A meeting of the Barling Board of Directors Tuesday (Feb. 11) billed as an economic development study session quickly spiraled into something else entirely.
"Maybe this being called an economic growth study session was probably the wrong terminology. Maybe it was a Barling beautification study session," said City Administrator Mike Tanner after the meeting.
The reason for the distinction is because the study session, which was meant to get input from city directors on how to spur economic development in the city, instead focused almost entirely on landscaping, sidewalks and signs along Fort Street, a continuation of Fort Smith's Rogers Avenue that runs through the heart of Barling.
While the meeting may have deviated from its original purpose, it had a few moments of discussion of economic development when City Director Bruce Farrar addressed the need for the city to have what he said was the equivalent of a business plan.
"We need to develop a one year plan, a five year plan, a 10 year plan and a 20 year plan, like a business does. This is what we're going to accomplish this year, this year we're going to finish this project," he said. "I've been on this Board 13 years and we have never had a plan or a project. We always fly by the seat of our pants. I think it's time we change."
Farrar said property values have declined in the city, adding that his personal research has shown homes sold in Barling sell at 10%-15% less value than comparable homes in neighboring communities such as Fort Smith and Greenwood. The long-time Board member added that it takes three to four times longer to sell a home in the city, with the community only having two homes sold with values above $140,000 in the last three years. According to Farrar, the culprit is Fort Street, which he called an eye sore.
It was at this point that talk shifted from economic development to beautification, with Board members focusing more on the aesthetics of the street than attracting business and industry.
Farrar himself proposed a stricter set of rules governing construction of buildings in the city, along with stricter ordinances governing the installation of signs and upkeep of property. It was something Mayor Jerry Barling immediately attacked while taking a shot to his city's western neighbor.
"You don't want to be as restrictive as Fort Smith is, because I'm telling you they killed development in Fort Smith," he said. "When you have to spend $4,000 to set your garbage can at a particular area of the property, business isn't going to like that."
The Board came to an agreement to be voted on at a later meeting that it would attempt to move forward with developing a plan to improve the city's appearance ahead of the opening of two big projects in the city in the coming years — the opening of a section of Interstate 49, which will end at Fort Street and Arkansas Highway 59, and a planned outdoor shopping mall in development at the same intersection, with an opening scheduled sometime in 2015 at the earliest.
Tanner said both projects could give the city the momentum it needs to see growth, now that it is no longer bound by Fort Chaffee to the south and east, essentially solving the dilemma of how to spur economic development that was the original topic of discussion at Tuesday's meeting.
"With this mall coming in, the economic growth should basically take care of itself. Just hopefully with the economic growth and the beautification — taking care of the signage and the sidewalks — that will lead to other retailers wanting to move to Barling," he said after the meeting.
As part of planning for that future growth, Tanner said an ordinance placing a vote on a one cent sales tax before the voters in November could give the city much needed funding to improve roads across the city as Tanner and other city leaders plan for the increase in traffic expected with the I-49 and outdoor mall opening.
The sales tax would be the second one to be voted on in a year, after Barling voters last year approved a one cent sales tax to fund improvements to the fire department. Because of an error in certifying the election, Tanner said collection of that tax will not begin until April 1, tacking on an overall sales tax of 8.75% on all purchases made in the city. If the latest sales tax is approved, it would bump the rate to 9.75%.
A vote by the Board on placing the item on the November ballot is expected as early as the March 11 meeting.