Bulldogs on Education
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Fayetteville (AR) Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Steve Clark is just as tenacious as the beloved bulldog mascot of the newly renovated high school that’s rising up outside his office window.
“If you work at the chamber, you have to wear purple on Fridays to support our Bulldogs,” Clark says.
The way Clark sees it, one of the chamber’s main priorities is nurturing the next generation of workers and business owners. “Our three goals are community, economic development, and leadership—but it all starts with leadership, which for us is about participating in our education system.”
That participation takes many shapes and forms, everything from an entrepreneurship camp for high school students to the Leader in Me program for elementary school students based on the late Dr. Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “It’s an economic development tool to help us develop an entire generation of people with good work habits and skills by 2023,” says Clark.
In 2009, Clark helped spearhead an effort to pass a $137 million bond request that would have increased property taxes by $4.9 million. “The school came to us and said, ‘We’ve outgrown everything we have in terms of facilities,’” Clark says about the 3,000-student high school built in 1952. Like any civic-minded leader, he took up the challenge to try to get the bond passed. But voters had a different idea—the proposal was rejected 59% to 41%.
Undeterred, Clark and school officials went back to the drawing board, hoping to get a second shot in 2011. They cut the proposed budget for the new high school from $113 million to $93 million. They “went to the people, showed them the layout, the design we had in mind,” Clark says. Separately, they sought $5.5 million in private funding for the athletic portions of the plan.
“We had critics, and that’s one of the reasons we split off the athletics facilities. Some people don’t want to build a football field. We recognize that. We listened to what the people were telling us,” says Clark.
While the chamber had played a role in both campaign drives, it redoubled its efforts the second time around. Clark adds, “In the second drive, we made the chamber the campaign headquarters. We and other supporters made all our calls from here.”
In November 2011, voters approved by 53% to 47% a property tax increase of $2.75 million to help build the new high school. Property tax rates will increase on average about $100 a household per year, Clark estimates.
The new additions to the high school opened on September 14, 2012, and include an 850-seat performing arts center, which holds nearly three times as many people as the old auditorium; a 2,200-seat sports arena with two practice gyms and locker rooms; and classrooms for drama, band, orchestra, and choir. Also included is a student cafeteria that seats 600 students, twice as many as the old one.
Other improvements will be rolled out in August 2013 and in 2014, says Clark. “We’re as excited as a new grandparent. It sounds hokey, but it really is a dream come true.”