SPRINGDALE – Demographic and cultural shifts have reshaped Springdale over the past 30 years.
But political change has come more slowly.
Formerly considered the city of the sunsets, Springdale is now the most diverse city in Northwest Arkansas, with a Hispanic population close to 40% of the city’s population.
The impact was evident throughout the city. Brightly colored businesses provide a festive backdrop for the transition from a Caucasian cowboy town to a cultural melting pot.
“I think we are the better city for that,” said Kevin Flores, who said he was the first Hispanic candidate to run for Springdale City Council.
Flores got 57% of the vote in the November 3 general election to beat incumbent Rick Evans in the council elections.
But the race was not without controversy.
In July, Evans, who is white, was heard during a live video broadcast before a board meeting saying his opponent was “a little Mexican lawyer.”
“He’s very liberal,” Evans continued in the video.
Flores, a former marine who was born in El Salvador, said he was not personally influenced by the comments.
But professionally, he was disappointed.
“What is disappointing is that a city leader speaks like that openly, or behaves that way,” said Flores. “That’s what pisses me off. I can’t change people’s ways, but for an elected leader, it’s disappointing.”
Evans could not be reached for comment, but he publicly apologized after the incident.
Flores has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Fordham University in New York City and a law degree from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Margarita Solorzano, executive director of the Hispanic Women’s Organization in Arkansas, said Flores’s election was important in the history of Springdale. “
“He was not elected by just a Latin vote,” he said. “He was elected by a community vote.”
Solorzano says Flores grew up in Springdale, moved to college and military service, and was re-elected to serve in his hometown.
“I thought that was very extraordinary,” he said. “People are ready to have diverse members on the City Council.”
OL ‘BOY GOOD SYSTEM
Apart from Flores, another Hispanic, Mayra Carrillo, and a black man, Derek Van Voast, are also running for Springdale City Council this year, but they both lost the race.
Van Voast, a former soccer coach at Fayetteville Middle School, says the good boys system is working against him.
“It’s corrupt. It’s racist. There’s no other way to cut it,” he said.
Van Voast said he was not referring to the kind of overt neo-Nazi racism. It’s smoother than that.
“I’ve been telling everyone: Springdale is not a racist city,” said Van Voast. “We have a small group that holds a lot of power which is very racist in a way that is unconsciously biased in my personal opinion.”
He cites the church as an example. Van Voast said that those in power in Springdale usually attend Cross Church, the large church formerly known as the First Baptist Church of Springdale. They tend to vote for candidates who also attend the church, he said.
Many immigrants in Springdale are Catholic.
Van Voast said several people complained to the Springdale Police Department about campaign irregularities including the theft of a nameplate and possible physical altercation over the sign. The complaint is still under investigation, according to a Police Department spokesman.
Van Voast says Springdale’s mix of cultures is what makes the city interesting.
“Springdale is like downtown Northwest Arkansas,” he said. “I love this city. I love the community, and I love our brothers and sisters.”
But the good boys system is still entrenched politically, he said.
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Irvin Camacho, a social activist in Springdale, filed a lawsuit against Evans saying his campaign was distributing leaflets falsely calling him “outspoken anti-police protesters” and linking every City Council candidate of color to Camacho.
In the brochure, the minority candidate for City Council is referred to as a “Camacho candidate,” and Camacho is described as a “liberal and progressive activist.”
“At best, defendant Rick Evans’ brochure is an attempt to discredit all City Council candidates of color by asserting vague and reckless connections to plaintiff Irvin Camacho,” according to the lawsuit. “At worst, defendant Rick Evans’ actions have generated a message of inability to hold office in the city of Springdale on the basis of race and color, all amid subtle and explicit lies against plaintiff Irvin Camacho.”
By publishing false statements about Camacho and asking voters to reject candidates on leaflets, “the defendant encouraged others not to vote for individuals of color in the Springdale City Council race,” according to the lawsuit.
Camacho dropped the lawsuit on November 10.
Victor Rojas, Camacho’s lawyer, said neither he nor Camacho could discuss the case because of the pending motion involving attorney fees. Evans’ has filed a motion seeking attorney’s fees, claiming the lawsuit “was initiated to harass, intimidate or punish the accused.”
Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said the divisive political environment had trickled down from the national level.
“I think it was just a difficult and divisive year,” he said. “If you are not divided by race, you are divided by the others.”
Sprouse, who is white, said Springdale welcomed diversity.
“I can’t imagine any community handling change better than Springdale,” he said. “And it’s a fast change. People resist change. We all are. I’m very proud of Springdale for the way they welcome and adapt and embrace change.”
Sprouse said he disagreed with allegations that the city was not diversifying fast enough. He said several minorities had been appointed to city councils and commissions. But in the end, it’s up to the voters to decide who is on the City Council.
“The knock against Springdale or against our City Council, I think, is sometimes misplaced, that we are not embracing or encouraging diversity,” he said. “The facts don’t support that.”
Historically, Springdale is known for its Rodeo of the Ozarks, founded in 1945, and its laissez-faire attitude to urban planning.
Locals dressed in wranglers could spot foreigners from Fayetteville because their blue jeans were Levi’s.
“What makes Springdale Springdale our blue collar identity,” said Flores, who moved to Springdale in 1995, when he was in first grade.
City lawyer Ernest Cate agreed.
“Fayetteville has always been a college town and a little more progressive because of it,” said Cate. “Benton County is more conservative because of Walmart. Springdale has always been a blue collar city.
“We still have a lot of the old Springdale flavor. We still have Neal’s Cafe. We still have the AQ Chicken House. It’s great to see one that’s still around. It’s an old business in Springdale.”
From 1990 to 2010, the Springdale population increased by about 40,000.
During that time, the number of Hispanics in Springdale increased from 469 to 24,295, and the number of Asia / Pacific Islanders increased from 272 to 5,497. Most of the Pacific Islanders are people from the Marshall Islands who moved to Springdale to work in poultry factories.
Springdale recently annexed the northern city of Bethel Heights. Flores says Springdale may have 85,000 residents now, and it will be the first city in Northwest Arkansas to reach 100,000 residents.
Sgt. Robert Sanchez of the Springdale Police Department says his family moved there from Albuquerque, NM, in 1970, just before he started first grade.
His father, Albert Sanchez, worked for Ralston Purina, an animal feed company, and was transferred to Springdale, which owned the Ralston Purina factory at the time.
The factory closed, but the Sanchez family remained in Springdale.
“My parents really like Northwest Arkansas, we just stay and he found another job to keep us here,” said Sanchez.
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