Woody Wheeless, 58, graduated from West Memphis High School in 1977. He served on the Crittenden County Quorum Court before becoming the county judge in 2013. Wheeless also worked at his family’s video amusement business, Service Amusement Co. of West Memphis Inc., for 37 years until he sold it in 2012. He joined the Marion Fire Department in August 1990 and became fire chief in August 1998.
Wheeless started serving as Crittenden County judge in January 2013. He is seeking re-election this year in the county of about 50,000 people.
What’s the advantage of being across the river from Memphis? What are the disadvantages?
The biggest advantage is the cost of living is cheaper here. Also, our crime rate is not nearly as high as Memphis and the surrounding areas. The biggest disadvantage is that because our population is so small we don’t offer the chain businesses, like Dillard’s and Macy’s, so people have to go to Memphis if they want shopping of that nature.
What has the impact been of the county’s only hospital closing in 2014, with a new hospital not expected to open until next year?
We’ve had a major negative impact with the hospital closing. It has put a major burden on our emergency services, the private ambulance services that are in our county now. They’re used to going and picking up a patient and dropping him off at the local hospital and being back in service in about 30 minutes. And now that’s anywhere from two to six hours.
What’s the biggest issue facing Crittenden County?
Economic development, trying to attract businesses to locate in our county. That’s an uphill battle for us. I think part of it goes back to our proximity to Memphis. When I’ve talked to some of the major restaurant chains, they’ll always say, “You are on our radar, but we don’t have any plans of doing anything in the near future because we have so many of these particular restaurants in the Memphis area.” We hear that all the time.
But I’m very optimistic. I believe that once the hospital goes into operation in the first part of 2019, that’s going to be a major selling point to attract some of these restaurants and more motels. We’re going to see some good, positive economic growth in the next three to five years. We have to give all that credit to the hospital, because that’s what’s going to drive the growth.
How do you think the new federal tax cuts will affect Crittenden County?
If you look at it in the short term, you’re putting more money back in everybody’s pockets. But you also have to understand that if we don’t get growth that the federal government anticipates us getting to offset that revenue, then at some point they’ll either be taking away from us or there will be another form of a tax. So you always worry about that, because anytime the government is giving you a tax break, they’re taking something from themselves. And somewhere down the road they have to make up for that.
In the short term, it’s going to be a positive impact for people in that they’ll have more disposable income, but I worry about if we’re able to, from the federal standpoint, create all these jobs and new businesses that the government seems to think that we will to offset the tax break. I want to be optimistic and hope that it does, but there’s no guarantee, that’s for sure.