[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In an otherwise routine debate Thursday night, two Monticello mayoral candidates questioned Zack Tucker’s logic in trying to recruit to Monticello a big box retailer, such as Dillards, JC Pennys or Target. Tucker jabbed back, saying Monticello needs to “think outside the box”.
The debate, sponsored by the Concerned Citizens of Monticello and held at the Holmes Chapel Presbyterian Church, featured four of the five mayoral candidates, former mayor Joe Rogers, former Monticello alderman Sonny Thornhill, Monticello Parks Commission member Jo Ann Trotter, and Zack Tucker, assistant to the mayor of Monticello.
The Republican candidate, Dave Nugent did not attend the debate.
Perhaps the most substantive and heated part of the debate came during responses to a question about job creation.
Trotter, the first candidate to respond to the question, said if elected, she would search for companies to locate in Monticello while supporting existing businesses and encouraging and promoting entrepreneurship.
“I’m not going to sit up here and promise I can bring jobs to Monticello,” Trotter said.
What she can promise, she said, is that she knows how to network, collaborate and try to get the economy to grow in Southeast Arkansas.
“I believe there is a bright future here in Monticello and I want to see it grow,” she said. “I will be searching and looking to get companies to come. I also want to make sure that we still support what we already have.”
Tucker followed with his plan for job creation.
“The first thing I’m going to do is continue doing what we’re doing now,” Tucker said. “For the first time in a long time, our industrial development and recruitment model works. We have three industrial prospects that are looking at Monticello that are extremely interested. One of them will be making an announcement in the next few weeks. We’re waiting on the day the governor says he will be able to come down here to make the announcement.”
Tucker said he hopes to add a small business incubator to the job creation strategy.
“We need to not only recruit large industries, but we need to also recruit or help springboard small businesses,” he said. “The final thing I want to focus on, which is economic development that we have not done in the past, is retail recruitment. If you look at Monticello, all the shops and restaurants that we have is what you will find in any community that has a Walmart.”
Tucker said he hopes to recruit a slightly more upscale “big box” retailer such as Dillards, J.C. Pennys, Whole Foods, or Target to serve as another anchor. Something “slightly elevated from Walmart” would bring a different type of retail to Monticello.
Retailers follow anchor retailers, he said.
“That’s what’s holding us back with the type of retail we have,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s pushed on the alcohol issue, which it may be a portion, but the big thing is that we don’t have the anchor to bring (more upscale retail). If they know that a Target can be successful in Monticello, then those types of retailers will follow.”
Rogers said Monticello lacks the population base to recruit the type of retail Tucker was referring to.
“These types of stores that Zack was talking about are not going to come here because we don’t have the number of people that would attract them to Monticello,” Rogers said. “I’ve always thought we should have a J.C. Pennys but the numbers are not there and they won’t come to a small community.
“We’ve got to keep pumping into what we already have and help everyone who is here and maintain it — we don’t want to go backwards — and work hard to try to find something that will come here,” Rogers said.
Thornhill agreed with Rogers.
“It would be a wonderful thing if we could get a lot of new retail and new places to eat besides just fast food, but unfortunately Monticello is stuck because of our population,” Thornhill said.
Thornhill said there are more than 8,000 economic development organizations across the country and it is difficult to recruit new industries. So, while the Monticello Economic Development Commission works on business and industry recruitment, the city needs to support and recruit small businesses. “That’s where the economic growth is,” he said. “A GM plant is not the answer to your economic problems. A mom-and-pop production company is the answer.”
The exchange became somewhat heated in Tucker and Thornhill’s follow-up remarks.
“I just have to add one more thing because I cannot allow for our community and folks that want to be our community leaders to continue to sell us short,” Tucker said. “Monticello is a great community and, yes, we may have a population of 9,000 and our population in Monticello may be stagnant, but that does not mean we can’t recruit the retail development that we’re looking at.”
Tucker said Monticello needs to think “outside the box.” Forty percent of the people in the six surrounding counties spend their money in Monticello, Tucker said.
“When you take that 40 percent population in the region plus Drew County, you’re talking about 40,000 people doing business every day in the corporate limits of Monticello,” Tucker said. “We have not been using that strategy and that’s why we’re not getting the retail development that we can get. We’ve got to think outside the box and not sell ourselves short but show people that we’re just as big and worthy of the retail industry that any other area is. We have the numbers. We have the sales tax base. We can make it happen.”
Thornhill’s response: “First of all, no one is selling the city short. Yes, we are the economic hub of Southeast Arkansas. No one is debating that. Crossett has a Walmart but people come to Monticello to shop at Walmart from Crossett. They spend their money here because they don’t want to stay in their own communities. We’re not a stagnant population. We are the only city that has grown in Southeast Arkansas. The problem is, if retail and other businesses look at those numbers they would already be here. That’s not the issue. They’re looking at population, bottom line. If anybody wants to rebut that and can show me the proof otherwise, I’d be more than happy to look at it and take my words back but that’s the bottom line.”
Tucker, Rogers and Thornhill support the concept of a convention center but have different ideas about the location and funding. Trotter says she isn’t sure if she would support it.
“I would love to see maybe something incorporated at the spec building that we already have built, even if we could turn it into some kind of indoor recreation facility,” Trotter said. “Since it has been sitting there 15 years, I would like to see that building utilized.”
Tucker said he supports the the idea of extending the library tax to pay for the construction of a convention center but doesn’t like the idea of building it on the University of Arkansas at Monticello campus.
“I would like to see the location changed from out at UAM…,” Tucker said. “I believe it is not close enough to a majority of our citizens in our community, but I believe the model of going after the half cent sales tax that we all voted to implement on ourselves to help fund a library would be extremely beneficial to have towards funding this project…” He said long-term maintenance funding could be generated through rental fees.
Thornhill said he supports the construction of a community center, but isn’t sure where it should be located.
“I don’t know where we would put it exactly; we’d have to do some studies on that,” he said.
A community center or civic center, he said, would provide a venue for local community events as well as a venue for conventions and big events.
Events such as those would bring in tax revenue through local hotels and restaurants, Thornhill said.
“I hate to always talk about money, but that’s what it boils down to,” he said. “The more money we get in from people outside the community, the less people inside the community have to contribute.”
Rogers said he tried to get a convention center started when he was mayor. At that time, he said, he was totally opposed to constructing it at the sports complex on U.S. 278 West. However, he has since realized while visiting convention centers in other cities, five miles is not that far.
“The city, when I was in office, still had an option for 40 acres on that land from Plum Creek,” Rogers said. “I think if we built one out there, people would come there and you’d have plenty of parking. Your hotels and restaurants would benefit greatly.”
Rogers said he is opposed to extending the half-cent library tax to construct it. “I’m not for continuing the half-cent sales tax,” Rogers said. “We said we’d take it off after the library was built and paid for. We can pay for it with the one-cent (sales tax) we have now.”
Rogers also said he believes it can be constructed for far less than the $33 million projected for a convention center at UAM. “We need to get it down to probably $15 million,” he said.
Asked if they would be a “full-time” mayor, all four of the candidates said they would.
Trotter qualified her response, saying she would be a full-time mayor if she is elected to a four-year term.
“If I am elected mayor for four years, yes, I will give it up,” she said referring to her full-time state job.
“Right now I am working for the state of Arkansas and I cover 14 counties and so I think it would be impossible to continue doing 14 counties and be a full-time mayor if I’m elected four years,” Trotter explained.
The June 24 special mayoral election is for a term of no more than five to six months. The mayoral election during the November general election is for a four-year term. While not necessarily so, conventional wisdom is that whoever wins the special election likely will win the race in the November general election.
Responding to a question about budget priorities, Trotter said she is reviewing the city budget every night and sees some areas that can be adjusted.
“I don’t want to say where the cuts need to be made, but I do see some areas that can be adjusted,” Trotter said. “And that’s what I would focus on… if I am elected mayor, because I’m all about saving a dollar.”
Tucker said he had a key role in writing the 2014 city budget, cutting $1 million while adding four new services.
“If you’ll turn to page 1 of the 2014 budget, Vickie Tiner, our finance director, and my signatures are right there on the cover letter,” Tucker said. “We had the opportunity, by implementing some strategic budgeting practices, (to reduce) our city budget by $1 million from 2013 to 2014. That’s the first reduction in the city budget in over a decade and I plan on fully implementing the rest of the strategic budgeting processes over the next year when we start the 2015 budget to further see another $1 million reduction and hopefully a little bit more. And, we don’t lose any city services. We’ve actually added four areas of services: yard waste collection, movies in the park, just to name a few…”
Rogers said the city budget is set by city council and the mayor follows it.
“If it’s not in the budget, the mayor is only authorized to spend $2,500 without council approval,” Rogers said. “There’s not a whole lot you can do without going back to the council to get approval to anything extra that is needed. A lot of people want to blame the mayor, but the mayor can only do what the council puts out there. Once they put it there, it is the mayor’s responsibility to fulfill the budget.”
Referring to Tucker’s comment that $1 million was cut from the city budget, Rogers said the city shouldn’t be saving money while city services are not being met. He said the access road to Lake Monticello needs grading and city ditches are not being mowed.
“We don’t need to be saving that money if it’s there,” he said.
Agreeing again with Rogers, Thornhill said the city council sets the budget but the mayor can exert his influence on the council to meet unmet needs such as a back-up garbage truck and pay raises for city employees.
“Like Mr. Rogers said, the city council is the one that sets the budget,” Thornhill said. “The mayor can try to exert his influence on the council. A couple of areas I’d like to see that happen is: you know we’ve got this brand new trash truck, what happens if it goes down? We need a back-up for that. We’ve got city police officers that need a pay raise… Everybody in the city needs a pay raise. I’m not saying we can give them a huge pay raise but there are areas we can look at to start reducing the budget in certain places and working with the council to try to help implement these areas and giving some money to the city employees and have them feel like they are a part of our city and want to stay a part of our city.”
Responding to a question about youth services, Trotter said she would like to see the the city, through the Monticello Police Department, implement the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program.
“There are so many kids out there that don’t have a mother or maybe a father or someone to spend that quality time with them,” she said.
Trotter suggested that churches and volunteers could also get involved in the organization to take children to local and out-of-town activities so that they will stay out of trouble.
Tucker suggested utilizing students at the University of Arkansas at Monticello to coordinate activities and serve as mentors. He also suggested investing in more programs at the city parks and creating a mayor’s youth council to get input from the youth.
Rogers said the city should continue supporting baseball, softball, soccer, swim team, the Boys and Girls Club, and other local programs and activities but he is also open to new ideas and suggestions.
Pointing out that volunteerism is on the decline, not just on the local level but also the national level, Rogers said more people need to get involved. “That’s the backbone of the programs for these kids, having good volunteers,” he said.
In addition to utilizing the existing programs and activities as well as Trotter’s proposal to establish a local Big Brothers and Big Sisters program, Thornhill suggested a mentoring program comprised of local community leaders.
“I’m not just talking about getting college students,” Thornhill said. “I’m talking about getting some of these people that are community leaders to go out and start working with children.”
But the only real answer to getting children off the streets, Thornhill said, is parental involvement.
Working with state legislators
While there were no questions about providing better services for elderly citizens, Trotter utilized a question about working with state legislators to address that issue, an issue that she clearly is very passionate about.
“Tonight, we’ve talked about the citizens of the Monticello and doing things for the youth of Monticello, but does anybody ever think about the seniors of Monticello?” Trotter asked. “It is really sad that I heard that Arkansas ranks No. 1 for hunger in seniors. That just hurts my heart. I would go to the legislators and see what kind of program we can implement so that our seniors are not going hungry and (having to choose between) paying for their meals or their medicine or light bill or water bill. We have to find something to help our seniors because they have truly paid their dues to society.”
Tucker focused on infrastructure when responding to the question about working with state officials.
Pointing out that he was director of the Southeast Arkansas Cornerstone Coalition, Tucker said the coalition develops a legislative agenda and lobbies state and federal officials for help in addressing needs outlined in the agenda.
“One of the things I am most concerned about is four-lane highway construction,” he said.
Aside from completing the U.S. 65 construction beyond Lake Village, not one dime of the state tax recently passed for highway construction was spent in Southeast Arkansas, Tucker said.
“In fact, the two highway construction projects in Southeast Arkansas — I-69 and I-530 — have come to a halt,” Tucker said. “We’ve agreed to tax ourselves but all the money is going to Northwest Arkansas.”
“We are just as important as any other area of Arkansas and we deserve our share…” Tucker said, adding that he already has relationships with state and federal officials and can be the voice “to make sure Monticello means something to the folks in Little Rock and Washington.”
Thornhill said he doesn’t have a specific issue in mind but would work with both state officials and county government to make Monticello the best place it can be.
Rogers said one thing he learned from his unsuccessful bid for re-election is that he needs to get more input from others.
“The one thing I learned when I got beat is if I get back in I’m going to work with more people outside,” Rogers said. “We’ll have more committees and get input from the community.”
“We’ve all got to work together,” he said. “You can’t do it on your own.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]