Big plans are not reserved for big cities. Lonoke is one of several Little Rock suburbs in the midst of large revitalization projects.
“We’re working hard, trying to bring manufacturing, you know, with jobs, in here,” said Mayor Wayne McGee. “Good-paying jobs. That’ll allow people to stay local and make a good living.”
Lonoke has seen many improvements in the last several years, including the construction of two new schools, a community center, and a new on/off ramp from Interstate 40. But the rate of change is picking up as the city prepares for the future and competition with other suburbs.
“Ultimately, cities grow by a good economy,” said Danny Games, executive vice president of global business for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, “and people who have a good disposable income and good careers want to live, work, and play in those communities are going to be attracted by certain amenities or discouraged by others.”
City officials and a resident-led organization are joining forces to overhaul Lonoke. The Lonoke 2022 plan. devised by teams of residents and with the support of city government, spells out how the people of Lonoke want to improve their housing options, infrastructure, economy, downtown and more.
“The people here, to be as close-knit, and work together, it’s just hard to find that in the big city,” McGee claimed. “I know they always say, ‘well, there’s a lot of things they have.’ But there’s a lot of things you find in a small community that you can’t find in any large, any big city.”
Games believes the bottom-up approach to civic investment could give Lonoke an advantage when it pitches itself to new companies.
“It takes initiative to get everybody on the same page, and say, ‘these are our priorities,’” he mentioned. “And it sends a message to outsiders. You know, if somebody from the outside is looking at a half a dozen communities in our state where they might locate a facility and employ several hundred people, and invest $20 or $30 million, if they get a sense that the community is not investing in themselves, then they may ask the question, ‘why should we invest here?’ So, it’s a great selling point for communities that have that story to tell, that we are not just planting a few flowers, but we’re really creating a destination within the core of our community.”
Lonoke’s population, listed as 4,245, is roughly the same as it was 25 years ago, but that does not mean the city is stagnant.
“In the last eight years, our one-cent money has doubled,” McGee stated. He attributes that increase in sales tax receipts to the influx of new businesses, including two that have opened in the last two weeks.
Many of the most successful businesses in Lonoke reside along I-40, attracting locals and drivers, alike. Filling more of the open space along the freeway, especially near the newer exit at Highway 89, could be the key to a future boom.
“A lot of the farms and things, for the last 50-60 years, (weren’t) available, (weren’t) for sale, so there was no way to grow,” McGee explained. “And land’s become available over the past 10 years or so, and I think that’s why we’re seeing more and more growth, and more development.”
Lonoke is one of several smaller cities, including Pine Bluff, El Dorado, and Jacksonville, that are in various stages of large-scale revitalization projects. Games theorized that the broader economic recovery and the strength of the statewide economy are two of the reasons why they are doing so at the same time.
“The mere fact that you have a lot of personal wealth and availability of capital right now,” he said. “So, the Baby Boom generation wants to leave their mark on life. And those that want to invest in a boutique shop, or coffee shop, or a restaurant, or some entertainment venue, they now are multi-millionaires, that now there’s this idea that they can come back to their hometown, or their spouse’s hometown, and leave their mark and have some fun.”
McGee agreed that conditions are more favorable now than in the past. He mentioned a proposed sales tax increase that voters will decide on next week, which would repay $18 million in bonds for sewer and water system upgrades.
“You know, we had talked about this tax about seven or eight years ago, but we couldn’t qualify for half as much money,” he stated. “It was around $6-8 million. And the interest rates (weren’t) as good then. That’s why we’re trying to take advantage, because what we can apply for now, what we can qualify for, and the interest rates, we’ve never had a chance this good.”
Aside from jobs and infrastructure, Lonoke is beautifying its downtown. A walking path has been built on the eastern side of Front Street, with lights and benches, and the western half of the path is expected to be built soon. “We’re working on more parking, extend our walking trails, having better hookups for food trucks, different things,” McGee added.
“A lot of people, they have a lot of pride here. And they want to see good things happen here. And I think we’re just seeing the tip right now. I think you’ll see a lot of things the next two or three years.”
In the face of this development, McGee said he and other city leaders have planned strategically so as not to interfere with the small-town feel of the city. He believes the growth will occur the right way, so a bigger, more prosperous Lonoke will still be the small town its residents value.
“If you can make a good living,” he said, “and take care of your family, and be safe, and have a lot of friends, and know your neighbors, I mean, that’s kind of the American Dream, so to speak.”