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Sunday, January 21, 2018, 8:49 a.m.

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‘I love being mayor’

Castleberry reflects on first year in office

By David Keith/Contributing Writer

This article was published January 8, 2018 at 9:43 a.m.

Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry took office a year ago. Projects such as Conway’s first splash pad and construction of a new tennis center are important factors in what he calls the continuous drive to make the city desirable for families.

Visitors to Conway City Hall have a place to park.

Mayor Bart Castleberry, during his first year in office, wanted to make sure people who had business with the city didn’t face problems with parking in downtown Conway. Four parking spaces behind City Hall were designated for visitors to the building. Castleberry cites this as a reminder for all city employees that they are there to serve the public.

Ensuring that city employees understand their role with the public was a point Castleberry wanted to emphasize in his first year as mayor.

“At my first department-head meeting in January [2017], I said our duty to the city of Conway is to provide services, take care of the people and take care of the employees,” he said.

He said he meets quarterly with all of the city’s employees who were hired in the previous three months.

“I tell them, ‘You are the face of the city, and first impressions are important, and you’ve got to want to be a public servant,’” Castleberry said.

All members of the Conway Police and Fire departments completed diversity training in 2017, and he said new hires in the two departments will undergo the training moving forward. He would like to expand the diversity training to all city employees.

Castleberry has worked for the city since 1981. He spent 33 years with the Conway Fire Department, including 20 years as chief. He spent three years in charge of the city’s code-enforcement office before being elected mayor in November 2016 and taking office a year ago.

During his election campaign, Castleberry said his top priority was to address street issues in the city. The first major step in that direction came with voters’ approval Nov. 14 of a three-eights-cent sales-tax increase to fund road work in the city. Collection of the tax will not begin until April 1, but it is expected to generate $26 million before it expires in five years.

“I knew we were going to have to have a revenue source [for streets], but until I could get into office and see how the money comes in and how it can be spent,” he said, he didn’t know what that revenue source would be. He said he did not automatically assume a tax increase would be necessary. Advantages of the sales tax, he said, include that it will generate more money than other options and that the majority of the money raised will come from people who don’t live in Conway but who shop and eat in the city.

He said he realized some people would be critical of him and of the proposed tax.

“You’re elected to be a leader,” he said. “You have to do what you think is best and be willing to take the good with the bad.”

Conway is “getting to a really critical time” regarding its streets, Castleberry said, and “something was going to have to be done to stem the tide of losing streets.” The emphasis during the five years of the sales tax will be “on saving the streets we can save,” he said.

Streets will be resurfaced where possible, he said, because that is much cheaper than rebuilding and can extend a street’s life by 10 years. Proper maintenance of a resurfaced street can add an additional 10 years. However, he said, Conway has streets that must be rebuilt completely because they are beyond the point where they can be resurfaced. Plans also include building more roundabouts to help with traffic flow in the city.

All of the streets designated for work during the program are arterial and collector streets, which Castleberry said “are the streets people drive on every day to go to the doctor, to go to the grocery store.” The work will include bicycle lanes.

With Conway having an estimated $45 million in street needs, Castleberry said, he knew the sales tax would not generate enough to make all the necessary repairs. However, when the tax expires in 2023, he said, “we will have a plan in place” on how to address ongoing street construction.

The sales tax, coupled with the completion of the city’s work relating to the Central Landing development, will allow the city to allocate money into other areas where work is needed.

“Drainage is high on the list of priorities,” Castleberry said.

He said an April flood — when more than 5 inches of rain fell overnight — was a unique event, but it showed that the city still has a lot of work to do to improve drainage. Although he said downtown Conway floods “most frequently” and receives a lot of publicity during times of flooding, other places in the city have similar problems. The issue downtown,

Castleberry said, is insufficient drainage capacity to carry away water. However, because most of the drainage system is beneath downtown buildings, many possible solutions are unworkable or too expensive.

One project being planned to help downtown drainage is construction of a retention pond as part of a project to enhance Markham Street between downtown and Hendrix College.

Projects planned or started in Conway in 2017 went beyond addressing infrastructure. The city received a matching grant from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism to construct its first splash pad, which will be in Laurel Park.

“For a young family that wants to move to a city, you have to have amenities,” Castleberry said. “You have to have things that their young kids want to do. You have to have things that the adults want to do, and the splash pad is one step in that direction. We have a lot of great amenities in Conway, but I want to see more amenities for little kids and for handicapped kids and adults.”

Separately, Laurel Park is also the site of a $2.6 million, eight-court tennis center that is under construction and will replace four older courts that were in poor condition.

“The thing that sold me on the tennis center,” he said, “is one day I was driving home down Prince Street, and there were probably 40 kids, I mean little kids, standing in line with their tennis rackets, going through some training and some practice to learn how to play tennis.”

The purpose of projects such as these is quality of life.

“We are creating a city that people want to live in … a place where people want to raise a family,” he said.

Millennials are interested in living in a community that is walkable and rideable, the mayor said, and the city has other projects planned that build on this. One is construction of a pedestrian overpass on Dave Ward Drive that will connect the University of Central Arkansas with the area south of Dave Ward. Plans are being developed to build mountain-biking and walking trails at the site of the former city landfill on Blaney Hill Road. Castleberry said the city is working with local biking enthusiasts on the project and also exploring grant availability. He said the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is involved, too, because of restrictions on dirt work at the closed landfill.

Conway and Rock Region Metro, a Little Rock bus service, are looking at providing a “small transportation service” between Conway and Little Rock, as well as including in the future a route to the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton.

“Transportation is something that we are going to have to look to in the future as a city,” he said, even though it will be several years before Conway is of the size where a public-transportation system is likely. “There is so much more that goes with transportation. You have to have walkability so people can get to the bus stops. They have to walk to the bus stops. It doesn’t entail just buying the transportation and establishing the bus routes.”

Among other plans for 2018 is training 10 firefighters as paramedics, “which will save lives,” Castleberry said. Body cameras will be purchased for police officers. “I think that’s big because it’s good for the officers, and it’s good for the public,” he said.

Castleberry praised the work of a Homeless Advisory Committee that was created.

“They are doing some really good things because we do have an issue with homelessness in Conway,” he said.

Two projects are planned to provide housing for low-

income residents. The city purchased land in the Pine Street area and will partner with a private developer to build cottage homes, while a private development on Siebenmorgen Road will provide townhouses.

City employees will receive a 3 percent raise in 2018, which the city’s chief financial officer, Tyler Winningham, said is the first across-the-board raise in nine years. It will cost the city approximately $600,000 per year. Castleberry said he declined to have his salary increased, even though the City Council included him in its vote.

“I wanted this to be about the employees,” he said.

Looking back on his first year as mayor, Castleberry said, “I’m actually having the time of my life. I love being mayor because I get to work with everyone. I get to work with the departments and the public. I always loved being fire chief, … and it’s not different in that it’s public service.”

One difference, he said, is people bring problems to the mayor that don’t have anything to do with the city.

“People will call because they’re mad at their boss. You get folks who want you to deal with their problems,”

Castleberry said.

Coming into the job, “I feel like I had a good solid base to start with,” in part because of working with different mayors when he was a member of the Fire Department, he said. “I had a good relationship with Bill Wright. I had a good relationship with David Kinley. I had a good relationship with Tab [Townsell],” Castleberry said of his three predecessors in the office.

His plans now are to seek re-election in 2020.

“If it were tomorrow, I would say absolutely,” he said. “I love the job. It has to be about public service.”

And that starts with parking spaces.

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