With 2016 in the rearview mirror, we’re full steam ahead into 2017 and Heber Springs Mayor Jimmy Clark is excited about the state of the city as we move forward into the new year.  I sat down with Clark to discuss the ups and downs of last year and what’s in store for the city going forward.

“One of the most exciting things from last year that we’ll be carrying over into this year is the CDI Kick Start program,” said Clark.  “That program really got us excited for what we can accomplish in 2017.”

Heber was chosen as last year's host city for the University of Central Arkansas' Community Development Institute (CDI) Advanced Year program. The goal was to target areas of improvement to help Heber Springs more fully meet its potential as a successful and attractive city.

“We still have a real issue with economic development and creating jobs in this town,” said Clark when asked about some of the challenges the city continues to face.  “Every mayor’s job should be help make sure every kid out of high school at least has the opportunity to find a job.  That’s the biggest issue I see where we’re not as far along as I hoped we would be by this time.”

Issues of available land for industry relocation, suitable work force, adequate utility services, and lack of real incentives are a few of the problems Clark sees as stunting Heber’s growth.

“You have to have tax incentives, payroll incentives, and other attractive options for employers to seriously look at opening in your city,” he said. “Those incentives are dollars, and then you’re having to talk about finding revenue from other sources that help fund those incentives to bring jobs here.  I’m not big on tax increases. I always like to tie anything like that to services that the citizens can readily see instead of things they can’t easily see the effects of, like incentives.”

Clark said he has had conversations with Cleburne County Judge Jerry Holmes regarding the possibility of an economic development position to be shared and funded between the county and the city.  While those conversations haven’t resulted in a tangible plan yet, he hopes they might find some sort of productive direction in that area.

 “We’ve got some good news out there,” said Clark.  “I’ve got a couple of businesses I’ve been talking to that are thinking of adding some jobs here.   We hope that that will pan out.”

“I do think we can get out there and try to recruit the right type of industries and the right type of businesses,” he continued.  “We’ve got such a wonderful infrastructure in this town.  We’ve got the lake and the river, a wonderful school system, and a wonderful two-year college.  We’ve got a lot of things to offer.  We just have to get them here.”

As tourism to the area has declined over the years, efforts to bring the tourists back and rebuild a flourishing tourism industry continues to pose a challenge to area leaders.  While the lake is a regular tourist draw in the summer, oftentimes visitors go straight to the lake and then home, without ever stopping to spend any real money with local merchants.

“When I campaigned, so many people said they wanted things for their kids to do after they got out of school or got off the lake,” he said.  “We still have so many things to offer, like the community center.  The trail system that we’ve been working on is a huge attraction and we’re aggressively pursuing the funding and development for that system.”

“We have a strong beautification and quality of life effort going on right now,” he continued.  “We’ve got some planters to try to help beautify 7th Street and expand on what we have downtown.”

Clark said he thinks the reimagining of some of our local festivals, like After Dark in the Park and the Ozark Trail Festival, will have an impact on bringing visitors to the city.  The Trail Festival has been successful since it was reworked and relaunched in 2013 and the After Dark in the Park festival for Halloween last year ended up being the most successful festival Heber has seen in years, with over 2000 people flooding downtown to celebrate Halloween.

“Our festivals attract visitors from out of town, but even when they don’t, they do a great job bringing our own people out,” he said.  “And that’s really what it’s all about.  Creating that sense of closeness in the community.  And we get great press from around the state and sometimes nationally, and that can’t do anything but help our community.”

Clark said one of the biggest opportunities is the development of the Water Garden project, which has been spearheaded by Cleburne County Judge Jerry Holmes.  This project, which will be located on land near the Fish Hatchery, was originally given the green light by President John F. Kennedy but stalled over the decades until resurrected by Holmes a couple of years ago. If completed, it promises to be a game changer for the local economy. 

“I know he’s been working really hard on that and that could totally change the dynamic of our economic development,” he said. 

Looking forward to 2017, Clark said he is most excited about the beautification efforts that will take place around the city. 

“I think here in the next couple of months people are going to see new signage coming into town with our new logo and motto ‘Spectacular by Nature’”, he said. “They’re going to see banners around the community and our logo on our city vehicles.”

Clark said despite some significant challenges for the upcoming year, he’s excited about the future of Heber and what will be accomplished in 2017.

In the Friday, December 13, edition of The Sun Times, we’ll give you our interview with Cleburne County Judge Jerry Holmes and how he sees the county moving into the new year.