Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
When Helena and West Helena merged last year to form the not very creatively named city of Helena-West Helena, the consolidation could easily have been a suicide pact.
Both cities were in dire financial straits, with aging infrastructure and outdated equipment, and the merger brought together their accumulated debt. They were also used to being rivals, and unification meant destroying two longstanding fiefdoms with the hope that old competitors could work together.
On top of that, the new city effectively doubled a recipe of outsized personalities, sensitive egos and racial animosity that has been the toxic brew of Arkansas Delta politics for decades.
But after a year of marriage, the union appears to be working. Tensions are easing and for the first time in anyone’s recent memory, residents are optimistic about the future of the area.
And it all comes down to the leadership of the man who made the merger happen in the first place: the 38-year-old mayor, James Valley.
It was never obvious that Valley — no stranger to controversy — would end up being a unifying force.
He had famously sued the local school board to force redistricting and new elections, angering the entrenched power base there. And before that, he opposed previous unsuccessful efforts to merge Helena and West Helena.
But Valley changed his mind in 2004, when he was hired to be the lead attorney for a group pushing for a public referendum on consolidation.
“Two years prior, I was against it, and I was against it because I saw it as an effort to unseat some elected officials, not as an effort to bring communities together,” Valley said. “I became involved as a lawyer for this group merely to get them an election, and then, as I started to investigate the pros and cons of consolidation, it began to grow on me — one, that this was more than just legal representation. It was an issue that I wanted to carry forward because of our condition financially in both communities. … So I read the study they did 10 or 15 years ago about the need for consolidation. Also a report that dealt with the fact that both cities, if they continued down the same path, may be bankrupt in five years. We weren’t in a condition where we could sustain ourselves.”
Andrew Bagley, one of the leaders of the consolidation bid who had served with Valley on the Phillips County Quorum Court, said Valley’s change of heart was the difference between success and failure.
“I convinced the others that were involved at the beginning to bring him on as the attorney,” Bagley remembers. “I told them that if anyone could get us an election on this, it’s James. And he proved to live up to the billing. He single-handedly forced the election to take place when the West Helena City Council was refusing to follow the law and call it. He was able to put it together in less than a year and force the election.”
Given a chance to vote in March 2005, residents of both cities overwhelmingly approved a merger. But that only set the stage for another conflict over who would lead the new municipality.