MULBERRY — A little thing like a tight budget can’t stop Mulberry from pursuing its dreams.

With a general fund that’s smaller than the construction cost of its future city park, this Crawford County town of 1,655 uses a host of federal and state grants to advance a long and varied list of city improvements that would otherwise be out of reach.

Over the coming months, Mulberry will open a new senior center and safe shelter, install infrastructure and playground equipment at the new city park, pour a mile-long sidewalk connecting two schools, advertise for bids to install backup generators at its water plant, and greet handicapped voters at three newly accessible polling places — all with the help of grant money.

According to figures provided by mayor’s assistant Becky Shockley and City Clerk Marie Johnson, each of the city’s biggest projects far exceeds its annual budget.

Johnson said the city anticipates general-fund revenues of $411,400 for 2012. The combination senior center and safe shelter alone will cost $813,850, said Shockley.

But the city will spend less than $100,000 on the facility because it received the bulk of funding from outside sources — the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the safe shelter and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission for the senior center — plus a pair of $25,000 Rural Service grants.

"The safe room construction cost is $368,250, with 75 percent being reimbursed by FEMA and 25 percent of this being the city’s share," Shockley wrote in an email. "The AEDC grant is for $438,000."

The facility, under construction since December 2011, should be finished and ready to open this month or next.

The city park project, Shockley said, will cost $442,000 to construct, and several future park amenities will entail costs beyond that. A 50-50 matching grant makes construction in two phases over two years feasible.

"Arkansas Parks and Tourism gave us $221,000, and the city’s share is the other $221,000," she said.

Phase 1 involves installation of a driveway and water-sewer infrastructure as well as sodding the grounds, which has been delayed because of drought conditions.

Grass or no grass, the city was expected delivery and installation of $90,000 worth of children’s playground equipment in time for the Labor Day weekend.

And grass or no grass, the 12-acre park is open, said Mayor Gary Baxter.

"People can come any time they want to," he said.

Phase 2 will bring a pavilion, picnic tables and restrooms, and separate grants will help launch a walking trail and a basketball goal.

"We’d like Mulberry to be known as a recreation destination," Baxter said.

With a small downtown surrounded by rolling green expanses and pristine waters, it seems a realistic goal.

Mulberry City Park, west of town on U.S. 64, joins an already impressive string of parks to be owned or managed by the city.

Other city-owned parks are Kirksey Park, which hosts the Crawford County Fair, and T.J. House Reservoir, a 143-acre lake just north of Interstate 40 that serves as a fishing spot and the city water supply. Shockley said the city obtained a $157,160 grant to install a pair of backup generators at the water plant and likely will advertise for bids in September.

In December, Mulberry entered into a 25-year agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to lease and operate three Corps-owned parks — one at Bluff Hole, a popular swimming hole, and two at Vine Prairie, where Mulberry Creek meets the Arkansas River. Vine Prairie attracts campers and fishermen year-round and watersport enthusiasts in the spring, when canoe and kayak paddlers can enjoy Class 1 and 2 rapids, Baxter said.

Other grant-supported projects have included:

—A mile-long sidewalk that will connect Marvin Elementary School on North Main Street to Mulberry High School on West Fifth Street, for which the city received an $84,862 Safe Routes to Schools grant.

—Handicap ramps recently installed at the Mulberry City Complex, the American Legion Hut and Vine Prairie Baptist Church, making all three of the city’s polling places accessible in time for the November election, thanks to a $4,900 grant from the Secretary of State.

—A digital welcome sign, programmable from city offices, at the corner of Main Street and Mulberry Highway (U.S. 64), upgraded with $15,000 from a $30,530 grant that also paid for sidewalk repairs and grant administration services.

When city leaders and employees are not obtaining outside money for big projects, some can be found volunteering or soliciting volunteers to contribute elbow grease to a downtown sprucing-up drive.

Johnson said property owners along Main Street are being contacted and asked for permission to touch up their facades, and the penniless but proud effort is moving forward.

"I love my city, can’t you tell?" she said.


Wanda Freeman writes for the Times Record in Fort Smith