Efforts to rebuild downtown Vilonia picking up steam

Linda Hicks/Contributing Writer Published July 24, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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VILONIA — Three months after an E4 tornado devastated the city of Vilonia, a Rebuild Vilonia 2014 meeting was held last week, with organizers focusing on the rebuilding of the downtown area.

“We are also blessed to have this turnout to come together for the purpose of establishing a direction to rebuild in the downtown area,” Mayor James Firestone said as he welcomed the 200 people who attended the meeting held at the senior citizens building in Vilonia. Firestone touched briefly on the volume of vacant land that is available in the city limits that may be developed. “We want to do it right,” he said.

He told the audience he supports the Rebuild meetings and efforts but that he is not the person leading the movement. On that note, Firestone introduced Marty Knight, a local church pastor, as the one spearheading the meetings, along with businessman Stanley Gordon Jr., owner of Gordon Financial Services.

After a short PowerPoint presentation, Knight took the helm for the remainder of the meeting. The purpose of the “first of many meetings,” he said, is to “discuss ideas and explore opportunities,” as well as to try to identify some sources of funding for the rebuild. Knight said both he and Gordon are longtime residents and want the best for the city.

“Everyone in this room, I believe, shares the same spirit that we’ve got to rebuild,” Knight said. “This meeting is just to get folks together. As sad as it is, we have a great opportunity to rebuild, and we need to plan for it in order to do it right.”

Knight said he is a project manager for Southwest Power Pool in Little Rock and that he works with architects and engineers.

“I believe there are resources available in that area to help with the planning and design,” he said.

Knight talked briefly about a large volume of the tax base, which was used to support city entities and is now gone because of businesses being destroyed by the tornado. He said there are businesses wanting to “come back” and others wanting to move to Vilonia, but “there’s no place to move here.”

“We need every one of them,” he said.

Committees are being set up, Knight said, for which residents may volunteer and “get the ball rolling.” He also presented guidelines for those wanting to volunteer. There are things, he said, that the committee members will not be doing.

“We do not want to try to tell property owners what to do,” Knight said. “I know Vilonia. I am a Vilonian. I know they wouldn’t listen if we did.”

The committee meetings, he said, will not be a place to circumvent or bypass the city government.

“We want to be supportive of those in authority,” Knight said. “We do not want to be a hindrance.”

Also, he said, the committees will not be political-action committees. If you are in disagreement with your neighbors, Knight said, talk to them.

“If you are upset at the city, run for office,” he said.

Among the standing-room-only crowd were City Council members and other city leaders, as well as business owners, land owners, Fire Department and law enforcement personnel, and school employees. Knight said the Rebuild Vilonia group facilitators were thrilled but didn’t expect as large a turnout. The audience included three television crews from Little Rock, as well as business owners from various areas of the state with brochures and concrete-construction building products. State Rep. Joe Farrer, R-Austin, of District 44, was also in attendance, as well as some representatives from state agencies.

For about an hour, audience members took turns sharing their thoughts, ideas and concerns. Firestone chimed in on a couple of subjects and answered some questions regarding current plans to expand the city. Street-paving projects planned for the near future, he said, such as the one connecting Industrial Park Drive to Cemetery Street, will connect some properties off U.S. 64, making them more desirable and accessible for development.

“We’ve got a lot of area in the city limits to work on and develop,” he said.

One man suggested the city should also become “business friendly” and search out investors and technology improvements. Research should be conducted, a second man said, to see how other cities have bounced back after devastation.

Many residents made suggestions for development, including a water park, a community center, a bowling alley and new restaurants.

“All I need is land,” said Scott Berrier of Vilonia. “I want to put in a Taco Bell/KFC.”

The subject of an annexation and development along the bypass was broached. Several times, Knight turned the conversation back to the downtown area.

“We are staying focused on the rebuild right now,” he said.

Nearing the end of the meeting, Gordon spoke out. He encouraged all in attendance to think about where they could best channel their efforts as volunteers.

“All of us have different concerns,” Gordon said. “Let’s not get caught up in our concerns right now.”

Instead, he encouraged residents to take a look at what can be done. He also said that to help, one doesn’t have to possess “expertise” in a particular field, but “just a desire to help.”

Both Knight and Gordon encouraged those in attendance to stay informed and to volunteer for committees that are being organized. Sign-up sheets were available, and it was announced that the Rebuild Vilonia 2014 Facebook page has been created for information purposes.

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