by Ryan Nix, Photos by Jamison Mosley
Big things are happening in Cabot.
As one of Arkansas’ most rapidly growing communities, the city seat of Lonoke County is poised to become both a vital regional player and an example for other similarly-sized towns to follow. So far, Cabot’s particular location and situation have provided for exponential growth almost by default, but today a new crop of civic leaders hopes to push their city into full bloom.
From railroad stop to commuter’s paradise
Unlike many other early Arkansas settlements, Cabot didn’t spring from a riverside port, instead starting out as a water and fuel stop for the Cairo and Fulton Railroad during the 1870s. People began settling the surrounding area, and the city of Cabot was officially incorporated in 1891. From that date, Cabot settled into a comfortable pattern of slow, steady growth punctuated by periodic population spurts spurred on by serendipitous local and national events, starting with World War II.
WWII prompted the construction of the Arkansas Ordnance Plant in nearby Jacksonville which employed more than 14,000 locals, many of whom settled in Cabot and remained after the plant’s closure, doubling the city’s population. Cabot’s good fortune continued when Highway 67 was expanded, facilitating travel through Cabot and setting the stage for its future as a commuter town.
Cabot’s star continued to rise. From 1960 to 1970, Cabot’s population increased by 120 percent to nearly 3,000 residents, then steadily swelled to more than 15,000 at the turn of the century. Today, it is closing in on 30,000. Many point to the 1955 installation of the nearby Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB) as the proximate cause for Cabot’s exponential growth. More controversially, others have accused Cabot of benefitting from “white flight,” caused by the court-ordered integration of Little Rock schools during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Cabot’s population did quadruple during this time while Little Rock’s growth began to slow. One thing seems certain: Overall discontentment with constant litigation involving Pulaski County’s three school districts led people to Cabot.
Mike Polston, former Cabot High School history teacher and current curator of Cabot’s Museum of American History, provided a more synthetic analysis. “I’m sure some people moved here from Little Rock because of school integration, but personally I think the larger cause was the opening of the Air Force base,” he says. In fact, 40 percent of the LRAFB’s military personnel and their families live in Cabot. “Also, it became very easy to commute into Little Rock from Cabot, and people wanted to take advantage of the lower living costs,” Polston adds.
If you speak to people in or about Cabot, you’ll eventually hear them sing the praises of their local schools. The Cabot School District (CSD) is virtually the only major employer in Cabot with a staff of nearly 1,500. “Our school is really the anchor for Cabot and for all of Lonoke County,” says Ken Kincade, Cabot’s newly-elected mayor. Amy Williams, the Cabot Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO, agrees. “Our schools are our main draw; that’s what brings so many young families here and what makes others send their kids here,” she says.
Williams isn’t exaggerating the wide appeal of Cabot’s schools. “Cabot itself has around 30,000 people, but our school district serves a population of 80,000. It’s a lot bigger than people would expect,” says Williams. In fact, the school district’s bus routes cover 4,700 miles each day and had a total enrollment of 10,500 students last year. Not only is it surprisingly large, the CSD also boasts an impressive academic record. On average, the 764 Cabot High School students who took the ACT in 2017 scored 1.2 points higher than other Arkansas students. During the same year, Cabot High administered 831 AP exams and enjoyed a 55 percent pass rate, nearly 20 percent higher than the 36 percent AP exam success rate across the state.
The Cabot School District is also home to Arkansas’ only history museum founded and operated by students, the aforementioned Museum of American History. “It started back in 1985 with the Cabot High School history club, and eventually grew into the museum we have today,” says Polston.“We’ve got a huge collection of pieces from our political, social and military history.”
In fact, the museum’s collection of historical artifacts has outgrown its current space in downtown Cabot, filling two rooms at the high school. “Right now we’re focused on American history in general, but once we get approved to move into a larger space, we’re going to also focus on Cabot’s local history,” says Polston. “We’ve got a great collection of stuff from the city’s history, dating back to the 1880s.” Cabot High’s history buffs have the opportunity to help catalog and curate the museum during their bonus period, counting toward their community service hours.
Cabot’s schools are the largest feather in its cap, outshining and overshadowing every other area. While the schools serve as a great draw for families to live in Cabot, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to work in Cabot, which has become Arkansas’ quintessential bedroom community. “Our greatest export is our people,” says Williams. “About a third of our residents commute to Little Rock every morning; that’s around 8,00 people.”
According to data from the US Census Bureau, 63.3 percent of Cabot’s population is in the civilian workforce, roughly 16,700 people. Taking Williams’ estimate into account, this means that nearly half of Cabot’s working citizens work in Little Rock.
Cabot’s close proximity to high-paying jobs in the state capital combined with low costs of living have allowed Cabot residents to enjoy a median income of $58,392. That’s slightly above the median income for Lonoke County at large, which at $57,290 is the third-highest in Arkansas. However, that proximity has discouraged any large economic development in Cabot, says Kincade. “One of our biggest goals is to build a self-sustaining economy in Cabot, so people don’t have to leave and go to Little Rock to get what they need.”
The first step in the mayor’s vision for a self-sufficient Cabot? Getting companies to build call centers in the city. “From the research we’ve performed, we think call centers are the best fit for our specific demographic,” says Kincade.
In pursuit of this goal, the city has partnered with the chamber, and Williams is on board. “We had a few strategic planning meetings, and found that call centers would work best for us,” she says. “It would create a reasonable amount of well-paying jobs, so people could work there and not be so far from their kids during the day.”
When asked why they singled out call centers over a larger industry like manufacturing, Williams cited pragmatic reasons. “An industrial manufacturer could create something like 1,500 jobs, as opposed to the 80 to 200 jobs created by a call center. While there would be more opportunity to work, we’re concerned with the future of the two industries,” says Williams. “If the call center closed, at most we’d lose 200 jobs. If a manufacturer closed, 1,500 people would lose their jobs and that would be a major blow to our town.”
Williams believes a small cottage industry of call centers is a practical first step into the future for Cabot. “About 10 companies are interested in relocating to places like Cabot, so the interest is already there,” says Williams. “Also, with so many of our workers commuting I don’t think we could sustain a really large employer right now. But we could be a great environment for a call center or smaller manufacturer.”
Beyond phone banks, Cabot’s government and chamber are hard at work on another exciting project — a renewable energy initiative. “One of my biggest goals is for all of our city buildings to run entirely on solar power. We’ve met with four or five Arkansas solar energy companies and are really close to making a deal,” says Kincade. “Hopefully we’ll be able to break ground on that project by mid-2020, but it’s such a new and exciting technology we want to be as comprehensive as possible.”
Cabot High graduated around 800 students last year. “I think our greatest challenge is getting those kids to come back to Cabot after they go to college,” says Kincade. In an attempt to retain the city’s fleeting youth, Kincade and the Cabot City Council have started several new improvement projects. “Other than building a local economy, we’re working on making Cabot more liveable; I’m talking more sidewalks and bike lanes so we can connect every mile of our city,” Kincade says. “We’re also setting up WiFi hotspots around the city and building condos and townhouses in our downtown area.”
The city also has partnered with the nascent Cabot Foundation for Arts and Culture to build a downtown Arts & Entertainment District. “The Foundation for Arts and Culture is working on a few murals and public art plans, and we’re looking at building some community gathering spaces,” says Williams.
The city hopes that providing more public spaces will give Cabot a more distinct local flavor and attract new, younger residents. “We’re revamping our city courtyard, starting with a big amphitheatre for monthly concerts. We think our families and young couples will really like it,” she says.
Although its proximity to Little Rock means that Cabot will always be something of a bedroom city, it’s managed to thrive for 130 years through proactive community leaders fostering an optimistic atmosphere.
“We do have the potential to be more than just a commuter town. We have land available, open buildings and a good team to build,” says Williams. “It’ll take about 10 or 15 years for our projects to really come to fruition, which is hard to stomach, but that’s reality. There’s just a lot of excitement in the community.”
Either way, forecast a bright future for Cabot. “We’re taking Cabot to the next level, and the people here know it. There’s a big buzz around, a lot of excitement,” says Kincade.