January 05, 2011 Edition

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House expects growth in WR

Don House spent most of Monday in meetings with employees and department heads as he began his tenure as mayor of Walnut Ridge.
Gretchen Hunt

Don House began his tenure as mayor of Walnut Ridge by meeting with the city's approximately 55 employees.

During the meeting, House said he emphasized the spirit of cooperation within each department and between departments, as well as the importance of good work ethic.

"I wanted to let them know that not only myself, but the citizens of Walnut Ridge, appreciate their work, and we want to do the very best for the ones who pay our wages," he said.

House said there were not a lot of personnel changes made.

"Overall we've made very few changes," House said. "We've just got a lot of good employees already."

House said, while he would like to give raises to the employees as he begins his tenure, it is not something he can do before he sees how the budget is going to fall out.

"We have so many working at a pay scale beneath where it should be," he said. "I really commend them. We will look at the possibility of raises later, but we just can't do it now."

Being frugal with the city's funds was also addressed. He said there are always things that need to be done whether running a business or a city.

"We need to address our needs first, and our wants second," House said.

He said he also emphasized the importance of good organization within each department. He said committees made up of council members and community members will work with each department and report back to the mayor and city council.

House, who owns House-Gregg Funeral Home, said his time will be spent fulfilling his obligations as mayor. His son, Jim Ed House, is serving as manager of the funeral home.

"He's been effectively doing it for a good while," House said. "I may make an appearance there at night or on weekends, but I plan on dedicating my time right here to the city of Walnut Ridge."

Police Dept. reorganized

House has announced that Richie Thatcher has been named as interim chief of the Walnut Ridge Police Department. Also, Tony Waldrupe has returned to the WRPD to serve as captain.

Daniel Hill was promoted to serve as the department's investigator, and Jeff Franks remains as sergeant.

"We are trying to make the police department more responsive to the needs of the community," House said. "We will have stricter enforcement and make more courtesy calls to try to be of greater assistance to our senior citizens and our young people."

House said officers have been told that there will be no tolerance of DWIs, thievery or drugs.

"A top priority for 2011 is to crack down on drug dealers and drug manufacturers within our city," he said.

House said Walnut Ridge enjoys a low crime rate, but there is always room for improvement.

"There are not a lot of break-ins or attacks on people," he said. "We want to not only keep it that way, but make it even safer. We want it so a person can be out at any hour and feel safe."

Rick Ditto has been named as the new Street Department superintendent. Donnie Rogers, who has served as acting superintendent since the death of former superintendent Jim Poindexter, will serve as assistant superintendent.

Frank Owens, who was appointed recently as the new fire chief, remains in that position, and Charles Spargo remains as the head of the Parks Department.

Sue Hilburn, a former executive secretary at City Hall, as returned to that position.

Economic development a priority

Economic development is a priority for House as he begins his term, but will also be one of the biggest challenges.

"Much of my time is going to be focused on business and job recruitment," he said. "The city has failed to recruit jobs and has a declining population. That's a problem we've got to face and reverse."

House referred to local highways, the airport, railroads and nearby rivers and streams as assets on which to capitalize.

"We really feel like Walnut Ridge is setting upon a real gem so far as our infrastructure is concerned," House said. House said the Northeast Arkansas Water Authority project that is scheduled to be complete this year will be a boost for the community. "This will improve our water here in the city," he said.

"There is also a new sewer project going to be put in place this year that the previous administration had worked on," he said.

He also cited Walnut Ridge's proximity to both Jonesboro and Paragould.

"We are a part of that triangle," he said. "Unfortunately we've seen less growth than the other two, but we feel like now is our time, and we are going to be working real hard to see that we make progress over the next couple of years."

House said with prospective industries and proposed expansions, he expects to see at least one expansion in 2011 and at least one new industry.

He said supporting existing businesses is also a priority.

"We want our businesses to grow," he said. "If all the various businesses in Walnut Ridge and Hoxie could add one employee that would be 100 new jobs. We need to do anything we can do to help our local businesses as well as our existing industries."

All the pieces go hand-in-hand, according to House.

"Along with our new county judge, Dale Freeman, I am committed to bring new jobs and realize that with jobs will come growth through both business and residential development," he said.

House said he will be working with the local Chamber of Commerce, as well as many different boards and committees in Northeast Arkansas. He also plans to spend one day a week in Little Rock during the legislative session.

Working together essential for success

"I think that we are going to be able to see progress we've not seen in a while," he said. "People have indicated to me that they are ready to put their shoulders to the wheel and work together to move our community forward."

"One of the things I think people are going to see is we've been working hard since the election to minimize the divisiveness that seems to have become prevalent during the last couple of years," House said. "We are seeing and enjoying a good measure of success in that area."

Providing more activities for youth and senior citizens is also a goal for 2011.

House said he is hoping the city, possibly with help from Lawrence Health Services, can build a new senior citizens facility.

"That is one of our goals that will hopefully materialize," House said. And, hopefully, it will be funded with a 100 percent grant."

House said there are a lot of residents willing to give of their time to either clean up their own property or public property, serve on committees or help with festivals.

"We hope to promote an even greater spirit of volunteerism," he said. "There's a lot of great ideas out there. We need all the talent out there from both young and old."

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