MALVERN — When Dennis Thornton took office as Hot Spring County judge on Jan. 1, 2017, he said one of his goals would be “to encourage the involvement of citizens outside Malvern.”
“I wanted all citizens to feel like they had a voice in county government,” he said. “I wanted everyone to come together and work for the betterment of Hot Spring County.”
Thornton has been working diligently toward this goal and, thanks to the help of many, has developed the initiative Hot Spring County Conversations. All communities in the county have been invited to participate in the project.
Thornton presided over its first meeting on Nov. 1, 2017, when about 130 people from all over the county attended the gathering at College of the Ouachitas in Malvern.
“The purpose of that first meeting was twofold — to identify the needs of the county and local community leaders,” Thornton said. “Attendees discussed county needs and took a survey.”
Personnel from the University of Central Arkansas Community and Economic Development Institute designed the survey.
“In February of this year, we reconvened and reported the top priorities the people want to see addressed,” he said. “These priorities have been grouped into five main topics — job creation, recreational and family activities, public health and safety, education and workforce, and housing, real estate and downtown development.”
Thornton said steering committees have been formed throughout the county, and the initiative is being introduced to the county’s school districts. Steering Committee meetings were held in July in the Bismarck School District, and all those who live in that district are invited to a districtwide meeting at 6 p.m. Sept. 10 in the Bismarck High School Cafetorium. The meeting is free and open to the public; light refreshments will be served. The doors will open at 5:30.
The Ouachita School District Steering Committee met Monday and will have a communitywide meeting at 6 p.m. Oct. 4 at Donaldson Missionary Baptist Church. This meeting is also free and open to the public; light refreshments will be served. The doors will open at 5:30.
Thornton said meetings in the Glen Rose, Magnet Cove and Malvern school districts are expected to take place in the coming months.
“From these initial meetings, we hope to come up with a 10-year strategic plan for Hot Spring County,” Thornton said. “We have a great team of grant-writers in place, including Danna Carver, to help with funding some of the larger initiatives that communities may submit.”
Thornton said that in addition to these community/school district meetings, the county has already implemented or completed several projects related to the needs that have been assessed.
“Since January 2017, Hot Spring County has received over $1 million in grant donations,” Thornton said. “The county is not sitting still, but even more can be accomplished.”
Hot Spring County recently received a $100,000 grant from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s County Courthouse Restoration program. The grant is for the second phase of the courthouse-restoration project, which was started last year with funding from the AHHP.
Phase 1 was for a new roof.
The second phase is for masonry cleaning, tuck pointing, caulking and sealing. The restoration will be done in six phases, and the county has to apply for a grant each year.
The rural community of New DeRoche recently received a $45,000 nonmatching Outdoor Recreation Grant from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism for a fun park at the Doyle Collie Ball Park.
Thornton said the community had to provide three things for this grant — a baseball diamond with a backstop, children’s playground equipment and a pavilion.
“The ball field was already there, so that saved us some money,” he said. “We had to provide the playground equipment and build the pavilion. We had a little money left over, so we are going to fence the playground to ensure the safety of our children.”
Additionally, Hot Spring County received a $59,342 grant from the Blue and You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas, established and funded by Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The grant is for the purchase of 100 self-contained breathing-apparatus units and 50 oxygen bottles for 100 volunteer firefighters.
“We are so blessed to have this wonderful group of volunteers who know how to write grants. They have been very active, and their work is beginning to pay off,” Thornton said.
“I’m excited about the Hot Spring County Connections initiative,” he said.
“I’m not going to drop this until they run me off,” he said, laughing.
“I want to jump-start Hot Spring County. When good things start happening, I know people are going to jump on board,” Thornton said.
“We are poised for growth,” said Carver, who is a member of the Hot Spring County Historical Society. “We want to be proactive.”
Sponsors of the initiative include UCA’s Community and Economic Development Institute, Entergy, College of the Ouachitas, the West Central Planning and Development District, the Malvern/Hot Spring County Area Chamber of Commerce, the Hot Spring County Economic Development Corp. and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
More information on Hot Spring County Connections is available online at the Hot Spring County Cooperative Extension Service’s website, uaex.edu/HSCConversations, and at HSC Conversations on Facebook.