Lonoke is going to be different, Lonoke Area Chamber of Commerce members heard at the Feb. 7 meeting. Award of the contract to build an interchange between Interstate 40 and Arkansas Highway 89 was confirmed in early January, bringing an end to about 15 years of efforts to bring the project to reality, Interchange Committee member Bill Ryker said.

Ryker reviewed the years of efforts for the additional interchange, and the opportunities for economic development that were lost to Lonoke in the meantime.

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.

Executive director John Garner, in his remarks, noted that announcements may describe the cost as $7 million, but that does take into account other costs that Lonoke has “picked up.”

“It is more like $9 million,” Garner said.

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

Ryker reviewed the history of the efforts to build a new Interstate 40 interchange at Lonoke.

Public meetings, proposals, government reports, studies, designs, surveys and persistence have paid off, Ryker said to Chamber members.

“The good news is that the bid was accepted,” Ryker said of the award of a contract to build the new interchange. At first, it was thought that the bid would not be accepted.

The only remaining question is, “When does it start?” Ryker said.

The first round of bidding, held in November, failed to produce a contract. The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) considered none of the bids acceptable.

The bidding on Jan. 9 appeared to have ended in the same manner. However, on Jan. 11, AHTD proposed that if the City of Lonoke assumed the maintenance of Arkansas Highway 89 (Third Street), from the Highway 89 spur to the junction with Arkansas Highway 31 (North Center Street), adjustments could be made to fill funding shortfalls and the contract could be awarded.

The Lonoke City Council approved the agreement at the Jan. 14 council meeting.

“The Highway Department has the money in hand, the next question is when they are going to start the project; the project is ready to get started,” Ryker said. “We knew at the beginning about how much money the city was going to have to come up with,” he said.

Though there had been earlier discussions, the serious efforts to build the interchange began in about 1998, Ryker said.

Between 1998 and 2005, nearly all the effort was directed toward finding ways to pay for the project, Ryker said. “This was a project for the City of Lonoke. It was not a Highway Department project. The City of Lonoke came up with the project, worked with the Highway Department, [Congressman] Marion Berry came up with funding … but it was a City of Lonoke project,” he said.

All the mayors since the inception of the project, Lenville Evans, Thomas Privett and Wayne McGee have been integral to the work, Ryker said. “It was Thomas Privett who formed the Interchange Committee,” he said.

With few exceptions, there was no particular committee member that was more important than anyone else, Ryker said. “But each had an asset to add to the committee,” he said.

Standouts would be state Sen. Bobby Glover, Congressman Marion Berry and Mayor Thomas Privett, all no longer in office, Ryker said.

“Bobby Glover was on this committee before we started a committee … He knew there had to be something here in Lonoke … He knew these things before we knew,” he said.

Privett got the committee started; each time the committee stalled in working with the government, Glover stepped in and “got things working;” Berry found the key funding, Ryker said.

Possibly the key turning point was in 2005 when Berry announced that he had obtained $5.4 million in transportation funds for the interchange, Ryker said.

The City of Lonoke still had to come with $1 million for its portion, Ryker said. That check was turned over to AHTD in January, he said.

After selecting the engineering firm for the project, almost immediately Lonoke was told, “You can’t build that for $5.4 million … we had to go out and find more funding for the project,” Ryker said.

But, during the time of meeting requirements for designs, studies and surveys, the fund for the interchange continued to build, Ryker said.

“What is this going to do for the community?” Ryker asked. Two large corporations seriously considered Lonoke, but instead went to West Memphis and Texas, because of access, he said.

“They could have been here,” Ryker remarked.

There will be other benefits such as better emergency access, flooding relief, and better routes to north Lonoke County, Ryker said.

“[Lonoke] is going to quite different,” Garner remarked. The challenge now facing the city is to effectively manage the growth that will come to the area, he said.

In other matters, Chamber members approved the membership of Stecks Country Café, owners Carl and Alana Stecks; and Hurst Design, Collision and Restoration, owners Billy and Ashley Hurst.

Ryker announced the annual Chamber of Commerce Benefit Chili Supper, Feb. 16, at the Lonoke Primary School cafetorium, serving begins at 5:30 p.m. Adults $5, under 12 years old $2.50.

Madison Staton told Chamber members that the Lonoke High School Future Business Leaders of America members spent a month preparing for the District 5 FBLA conference to be held at Conway. At the conference, 11 members placed in the competition, earning spots in the state conference at Little Rock.

Currently, members are preparing the March of Dimes project. The community service project will collect coins from students at the primary and elementary schools.

Lt. Col. Michael Donaghy, 19th Airlift Wing director of staff, spoke of events set for Little Rock Air Force Base. told Chamber members that much at Little Rock Air Force Base is being affected by budget cuts. “We have been forced to cut back, like everyone else, on non-essential operations.” But the purpose of the Air Base is still being done, he said.

There will be force structure changes made at the base, but the details of how those changes will be made are still being developed, Donaghy said. “I do not think it will affect the overall community too much,” he said.

Donaghy announced that 19th Airlift Wing commander Col. Brian S. Robinson has been selected for promotion to Brigadier General. “It is a great compliment to him and his family for all the work they have done,” he said.

Robinson was included in nominations presented Jan. 22 by President Obama to the U.S. Senate.

The annual Base Awards Banquet was held two weeks ago in the Doubletree Hotel at Little Rock, Donaghy said. “It is a chance to recognize our hardworking civilians and military personnel over the past year.”