At the Vilonia Area Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, held Monday night, members of the school district voiced their opinions on promoting the area.
Chamber president Fred Fowlkes said the joint meeting with the chamber, the city and school district officials resulted when Dr. David Stephens, school superintendent made a call apprising all of the drop off in enrollment numbers in the district. Stephens is promoting a partnership between the district, the chamber and the city with a goal of promoting the area in a positive way and attracting young families.
There are different opinions, Fowlkes said, regarding what is needed in Vilonia as well as how to promote it. He said some may be afraid to move to Vilonia because it is a “tornado alley.”
However, he said, the reality is most of central United States is a tornado alley. Regarding tornados, moving to Vilonia, he said, is actually no more risky than moving to any other city in the area.
Speaking to the audience of about 100, Stephens said, he is concerned about the drop off of enrollment of kindergarten students. Last year, he said, there were 247 students compared to the current 206 students.
“It is the smallest kindergarten class we have had in a long time,” he added. A call to other school districts, he said, they have told him their kindergarten numbers are at all time highs.
“Young families are not moving to Vilonia as they have in the past,” he said. That is an area, he said, where all of Vilonia should be more reactive “thinking outside the box” to attract young families. Regarding what the district has to offer, he talked about high school AP classes and college credits saying the school is set up where a student can graduate VHS with 48 college credits. In conclusion, he said, “If asked why would you move to Vilonia, our response should be why wouldn’t you move to Vilonia.”
VHS teacher Erin Rappold introduced a handful of East Lab students allowing them to present some of their thoughts and projects. She said she has asked them what would bring them back to Vilonia after college and they had several ideas. The students talked about a new city logo such as “Small town—Big dreams.” They also talked about beautifying Main Street, building a drive-in movie theater, building a park, adding more restaurants, establishing a food truck park on the bypass, publishing a magazine and building a community center with a basketball court as well as workout equipment, meeting rooms, a game room and a safe room.
If the students’ ideas could come to life, Rappold said, they are more willing to “stay around.” She touched briefly on a project involving the students—the building of a monument to the tornado victims. The Vilonia Disaster Recovery Alliance, she said, has donated $3,000 for the project with Nabholz donating the remainder.
Mayor James Firestone was the last to speak. He referred to the students as the future of the city. The Vilonia School District, he said, has been a drawing card to this community for a long time. He talked about the 2013 bond issue that was used to build the softball/soccer complex on N. Mt. Olive. The life of the bonds, he said, could be extended providing $1.7 million to go to a community center.
“The community center is something within reach,” he said. On that note, he said, “people might not realize we have a lot going on here right now.”
He went down a list of things that have been done since the tornado. Roads have been fixed, he said. As well, Main Street has been newly paved. Plans are also in the works, he said, for improving some roads that haven’t seen improvements in many years. There are plans, he said, for the city to do 1.7 miles of overlay. “Roads are important to people,” he added. A bridge, he said, is being fixed on N. College. The baseball field will be ready for the spring season.
Regarding new commercial projects, he said the new 33,000 square ft. Harp’s Grocery Store is set to open soon and will employee about 120 people. The AR Care Clinic, he said, being built is to be a “top notch” medical facility. Also, being built on Main Street is the Sweet Heat Catfish and Barbeque restaurant. And, on the bypass, he said, the Vilonia Commons is being built and will have retail shops in it.
He suggested that everyone “talk to your friends and help us promote this great community.”
Prior to ending, Cassie Martin provided an update on the Farmers Market. Although it is closed in the downtown area for the winter, she said, there are products still available on the market’s website.