VILONIA — The Vilonia mayor said he is working “night and day” to get help for businesses hit by the tornado that ripped through the city.
Mayor James Firestone said he has talked to every lawmaker he can think of to get help for the majority of businesses in the city that were destroyed or damaged in the April 27 tornado.
He said early estimates were that 85 percent of the city’s businesses were affected. He asked for business owners to give him information about the status of their businesses, and as of Thursday, he was still assessing that.
Firestone said what he does know is that business owners need help sooner rather than later.
“We can’t wait weeks; they need it right now. There’s some urgency here. These people have to have some kind of assistance. They have bills; they have debt; they have to live,” he said.
“Even ones that can operate took a big hit when they were shut down,” Firestone said, becoming impassioned. “These people, they need to be recognized; they need to be helped. It seems there’s help for everybody except our businesses. There’s not a program set up for every unique situation, and I think we’re in a unique situation.
“They don’t need to take on more debt; they need help from the federal government.
“I’ve reached out to Sen. [Mark] Pryor (D-Ark.); he’s been great. He’s got the folks in his office working on not just the city issues but our local business issues,” Firestone said.
Firestone quickly listed other lawmakers who have offered support, including Gov. Mike Beebe; U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark.; state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot; state Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier; state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway; and state Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock. “All our local people have been here, and everybody is trying to help us find a solution,” Firestone said.
“They have the opportunity to find that little niche that’s going to help us,” he said.
“I can’t say enough about our congressional folks, even [the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management]. David Maxwell at ADEM [and the Federal Emergency Management Agency] people have been so good. They listen; they care. They’re also helping to try to find answers and find solutions to the problems we have, and I appreciate them so much.”
Firestone said he had a chance Wednesday to talk with President Barack Obama as they toured the Parkwood Meadows subdivision.
“He’s a very warm person, very easy to talk to. He spent quite a bit of time over there. We had time to talk one on one. He listened; he heard what our problems were,” Firestone said.
“He knows we’re a good community, a strong community, and we’re doing everything in our power, but he does understand we need some help. I think he’s sympathetic to our situation, and I do think he’ll try to help us,” Firestone said.
“Everybody here knows the economy is very fragile, especially a little town like Vilonia. It’s taken years to recruit them,” he said of the businesses.
He said that, according to Metroplan’s estimates, the city’s population is “over 4,100.”
Firestone said some people don’t realize how many expenses business owners have.
“They’re here because I think they love the area; they love the city,” he said. “A lot are here because they have families here.
“These folks need some help to survive till they get up and running.”
Firestone said a piece of good news came last week when Dollar General came to apply for a building permit.
“They think they may be in business in six months,” he said.
“I just want all our local businesses to know I’m working night and day with everybody I can talk to to tell them that we need help, and we need it now.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.