After taking a moment to swear in a newly elected official, Mayor Rick Elumbaugh returns to his office, smiling and eager to talk about his town. Beginning his 13th year as mayor of Batesville, he says he still looks forward to coming into work each day.
When Elumbaugh took office, he spent the first five years visiting other progressive communities to see what they were doing. Now, he says mayors from across Arkansas and other states visit Batesville to see what it’s doing. He claims the key people in the community “think outside of the box” and have created a destination.
“We have such a great team,” says the fourth-term mayor. “Our city council challenges the community, and the mindset of our citizens has changed into a can-do attitude. The [Batesville Area] Chamber of Commerce is hitting on all cylinders. Everyone from Millennials to Baby Boomers realized the need to be progressive.”
Batesville is the oldest existing city in Arkansas, and it’s become one of the most progressive. The city has two colleges, a new public library that rivals any in the state and a $26 million community and aquatics center that allows affordable access to a modern fitness center and water park.
According to the March 2018 U.S. Census Bureau, Independence County is projected to have the highest growth rate of any touching counties in North Central Arkansas with a 6.69 percent population increase. Independence County saw a surge of 17,000 visitors and $5.1 million in tourism reported at the end of 2017 by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.
“This growth is, in part, due to the hard work of our community with the implementation of our grassroots strategic plan, IMPACT,” says Crystal Johnson, CEO of the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce.
IMPACT Independence County is the one-year strategic community plan that was created more than six months ago and has been approved by the Independence County Quorum Court and the city council of each incorporated community in the county. The purpose is to develop and implement initiatives that improve the quality of life and place and economic opportunities.
IMPACT is the result of committees comprised of community members who analyzed surveys of more than 1,200 residents of Independence County, says Johnson. With these findings, a strategic vision for the county was produced. IMPACT is a blueprint that organizes a long-term vision into 26 goals and 136 workable action items that have propelled, coordinated and sustained community engagement.
The community has made plans for future growth with its infrastructure. Johnson says the city’s wastewater treatment expansion has also poised the community for growth in the processing industry.
“We hope we will see the present industry grow, and we’ve set ourselves up for growth,” says Elumbaugh. “We are also looking to develop Riverside Park area, and will soon have a new dog park, hopefully by midsummer.”
The dog park is being built near the municipal golf course and is being financed by donated funds.
“Independence County and Batesville are fortunate to have a diverse industry base, with manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture at the top,” says Johnson.
Calling Batesville home are recognized manufactured brands, such as Bad Boy Inc, Intimidator, LaCroix Precision Optics and LifePlus. There is also a thriving poultry industry with Peco Foods, Ozark Mountain Poultry and Custom Craft Poultry.
“We certainly can’t forget our healthcare industry, which has expanded rapidly, employing well over 1,500 in Independence County led by White River Health System (WRHS),” says Johnson.
WRHS is Batesville’s largest employer. Newly appointed CEO Gary Paxson believes the growth of the community and the health care system rely on each other.
“Every growing community relies on the quality health care provided by its local health care system,” says Paxson. “Equally, our health care system relies on the growth of our community to thrive. The growth of our community and hospital can be attributed to the residents of the area, passionate employees within our healthcare system and the vision for a better community.
“The availability of quality health care is important to business leaders as they choose a community for relocation or expansion. The availability of quality healthcare, education, employment and community amenities each has an important role as families choose a community for their home,” says Paxson.
Paxson gives kudos to former WRHS CEO Gary Bebow for doing an “outstanding job improving access to care for residents of the region.”
WRHS experienced exponential growth during Bebow’s tenure, and Paxson plans to stay on that path of success.
“The shift in health care in recent years has provided greater opportunity to focus on preventive care for the patients of our service area,” Paxson says. “As new CEO, my focus is to create a culture where employees choose to work, and patients choose to receive their care. When employees feel valued and satisfied in their work environment, they will invest in creating an atmosphere of service for the patients and our community. We are here to serve, and we want to serve patients who come to us for care and in our communities.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Scott Lancaster, general counsel of the second-largest employer in Batesville, Bad Boy Inc., which employs 800 people.
“Batesville is our home, and it’s a great place to continue to grow our company,” says Lancaster. “The meaningful support of the city and its leaders has been instrumental in our decision to continue various expansions locally rather than to expand in other areas. Batesville and its leadership have demonstrated their commitment to Bad Boy, and this is home for our family of employees and us.”
Bad Boy has grown from nine employees manufacturing a few hundred mowers 17 years ago to churning out 60,000 mowers annually. Lancaster predicts continued double-digit annual growth over the next five years.
“As Bad Boy continues on an upward growth and expansion trajectory, it will continue to provide more good paying jobs for our area, and make an even bigger positive economic footprint,” says Lancaster. “In addition to providing jobs for so many residents, Bad Boy contributes in a difference-making way in many areas of the community.”
Batesville also relies on tourism and strives to preserve its heritage. Batesville has one of the state’s largest holiday light displays at Riverside Park, and it draws visitors from all over the state, as well as neighboring states.
With the passage of a 3 percent lodging tax to fund advertising and promotions, the pursuit of retail and restaurant developments have filled empty buildings and vacant lots. Some more recent companies moving into Batesville are Hobby Lobby, TJ Maxx, Freddy’s Frozen Custard and a new 80-room Hampton Inn.
The revitalization of downtown has also been a boon to Batesville’s economy as well as connecting to its historical roots. Niche restaurants have opened downtown, the historic Melba Theater has been renovated, and the Independence County Library recently moved into the Barnett Building, giving the library an expansion of 20,000 square feet.
There are other exciting projects in the works that Elumbaugh isn’t ready to disclose. However, Johnson says envisioning the next five years for Batesville is easy.
“Our leaders choose not to stray from the picture our community painted in 2017,” she says. “Something to look for is our community vibe, radiating our brand, the Southern hospitality that flows like the many waterways that have carved out the beautiful scenery around one of Arkansas’ most historic communities. [There are] abundant recreations, niche restaurants and shops, and innovative educational institutions.
“Development of the White Riverfront, candidates entering and contributing to the workforce earlier, unique partnerships between business and education addressing early childhood education, family wellbeing and food insecurity are also currently top priorities with momentum,” Johnson concludes, using the hashtag #experienceindependence.