By Ed Galucki

Staff Writer

State, county, and city officials gathered Monday at Lonoke for the ceremonial groundbreaking for construction of the Interstate 40-Arkansas Highway 89 interchange.

With dirtwork already underway, and three days of rain, conditions at the site, "Aren’t too good for people to be walking around out there," Mayor Wayne McGee explained about moving the ceremony to the Lonoke Flag Plaza.

The Lonoke Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event.

"This almost never got started in the first place," McGee remarked after guests scooped shovelfuls of dirt. The reason the interchange is being built is because of the persistence of those who believe in Lonoke, he said.

Highway commissioner Tom Scheuk, McGee, Lonoke Area Chamber of Commerce executive director John Garner, Arkansas Highway Department director Scott Bennett and State Representative Walls McCrary dug into the mound of dirt, symbolic of the work now under way.

Special guests included past state Senator Bobby Glover and past mayor Thomas Privett for the roles they had from the beginning of efforts for an additional interchange.

Others included State Representative Eddie Joe Williams, County Judge Doug Erwin, Redstone Construction Group project manager Jack Sullivan, and city council members Janie Derning, Wendell Walker, Efrem Jones, Michael Florence and Koy Butler, as well as Chamber Of Commerce members.

The Arkansas State Highway Commission announced Jan. 15 the award of a nearly $7.9 million contract to Redstone Construction Group of Little Rock to build the interchange and new overpass. Work began at the site as soon as weather permitted; the project is estimated be complete in mid-2014.

The interchange will give direct access to Lonoke’s nearly 400-acre industrial development zone. Officials have noted that poor access to the industrial area has been a key factor in discouraging businesses, which were otherwise interested in Lonoke, from locating in the area.

Glover, Scheuk and Bennett remarked on the work after the groundbreaking.

In his remarks, Glover credited past U.S. Rep. Marion Berry for coordinating much of the funding needed for the work.

"I have said several times about how very, very important [the interchange] is to Lonoke. It is the future for Lonoke," he said.

"There were times we didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off," Glover said. He also remarked he is proud that the interchange is among the final projects he was able to help bring about before retiring from public office, prompting a round of applause.

Bill Ryker, chairman of the Chamber interchange committee, reviewed the history of the interchange.

It was in 1993 that then-Chamber president Bill Cunningham made the interchange one of the Chamber’s goals, Ryker said. The feasibility study that convinced AHD was done in 1997, he said.

In 1998, then-mayor Privett established the city interchange committee to find funding for the project, Ryker said.

When the funding efforts seemed to be languishing, Congressman Berry announced that $5.4 million in federal transportation funds had been secured for the project, Ryker said. In 2006-07, the committee chose Garver Engineers to design the interchange. But it was not until 2011, after meeting myriad state and federal requirements, that the final design was present to AHD, he said.

By November 2012 all the rights-of-way and other requirements had been met and the project was put out for bid, Ryker said. However, all the bids were more than available funds, he said.

In January 2012, the project was again put out for bid, and, again, the bids were too high, Ryker said.

Later in January, AHD proposed that the city assume maintenance of the portion of Arkansas Highway 89 inside city limits, which would free funds that the department could use for the interchange, Ryker said. The city council approved the agreement, and within days McGee presented AHD with a check for the city’s share, he said.

"No April Fools Day joke on us today; folks, this is the real deal," Ryker said.

McCrary presented Capitol Citations to Schuek and Bennett recognizing the contributions each made to improving economic development for Lonoke.

McCrary also spoke about the contribution of nearly $357,000 by the Lonoke Industrial Development Corporation, a private group, toward costs of the interchange.

The contribution is in memory of the late Joe Melton, McCrary said. Melton, who died only months before the interchange was final, was a founding member of the Lonoke Industrial Development Corporation, McCrary said.

The LIDC, established in 1962, was one of the earliest efforts at economic development in Lonoke, and has been a key in bringing a number of businesses including Remington Arms, Wrangler, Kellwood Manufacturing, Ammonia Hold and others to the area.

Scheuk said that soon after he was appointed to the Highway Commission, he was invited to a meeting at Lonoke to hear about the interchange and the work being done.

"I was very, very much influenced by the meeting we had," Schuek said.

Bennett remarked that it was Schuek’s interest in the interchange project, which is why AHD "got off dead-center."

However, the project, itself, is due to partnership, Bennett said. Everyone partnering, from Berry to the city council, to the county, had an influence, he said. "There are a lot of people to thank," he said.

"We look for opportunities to partner with cities and counties," Bennett said. When funds "run short," partnerships can help meet needs, he said.

Partnership with Lonoke was "the icing on the cake" that helped finalize the interchange, Bennett said.

"We are glad to be here … We look forward to completing [the interchange] and seeing what things are in store for Lonoke," Bennett said.