Jacksonville is on the rise, and its schools are playing no small role in that.
For one, the $74 million 338,000-SF Jacksonville High School, which opened to 1,100 students earlier this month, is a “first-class facility” that will help the city grow and revitalize its downtown, Mayor Bob Johnson told Arkansas Business last week.
For Jacksonville businesses that want to expand or for businesses considering locating in the city, “the No. 1 thing is ‘How about a good workforce? I need a quality workforce,’” Johnson said. “Right behind that is quality of life. Education, health care and quality of life are the three biggest things to a healthy city, and I’m working on two of those three. And the school district is working on the other.”
Replacing all schools in the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District is one way the district, carved out of the Pulaski County Special School District in 2014, is hoping to improve education in the community.
The $16 million Bobby Lester Elementary School, which replaced two other elementary schools that have been demolished, opened last school year. Also planned are a $25 million middle school, a $17 million elementary school and two smaller $14 million elementary schools.
As for the new high school, feedback from prospective businesses has been positive, according to the mayor. “They say it’s such a good, welcoming thing into the city,” Johnson said. “You know, you get off the Main Street exit, boom, there it is. It looks like a corporate headquarters. It gives that nice curb appeal.”
Already, a few new projects have popped up near the school and elsewhere in the city.
Just a few blocks away is the new Kum & Go gas station at 1501 W. Main St. It is also the location of a new Jacksonville welcome sign and water feature.
In addition, Wingstop (2050 John Harden Drive, Suite B), D2 Comics & More (3 Crestview Plaza) and Sky High Nutrition (628 W. Main St.) are among the new businesses in town. The two stores are downtown, and D2 Comics & More is situated across from the high school.
“The owners, Brandy and Dean Douglas, chose this location because it was so close to the new school,” Courtney Dunn, executive director and CEO of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, told Arkansas Business in an email. Brandy Douglas, in a statement shared by Dunn, said: “I see how many things are going good here and the potential our community has to grow. But there is also a need here for teens to have a safe place to hang out.”
Another business is considering moving in across the street from Kum & Go, the mayor said, and he’s in discussions with a microbrewery as well as a few restaurants.
“Everything just looks really nice when you enter Main Street, so I think that’s going to help me be able to work toward revitalization of downtown and bring new businesses to town,” Johnson said.
The community is close to announcing a few restaurant deals, Robert Price, the city’s economic development director, added.
Sports Complex Envisioned
However, the biggest get could be a $42 million central Arkansas sporting complex, Smashville, to be built on 360 acres off Highway 161.
City officials once envisioned that property as a possible site for the Arkansas State Fair. Now, Price said, Smash It Sports of Rochester, New York, is “committed” to bringing the sports complex to the city — and moving its headquarters there. The project would create 500 jobs, and the company would pay the city to manage it, Price said.
Price’s office is compiling a business plan to present to potential investors and working with consultants on feasibility and economic impact studies.
“This is a great example of one of those instances where you can have a master plan and you can work on all these objectives in the master plan, which improves the economic growth in your community, and then sometimes something just walks in the door that you don’t plan for,” he said. “Part of economic development is being flexible enough to respond to those opportunities when they walk in the door, and the Smash It thing is an example of that.”
Price said the city is taking a regional approach to the sports complex project.
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“When you think about economic development, you’re not on an island by yourself. We know that we’re tied together economically with Cabot, with Sherwood,” he said. “Whatever affects us here affects them. And so you have to take a regional approach.”
Johnson, the mayor, also emphasized that a regional approach is needed in economic development.
According to Plan
All of this growth began with an economic development plan spurred by the rebirth of the city’s schools, a plan that included attracting restaurants, grant money and extending a millage rate.
“Governors have touted this — that education and economic development go hand in hand,” Superintendent Bryan Duffie told Arkansas Business.
Duffie agreed with the mayor on the importance of a good workforce. He said schools produce the workforce needed to attract new businesses and industry as well as grow existing businesses in a community. “It’s a symbiotic relationship that, to be successful, both [the community and schools] need to be successful,” he said.
Price, the economic developer, concurs. “We know that having a good school district is fundamental for having good economic development growth in a community,” he said.
Price said the new schools were a catalyst for the program he began leading under former Mayor Gary Fletcher. The first step was to organize a group of about a dozen local leaders to complete a SWOT analysis, a strategic planning technique to help identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
That process took several months and resulted in a master economic development plan containing 13 objectives, Price said. The group then became a steering committee to implement the plan.
Ten months ago, he formed a second group called the Jacksonville Business Ambassadors. That group includes community leaders like Duffie and First Arkansas Bank & Trust CEO Larry Wilson as well as several small-business owners.
The Jacksonville Business Ambassadors group drafted another plan with 12 objectives and has formed working groups to see those through.
One of the main objectives of the first plan was to attract high-end restaurants. To do that, the city had to — and did — vote to allow alcoholic drinks by the glass.
Other accomplishments of Price’s office include netting a $400,000 cybersecurity education grant, successfully campaigning for the millage rate extension that will help fund the new schools, and getting a $500,000 grant for Jacksonville from the U.S. Department of Defense to study the Little Rock Air Force Base’s operations, its needs and the development around it.