31 Dec 2021 Judge Baker: Change Maker
By Dwain Hebda
By any measure, Faulkner County Judge Jim Baker’s life is a vivid example of game-changing achievement.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Jim Baker said, seated in an office crusted with photos and memorabilia from 4-H’ers to sitting U.S. Presidents. “I’ve had six careers.”
For starters, Baker’s advocacy on behalf of Arkansas’ cattle and poultry industries has greatly improved the lives of livestock producers. On the board of Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission, he worked to eradicate herd disease and contributed to Arkansas becoming the hub of poultry protein for the world.
His business sense led him to grow companies such as Lewis Livestock Auction in Conway — at one time the second-largest livestock auction in the Southeast U.S. — and Central Arkansas Production Credit Association, serving 700 customers in Faulkner and Van Buren counties.
Seated on ag association boards such as Arkansas Farm Bureau and State 4-H Foundation, he stuck up for family farms, helped develop future producers and worked to create mutually beneficial partnerships between farmers and the companies that fed and clothed the globe using their products.
He even took his act to Washington where under President Bill Clinton, Baker served as the inaugural Administrator for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration. There, he led 840 employees in executing the same common-sense principles nationwide that was his hallmark in Arkansas.
On their own, any of these accomplishments place him among the state’s game-changer elite, but Baker wasn’t finished. In 2014, he was elected Faulkner County Judge, a post where he’s improved quality of life throughout a county that continues to attract residents on an enviable scale.
“The state of the county when I took office was, it was busting at the seams,” he said. “We’re continuing to see that here now, but it was busting at the seams even back then. We’d just had the tornadoes and the oil spill and a lot of the county projects had been put on hold. So, there was a great need to develop our infrastructure, our roads. That’s the biggest challenge I’ve had, my road projects.”
Baker dove headfirst into his work. In seven years, the county has invested more than $100 million in various projects, modernizing the vast majority of the county’s transportation grid on an impressive scale. Noticing the potential for the county’s smaller communities, Baker identified highway, bridge and other projects that could bring service up to par with the rest of the quality of life.
“Highway 25 changed the landscape in the northern part of the county,” he said to describe why the project was important enough for him to make it a campaign promise three years ago. “We knew we needed better access to that part of the country – Wooster, Greenbrier – and get folks off Highway 65. It’s changed the landscape as people have moved in that direction.”
“Right now, we’re involved in road projects at Mayflower building two overpasses — one over the interstate and one over the railroad tracks — that will eliminate the problem of traffic being blocked when there’s a train on the tracks. That’s a $30 million project that will be completed next fall.”
Cynics might say Baker is as lucky as he is good, given the tsunami of unplanned American Rescue Plan dollars that rained down in the wake of COVID-19. But assessments severely underestimate the value of Baker’s well-honed teambuilding skills.
“It’s all about partnerships and partnerships are something you develop over time,” Baker said. “You can stretch your own dollars, but you can do a lot more when you partner with people.”
The Mayflower project, for example, involved getting five entities (the State of Arkansas, the federal government, Metroplan, City of Mayflower and Faulkner County) to not only see eye-to-eye but row in the same direction. No small feat, even for a seasoned relationship architect like Baker, who keeps the same plaque over every entrance to his office building that reads, “Leave your politics at the door”.
“I have a partnership with every mayor in the county,” he said, simply. “No judge here has ever done that before.”
Baker also engenders mayors with his attention to less-visible but no-less-vital projects underground as vital investments in a community’s economic development.
“We’re working right now to get improved water and sewer into downtown Wooster,” he said by way of example. “It’s a huge project. They’ve got the ability to tie into Greenbrier’s sewer plant; and they asked for assistance from the county. I consider that paying it forward. Once we get that done, small businesses will start coming in there. Sales tax will start coming into Wooster.”
Ask Baker what’s next and you’ll hardly get the question out of your mouth before he declares he’s running for another term to finish what he sees as his mandate from the people. Having already paved all but a handful of miles of county gravel roads and put wheels in motion to bring broadband to every household in Faulkner County, one can only imagine what lies in store, just knowing that if Jim Baker puts his mind to it, it’s a lock to get done.
“I want to help people. That’s the whole thing. You try your best to step forward and help people,” he said of his mission. Asked why he’d run again after all he’s already accomplished — why not just retire — he deadpans, “I don’t own a boat, I don’t play golf and I get sunburned every time I go to the beach.”