Southside, perched atop Ramsey Mountain in Independence County, is a booming area rife with car dealerships, restaurants and new businesses, but despite rapid growth the town maintains its small-town, “Mayberry” sense of community.
Threaten that style of life, though, and its residents bow up with grit and determination as evidenced in a David and Goliath-style battle with its neighbors to the north six years ago.
At the foot of Ramsey Mountain and hard by the White River lies Batesville, the county seat of 10,828. It’s a progressive town with a forward-thinking mayor always looking to grow.
Landlocked to the north, east and west, Batesville’s only direction for expansion is south, up the mountain and into Southside. In 2014, the city tried to annex Southside. Batesville Mayor Rick Elumbaugh saw the potential in his city gaining more than $1 million in yearly state turnback money through the annexation; Stanley Wood Chevrolet had moved to the top of the mountain, along with three car dealerships owned by NASCAR legend Mark Martin, sweetening the tax coffers.
Southside residents fought back, and a skirmish ensued that featured two elections, a lawsuit and heated meetings among city leaders and townsfolk that included armed deputies to ensure peace. When the fight ended, Southside became the state’s 501st city, and the sense of community there strengthened even more.
This, then, is a tale of the two cities.
Batesville is one of the oldest settlements in the old Arkansas Territory. In 1817, families began populating the area; a few moved to the top of Ramsey Mountain, but most remained in the valley, and Batesville began flourishing. In the early 1900s, T.J. Walbert started drilling for oil atop the mountain and the community, growing with the prospect of oil, was briefly named Oil City.
Southside was first considered a real community in 1953 when the Southside School District formed. The school district remains and is one of four districts in Independence County.
Southside residents attempted to become their own city in 2004, but an incorporation measure failed by about 100 votes. Ten years later, on Aug. 25, Batesville City Council members called for an election to annex Southside, voting 5-2 with one alderman abstaining.
“We saw the growth out there,” Elumbaugh reflected recently. “We had businesses asking about moving out there. We thought it would be a great fit. I guess hindsight is 20/20. It didn’t work out that well.”
Ray Bowman, the manager of a family handle-making business in Southside and the town’s first and only mayor, learned of Batesville’s annexation plans by reading it in the local paper the following day.
“We had done all we could to be on our own,” he said. “Then here they come trying to take what they wanted.”
Residents were used to the country life they had. There were no city taxes there; Batesville imposed a 2-cent citywide tax. There were also fewer ordinances and regulations in Southside. Residents could own as many dogs and cats as they wanted and have chickens pecking around in their front yards if they chose.
“We moved up the mountain,” said Marcie Foster, a volunteer worker at City Hall. “My husband works in Batesville, but we have everything we need up here. We don’t have to go down the hill to get anything.”
Residents began discussing Batesville’s plans and decided the only way to keep their community was to incorporate.
“We would have had to live by Batesville’s laws,” Bowman said. “You can’t have two sets of rules. Batesville has several houses on one block. We have two houses on an entire city road. It wasn’t going to be a good fit. There was nothing to offer us but a lot of rules and more taxes.”
Southside residents already had water and sewer services, amenities added to the area decades ago. They paid $65 a year for trash service, and Independence County sheriff’s deputies patrolled the area. What more did they need, Bowman reasoned.
“We were going to get hammered,” he said.
Batesville aldermen called for a Nov. 4, 2014, election to annex Southside and take in about 1,400 people. In an odd land deal, Batesville already owned the municipal airport, which sits in the heart of Southside along U.S. 167. If the airport were to expand, it would encroach on Southside’s land.
“We thought we could complement each other,” Elumbaugh said. “It’s all about economic development. Retailers look at overall population. If we had that additional 1,400, it would look better to those businesses wanting to locate here.”
Southside residents filed the paperwork necessary to incorporate, but the battle was far from over. The ensuing court procedures had more twists and turns than the steep, winding 167 up Ramsey Mountain.
Mark Hayes, an attorney then for the Arkansas Municipal League and now its executive director, represented Batesville and filed an injunction in Independence County Circuit Court to recuse Independence County Judge Robert Griffin from hearing Southside’s incorporation hearing.
Hayes claimed having Griffin serve as the judge in the incorporation proposal was a conflict of interest because Southside contracted with Independence County to provide police and garbage-collection services.
“Judge Griffin has been intricately involved to the point that he has assisted with planning, monetary impacts and proposed inter-local agreements that would benefit his tenure as county judge, as well as Independence County,” Hayes wrote in his injunction request.
Griffin refused to step down, and Independence County Circuit Judge Tim Weaver denied Hayes’ request, allowing Griffin to remain as the incorporation hearing judge. Batesville leaders also said they would not take the annexation off its election ballot, saying approval of the measure would indicate a desire to continue with the annexation effort.
Brandon Gay, an organizer of Keep Southside Free From Annexation, which opposed Batesville’s plans and sought the incorporation, said then he would challenge the way Elumbaugh called for the annexation election. During a contentious hearing in the Independence County Courthouse on Oct. 24, 2014, Griffin noticed four armed deputies standing by the judge’s bench as he took his seat.
“I went back [into the judge’s chambers] and said, ‘Get them out of here,’” Griffin said of the deputies. “I didn’t want the crowd to get even more fired up seeing the guns.”
The 100 who attended, mostly those in favor of Southside’s incorporation plans, often booed Hayes and Elumbaugh when they spoke. One woman shook her fist at Hayes.
After the hearing, Hayes said he felt from then on if he drove from Little Rock to the Spring River in Hardy, he’d have to drive to Newport and Walnut Ridge and then west to the Sharp County town to avoid driving through Southside and Batesville as a result of the animosity shown him. He didn’t indicate if he was joking.
Griffin granted the incorporation after the hearing, making Southside the state’s 501st town.
Batesville had 30 days from the Oct. 24 incorporation date to appeal Griffin’s order granting Southside’s city status, and there was that election looming ahead. If the measure passed, it would give Batesville leaders the incentive to continue legally challenging the incorporation. If it failed, it was a strong indication that Southside would remain a town. The election was open to those in the proposed annexation area and to all Batesville voters.
The annexation issue was defeated, 2,211 to 1,395 votes. “I didn’t have a feel for this one,” Elumbaugh said after the results were tallied.
In February 2015, Batesville officials dropped their lawsuit that challenged Southside’s petition gathering and removed the final block for Southside’s township.
“Not a soul wanted to be inside city limits,” Bowman said. “But if this was going to be a city, it would be our city.”
Hard feelings remained. Southside didn’t join the Arkansas Municipal League because league attorneys represented Batesville. The new city held its first election in August 2015 and in another indication of the closeness of Southside, candidates held one watch party where opponents alike all gathered to watch election returns, rather than having various parties for each candidate.
Bowman said he “dusted off the law books” and began studying. As a city, Southside would receive about $1 million a year in state turnback funds. The city put $4,000 a month in its general funds and $20,000 monthly toward road repairs. Bowman contracts with the county for police and garbage pickup; the money the county lost in taxes when Southside incorporated is returned for payment of services, the mayor said.
“We learn as we go,” Bowman said recently, five years after he was elected as the city’s leader. “We are doing things methodically slow. It may be slower than some want, but if you mess up going fast, you may not be able to fix it.
When the city wanted to build a city hall, Bowman and his wife drove around Arkansas to look at other facilities. “It was real romantic,” he said, joking. “I’d ask my wife if she wanted to take a nice Sunday drive, and we’d go around looking at city halls.”
Last year, Bowman and his council opened a new 4,800-square foot city hall. It may be big for now, he said, but it’s easier to grow into it than to build an expansion later. The hall has an office and computer terminal for the Independence County sheriff’s deputy who is stationed to patrol the area.
Business is brisk at the Dollar General store on the southern edge of town, and the noontime crowd packs into the Sonic Drive-In near the Harps Food Store. Traffic is heavy at the intersections of U.S. 167 and Arkansas 25 by the Tiger Mart Exxon station.
It’s a booming area, Griffin said, one that will continue to grow. “It’s absolutely thriving,” he said. “The future is unlimited there.”
Elumbaugh occasionally thinks of the incorporation effort, but doesn’t want to be defined by that. He wants to move on and holds no ill will toward Southside. His wife is a teacher with the Southside School District, after all.
“I’m sure there are people who still say, ‘There’s that bad guy mayor,’” he said. “But we don’t look back. Maybe we could have handled it better. Maybe we should have tried to only take the business district in instead of the residential area. We need to look forward to what’s best for Batesville.”
Both Batesville and Southside are working together, with the county, to purchase a section of land on Ramsey Mountain and develop a route for emergency vehicles to respond to accidents on the twisting road. Officials also see turning the route into a hiking trail.
“We are proud of who we are,” Bowman said. “We’re a different set of folks, and we have a different type of town. If you push us, we’ll ball up and fight. We don’t push well.”