NWA mayors talk leadership, opportunities and growing pains

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

Pizza, Mexican food and a snoring wife are what keeps local mayors up at night. At least those were the comical responses to the first question asked of four Northwest Arkansas mayors during an hour-long panel discussion on Thursday (March 13) at the Tomorrow’s Leadership Conference held in Rogers.

The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce event featured four of the region’s mayors in a candid conversational atmosphere with questions posed by the audience. Mayors attending were Rogers Mayor Greg Hines, Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin, Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse and Siloam Springs Mayor John Turner. Fayetteville Mayor Lionel Jordan could not attend because of death in the family.

GROWING PAINS
The mayors agreed infrastructure constraints plague them all and remain one of the areas they collaborate on the most. Mayor Hines said transportation across the region is one of its biggest challenges, but the $100 million infrastructure projects ongoing around the city will pave the way for more growth. He said the growing pains are going to be around for the foreseeable future.

Mayor McCaslin said over-reaching regulations are one of his biggest concerns. He said even small infrastructure projects can get bogged down when regulatory agencies are involved.

“I have an ‘expedite it now mindset,’ and these (federal) projects take a long time to complete. Something like the 8th Street project (federal project) that was announced in 2005, and we have not turned the first dirt. My math says that’s eight years,” McCaslin said.

Mayor Sprouse said he worries just how far the money is going to go, because there is still so much to do.

“We’ve identified several worthy projects, but they take so long to go from the concept to construction and right now we are not in the same bid climate we were two years ago. I am nervous because we are about to bid more projects approved nearly two years ago. While we saved $2 million on the Don Tyson interchange, we don’t know what these other road projects are going to cost,” he said.

Sprouse said the city is close to bidding two large parks, and three fire stations next month.

“I have felt paralyzed when looking at other opportunities because I don’t know exactly where we stand on the pending projects that have not gotten bids. We are anxious to get started because there still so much to do,” he said.

Mayor Turner said the cities have a great opportunity to work together. He joked that he’s not kept up at night about street issues, because that’s his city administrator’s job.
He then offered each of his colleagues a pair of “happy socks,” which he proudly displayed, grey with red stripes.

Turner said the city of Siloam Springs in unique, smaller, not on the I-540 corridor but growing nonetheless. He said one of the things the city did to help ensure their bond money went further was to establish a city street crew and construction crew that is responsible for moving utility lines.

He said since bringing those functions in house, the city expects to be able to double the money they have spend, because the bids are roughly half what they were with those services included.

“That’s the kind of thing that helps you sleep at night,” Turner said.

HARNESSING OPPORTUNITIES
The mayors were asked what area they think will present the biggest opportunity for jobs in the Northwest region for the next generation. Technology was the top of list. Sprouse said Nanomech and other nano technology applications. Turner agreed that high tech or perhaps energy-related technology fields are areas that the region can harness potential growth.

Sprouse commended the educational contributions of the University of Arkansas, NorthWest Arkansas Community College and the area secondary schools are doing a better job equipping todays students for technology related jobs.

McCaslin said regional growth is poised to continue, and last year the metro area was the fourth fastest growing metro in the country. He said the arts and manufacturing will continue to provide employment opportunities from the enormous fallout of Crystal Bridges and Wal-Mart’s onshoring program. 

“These projects won’t happen tomorrow, it takes time, the seeds have been sowed,” McCaslin said. “We have all the ingredients necessary for growth, employment opportunities, great educational system and high quality of life.”

Hines cited health care, saying the region can be a health care destination building on the strong presence already here.

“This region has a philanthropic nature, it’s one of the leading philanthropic metros in the country. This is an important metric for being a health care destination,” he said.

LEADERSHIP THOUGHTS
Spouse said establishing trust is essential to being an effective leader.

“It’s important not to manipulate the truth believing it’s more important to be right than do right.,” Sprouse said. “We do what’s right, not always politically popular.”

McCaslin said his Christian principles guided him though a 30-year career at Kraft Foods before he become mayor. 

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“To my knowledge those principles have never harmed anyone. It’ s our mission to lead with professional wisdom, character and integrity. If’s the thing, it’s right thing,” he said.

Hines said for him consistency is one of the most important aspects of his leadership style. Transparency was the most important leadership quality for Turner. He said the city of Siloam Springs makes all meeting memos and minutes available online seeking to be as transparent as possible.

“If there are going to FOIA it, you might as well make it available upfront,” Turner said.

He also believes that civic leaders should be accessible, even if it takes him three hours to pick up mail at the local post office.

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