Lonoke is a city seen by many, but visited by few. That may change in the near future, if a bold plan created by its residents is successful.
A group of volunteers is ready to unveil the result of more than a year of meetings and work sessions: the Lonoke 2022 strategic plan for the city. It consists of six segments, with a timeline to coincide with the city’s sesquicentennial.
“Lonoke was in need of a vision, and we were really absent of any large-scale vision for our future,” explained Ryan Biles, a member of the Lonoke 150 executive committee, which oversees the plan.
“Twenty years ago was the last time we got excited (about the city’s future),” added Walls McCrary, an executive committee member and long-time Lonoke resident. “We were in the Main Street program, here in Lonoke. And now, I think the whole community is excited about the direction Lonoke could go in.”
Chris Jemison is the kind of person committee members have been thinking about recently. He is an intern at the Lonoke Chamber of Commerce. His family moved to Lonoke a couple years ago after living in bigger cities, and he is not sure if he wants to stay after graduation.
“I would like to see Lonoke have more people, have more businesses, and just more attractions for younger people like myself to do,” he mentioned, “so I don’t have to travel to other towns where there are more attractions.”
Biles said he often has people like Jemison in mind when considering Lonoke’s possibilities.
“When folks like Chris graduate from school, what are they going to come back to in two to four years, if they do go to college?” Biles said. “Or, what opportunities are there that exist for them to start a business here or two raise a family here?”
The five-year plan came out of a long brainstorming process guided in part by the University of Central Arkansas Center for Community and Economic Development and the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Volunteers formed teams focused on Beautification and Recreation; Branding and Marketing; Downtown and Retail Development; Housing and Real Estate; Infrastructure; and Jobs and Education. Each group created goals and actions to improve that aspect of the city.
But many of the members agreed that Lonoke already has a lot to offer.
“I think people see Lonoke from the Interstate, and they don’t really know what’s down here,” said Gary Elmore, President of the Lonoke Chamber of Commerce.
One of its most important elements is the sense of community that comes from being a small city. Several of the committee members said discussions were productive because the people in the groups were eager to work together and listen to each other.
“It’s kind of reminded people that, ‘oh yeah, these are the good things that we like about ourselves and that we like about one another,’” Biles recalled. “And these are some of those things that we often overlook—even those of us who live here—when we stop and pause and kind of slow down the pace a little bit. We realize, yeah, this is what makes us different.”
Many people feel that Lonoke has been losing out to cities like Cabot and Benton over the last couple decades, and they wanted an inclusive way to make a blueprint for Lonoke’s renaissance.
“Not just waiting for growth to happen and then realizing that we’re something we didn’t intend to be,” said Pastor Jason Dorsey of First Assembly of God, “but that we’re growing in the way that citizens are making Lonoke what we want it to be become, and something that we’re proud of.”
Many small towns bristle at the type of change proposed in the Lonoke 2022 plan. People in them fear that positioning their towns for growth will ruin the sense of community they have known and found comfort in.
Pastor Byron Calhoun from St. John Baptist Church does not believe that will be the case in Lonoke.
“One thing we can say about us,” Calhoun said, “is that we’re willing to get there. We’re willing to face the challenge, to see that this city has the same things that other, bigger cities have.”
“People were ready with good ideas, and I think that’s what characterized the whole process,” Biles added. “It was a solutions-driven process, but again, it came from the citizens, it came from volunteers.”
While the process was led by volunteers, city leaders have bought in, both by participating in the study groups and supporting their vision.
“As a small town, we don’t have grant writers, or people that can constantly research for grant programs for us,” added council member Koy Butler. “As a small town, we don’t have grant writers, or people that can constantly research for grant programs for us. So, it’s really nice to have these groups involved in that process.”
While grants will help pay for some of the plan’s solutions, others will require residents to approve tax increases. A sales tax hike will be on the ballot for voters in November.
“We found out that that was one of our major, major needs that we had is our water system is old, our sewer system is old,” McCrary stated. “We’re gonna start doing major repairs on it.”
The group already counts a handful of successes. Among them are new lights for the walking path along Front Street, a mural on the side of a gas station near downtown, and a walking tour of historic homes. Some of the other projects be bigger and more complicated.
“We have some housing opportunities,” said Pastor Aubrietta Jones of Lonoke First United Methodist Church. “We need a little bit more family housing. We probably need some housing for people with a little bit more modest income, families maybe that are just getting started in life. And there’s been some movement in that area, and I’m excited to see more.”
The Lonoke 150 executive committee will host a public forum to officially launch the Lonoke 2022 plan at Lonoke First United Methodist Church at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 23. Residents will be able to ask questions, give feedback, and continue participating in the process that could redefine the city.
“Giving our students, and younger people in the community, and idea of what really is available, and helping them to believe that Lonoke can be what they envision it to be for themselves,” Dorsey said.
“It’s a prime time for Lonoke to move forward and take advantage of these things,” Elmore added.