we’re going to have to figure out how to fund those things, so let’s not just try to not be straight up front with it, right? So we passed this 1 percent [permanent sales and use tax last November] but we’re still going to have to figure out ways to fund these amenities and that’s going to be up to the community to decide. That’s not something that’s going to be driven downward from the City Council or the mayor’s position. This needs to come upward so that we are facilitating the funds that the community wants to do.
“Now, it’s our job to help the process along and provide a structure for community input but ultimately those amenities are going to be up to the community. The top ones that we hear all the time are a community center, Riverside Park, an outdoor waterpark so to speak – those I would say are the top three we hear over and over again – so it will be interesting to see the survey results from the 20-year plan, and then from there it will be up to the community to prioritize it. But I’m going to throw this out there, too, and I mentioned this earlier, too – y’all, we have got to be cautious with escalating costs on development, so we don’t need to spend two, three, four times as much to develop things. We are just going to have to approach this as we’re looking at the possibility of just a recession, so it’s going to be a balance of how fast can we move with being responsible for the funds the public wants us to work with.”
McGlawn: “As I have talked to people along the streets, a lot of the same things that Mat had to say, they all asked about a community center, that splash pad; they were supposed to be part of the eight-year plan [for using the temporary one-cent sales tax passed in 2014]. A big one was things for teens to do. So I would talk to people from lots of different age groups and a lot of them said, ‘Hey, there’s nothing for the teens to do.’ And I talked to a lot of teens and I said, ‘Hey, what kind of stuff would you like to do?,’ and they said ‘We’d just like to get together and hang out.’ And so that could be part of the community center, just having rooms strictly for teens, having games to play. They mentioned laser tag and go carts.
“That kind of stuff could be funded by the city or by private entities, but I know in the past we’ve had those and they ended up closing. It’s a matter of trying to find the best route with the focus groups coming up. It will be good to see what the community actually wants and work on plans for it to find the funding for it.”
Osborne: “We are lacking. We have numerous parks in Searcy, but for the most part, our children don’t want to go hang out in city parks. They want to play basketball. They want things to do. We are working on building more outdoor basketball courts around town to try to give these kids something to do. I was asked at the county fair about the skate park – are we ever going to do anything with the skate park? We have talked about these little pocket parks so to speak, doing things in those that would keep these kids occupied.
“But the fact is, whatever we do costs money and when we ask how we pay for those, that’s a good question. How do we? How do we pay for those? People want an outdoor water park. I get these calls every day. An outdoor waterpark, a big nice community center. You know, Searcy wants to be like other communities and have these things but it costs a lot of money and with construction costs being so high and with inflation cost as high as it is right now, it’s going to be extremely difficult.
“And I’ll even agree with what Mat said, we’re going to have to step back and ask the citizens, ‘What do you want?’ because they’re the ones who have to pay for it. We’re working on bike trails. We’re working on resurfacing the bike trail and the walking trail around town that we currently have not all the way around town, partially around town. I have had people ask why we didn’t build skate parks or roller skate rink and trampoline parks; we’re not in the business of competing with private business. having a pool, having a community center, having parks. Yes, I’m all for that, but building for something that competes with private business, I am not and it’s up to our citizens, whatever they want.”
Butler: “I can just echo what everyone else has said. A community center is, I think, a huge part of it and the type of community center that wold be inclusive to all ages, a youth room, multiple gyms, a large area for meeting places. So when we look at it, like Mr. Faulkner said, we have to see what the priorities are of the people who live here. That is a priority I hear there a lot because I hear people that say, ‘I go to Heber and I go to Batesville.’ And so when we’re talking about how to fund things, when we do things that are inclusive to all and people with disabilities, there are all types of grants available to help with that funding, and I think we as a city have to really look at really look at the grants that are available.
‘”There are grants for our parks to improve our parks, to do like challenge courses in our parks to where there’s more to just going hanging out in the park, there’s a challenge course there. Opening up more green space, but again, it’s what the residents say that’s a priority to them. And when it becomes a priority to them, the funding will be there in some form or another and again these grants that are available through federal and state …
“That increase in everything now, the construction costs are just outrageous right now, and so we have to be mindful of that as well.”
Faulkner: “Here’s a way we might be able to move faster with innovative funding collaboratively: We’ve been looking at the possibility of developing a STEM-robotics tournament and training center that could have summer programs, after-school programs that would be shared by different school districts, etc., so one thought is if we develop a community center, maybe we add on a wing that is STEM-related for robotics. And since that is line for the governor’s push for programming and STEM-related efforts, then that opens up the door for possible grants opportunities, so by putting those two projects together, there’s going to be shared amenity common areas, or I’d say your parking lots, your restrooms, that type of thing. And so that could decrease the cost of a community center while developing a STEM robotics hub. So it’s these types of ideas where we may be able to get more done quicker and safe money.”
Osborne: “When we talk about grants, we apply for grants. What some people don’t understand when you’re talking about building a $35 million community center, and you apply for a grant, they are not going to give you $35 million to build that. They will give you a few thousand, maybe if you’re lucky a few hundred-thousand if you make it ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant and if you do this and if you do that. We apply for these grants all the time for our playgrounds in our parks now and we do good to get $40,000 to $50,000. And we’re talking about as far as this community center a year and a half ago and it was close to $30 million, so I’m sure it’s close to $35 million now.”
Butler: “But I realize a grant or multiple grants will not, you know, fund a whole entire community center; however, $100,000 here, $50,000 there, like Mr. Faulkner was saying, collaborating with other entities, it all adds up and it does help defray some of the costs in the initial building of a community center.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third part in a series of articles on the candidate forum so that the candidates’ answers can be presented in their entirety.
McGlawn
Faulkner
Osborne
Butler
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