Archive for the ‘Little Rock’ Category

Thinking big in Little Rock

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

At the end of May, Max Brantley wrote a column for the Arkansas Times with the headline “Little Rock needs to think big.”

Max and I have known each other for too many years to count. For about five years in the early 1990s, we were among the “regulars” who showed up every Friday to appear on the “Arkansas Week” program on AETN.

Most people would consider us to be on opposite sides of the political fence, and often we are. We do have several things in common.

Neither of us grew up in Little Rock.

Both of us have lived here for years.

We both love the city and want to see it be all it can be.

When it comes to the need for Little Rock to think big, Max is right. What he wrote in late May dovetails nicely with the column I’ve written for Wednesday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

My column topic is this summer’s demolition of Ray Winder Field. Thousands of people each day have passed the site on Interstate 630 and watched what I consider the greatest tragedy from a development standpoint in recent Little Rock history — the selling of valuable green space in the center of the city so UAMS can build yet another parking lot.

I had a discussion with a prominent Little Rock real estate developer recently. I tend to be an optimist by nature and noted how pleased I was with some of the developments planned for downtown Little Rock.

“Yeah,” he replied. “But we still have far too many surface parking lots and unimaginative storefronts.”

This is indeed the land of the surface parking lot. Because it’s in one of the state’s most visible locations, the Ray Winder demolition site is a powerful symbol. In a sense, the symbolism erases much of the good done along the riverfront and in other areas of town.

You know what they say: Perception is reality.

Here’s what the new UAMS parking lot screams out about Little Rock: “We’re stuck in the old urban renewal mode of the 1960s and 1970s at a time when other cities are going the opposite direction. We love the smell of bulldozer smoke in the morning.”

The story will be told far into the future. It’s a sad story about how Arkansas’ largest city took one of the most cherished ballparks in the country and sold it for a pittance so it could be paved over for surface parking.

It’s too late for Ray Winder, but out of this historic preservation catastrophe perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. The lesson is that residents of the city must speak up in the future when things like this are being debated.

“Remember Ray Winder” can become the battle cry in a town that far too often in the past has torn down rather than renovated its historic treasures.

When we drive along Interstate 630 and look at that parking lot, this is what we can think for years to come: “We’re better than this. We must do better as a city. We owe it to our children, our grandchildren and all who live here.”

If that happens — if this travesty leads to additional public involvement in the decades ahead — Ray Winder will have taught us an important lesson.

Max wrote his column after a long walk around War Memorial Park.

“Across the freeway, I marveled at the children’s branch library under construction and the fact that the Central Arkansas Library System had saved a Craftsman-style house, as well as a stone storage building. The library builds monuments.

“On the north side of the freeway, I had a nice walk around the park perimeter. Careful on Monroe Street. It lacks sidewalks. More walking paths are also needed in the northwest sector of the park. The perimeter of the Little Rock Zoo could use some improvement, particularly the raggedy picnic area.”

The economic development game has changed dramatically in recent decades. So much of economic development these days is about attracting talented, creative people who have their choice of cities.

It’s about far more than building industrial, business and, yes, technology parks.

It’s about creating a place where people want to live. It’s about walking trails, biking trails, parks, baseball fields, restaurants and concert venues.

That’s all part of economic development.

Plugging that hole in the River Trail is probably the most significant economic development step this city could take right now.

In the newspaper column I wrote this week, I referenced a column that was produced last month by Frank Bruni for The New York Times. It focused on New York City’s parks improvements and how those mirror a trend in dozens of American cities.

“Whenever you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York,” Bruni wrote. “This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.

“The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.”

Bruni noted that what’s going on in New York is “emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland.”

Van Valkenburgh, a noted landscape architect whose firm designed Brooklyn Bridge Park, said: “There’s a profound amount of interest and activity right now in making and remaking urban parks. I think it’s because we are reinvested in the idea of living in cities.”

Bruni pointed to other examples across the country, some of them in this region:

 — The Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City

— Discovery Green in downtown Houston

— Trinity River developments in Dallas

Catherine Nagel, the executive director of the City Parks Alliance, said the country is in an era of “re-urbanization” and that the increased population density brings with it the need for more green space.

“Amazingly, we’re getting it because citizens have demanded as much; because governments have made it a priority; because public and private partnerships have been cultivated,” Bruni wrote. “New York is the bright flower of all that.”

Sadly, the most high-profile public project in Arkansas this summer has been the demolition of one of the state’s historic treasures so it can be replaced by surface parking.

Each time you drive down Interstate 630, tell yourself that we can do better and vow to speak out in the future.

Remember Ray Winder.

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A tipping point for Little Rock

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Perhaps downtown Little Rock is finally at a tipping point.

I say this following a recent afternoon when I parked my car at the intersection of Main and Second streets in downtown Little Rock and walked south to the newly remodeled Arkansas Repertory Theatre to hear a talk by Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

After hearing Landesman speak, I headed over to the Clinton School of Public Service to hear Susan Piedmont-Palladino, the curator of the National Building Museum in Washington, talk about “intelligent cities” — the intersection of information technology and urban life and design.

The two talks that day had a lot in common. Landesman spoke about “creative placemaking” and the $150,000 grant that was awarded last year by the NEA to the city of Little Rock to plan the development of a “creative corridor” on Main Street.

I was reminded once again of the wealth of interesting speakers who now come to Little Rock on a regular basis. It’s pretty unusual for a city this size and, in my mind, one of the great amenities of living here.

This past Sunday, I went with my son to see the St. Louis Cardinals exhibit at the Clinton Center (we are both Cardinals fans and are ready for the major league season to start). Afterward, we walked across the pedestrian bridge to North Little Rock and then walked through the Bill Clark Wetlands (at least the small part that wasn’t flooded).

Hundreds of people were enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon downtown. I was reminded of what downtown Little Rock can be. Main Street, however, remains the bleeding sore in the middle of downtown.

There are several reasons I believe downtown (Main Street in particular) may finally be at a tipping point. They include:

1. The announcement earlier this month that the Doyle Rogers Co. and Moses Tucker Real Estate are going to restore the seven-story building on Main Street that was built as the flagship of Blass Department Stores. The developers also plan to renovate an adjoining three-level annex.

The Blass building, constructed in 1906, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Rett Tucker and Jimmy Moses have a track record of actually making things happen downtown (there are about five people in this city that I consider true visionaries, and Moses and Tucker are on my list). The fact that they’re now branching out from the River Market District and onto Main Street sends a strong message to other potential developers. I’m talking about developers who can really move projects forward, not the type of out-of-state developers we’ve seen so often in the past who make big promises for downtown Little Rock but have neither the will nor the capital to transform those promises into reality.

The Blass building project will include almost 100,000 square feet of office space, room for six to eight retail establishments and about 20 loft-style apartments.

2. Stephens Inc.’s renovation of a historic building it owns at the corner of Capitol and Main. Yes, I know there are empty lots of both sides of Main Street where the Stephens interests tore down buildings.

The reason I’m willing to cut Warren Stephens some slack is because we’ve seen at both the Capital Hotel and Alotian that when he moves ahead with a project, he does it right. With the economy turning around, hopefully the time is near when Warren will announce his plans for those lots.

3. The $6 million renovation of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, which could serve as a catalyst for other creative outlets along Main Street.

“The arts is an ecosystem,” the NEA’s Landesman said. “The arts not only employs the artisans, it employs the restaurant owner down the street.”

Bob Hupp, the Rep’s producing artistic director, noted that the Rep has long been “an urban pioneer for the economic development of downtown Little Rock. We would love to have some company.”

Indeed, the Rep’s neighbors are mostly state offices that empty at 4:30 p.m., unused buildings and what’s basically a porno video store.

4. Grants and available capital: The city has received important planning grants the past couple of years to study what should be done along Main Street. Maybe the passage last year of the one-cent increase in the sales tax will now provide capital to help make parts of those plans a reality.

Green America’s Capitals is a project of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in association with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The goal is to help state capitals develop distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods.

Little Rock was one of five state capitals — Boston, Hartford, Jefferson City and Charleston, W.Va., were the others — selected in 2010 to participate in the program. Five additional cities were added in 2011.

A three-day workshop was conducted last April to pull together various ideas for Main Street. They included:

— Continuous street design for the length of Main Street, including stormwater management, crosswalks, trees, lighting and benches.

— A park along Main Street that’s large enough to host events.

— Development of the overpass at Interstate 630 to better connect south Main Street with downtown.

A 43-page plan came out of that workshop. Combine that with the previously mentioned NEA grant for a “creative corridor” plan. That blueprint calls for the renovation of buildings across the street from the Rep for use by area arts organizations and affordable units in which artists can live and work.

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center partnered with Marlon Blackwell Architects to work on the design.

Landesman noted that “communities across the country are using smart design and leveraging the arts to enhance quality of life and promote their identities.”

Mayor Mark Stodola called the NEA grant “exactly the stimulus the city needs to bring back Main Street. With the Arkansas Repertory Theatre at the core, bringing other arts organizations to Main Street will give the corridor a cultural excitement and identity that is so vital to the renaissance of our downtown.”

Stephen Luoni of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center said the project has the potential to be a “national model for consolidating cultural arts functions — artist housing, production spaces, galleries and performance spaces — as a catalyst for sustained urban development in downtown.”

Too many plans for this city, of course, have simply gathered dust. The city board must decide to use part of that new sales tax revenue to complete the infrastructure portions of the Greening America’s Capitals and NEA “creative corridor” plans.

If the city will do its part from an infrastructure perspective, I have no doubt that private investments will follow.

5. The Oxford American’s plan to transform the old Juanita’s location on south Main Street into a Southern cultural center (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Oxford American board).

The addition of a Southern bistro, perhaps a gift shop and use of the performance space several nights a week for everything from music events to lectures to poetry readings will add momentum to what’s already happening along Main Street south of Interstate 630.

“The Oxford American occupies a niche,” said Warwick Sabin, the publisher of the noted Southern literary quarterly. “We protect and perpetuate the best of Southern culture.”

If done correctly, the OA complex will complement existing downtown attractions such as the Clinton Center, the Museum of Discovery, Heifer International, the Old State House and the Historic Arkansas Museum.

There also are things happening away from Main Street that lead me to believe we might be at a tipping point for that crucial downtown corridor:

1. Little Rock and surrounding cities in the metropolitan statistical area survived the Great Recession pretty well. In fact, it was announced in December that the Little Rock MSA had jumped from 93rd to 19th in the Milken Institute’s annual rankings of America’s 200 best performing cities.

2. The passage earlier this month of a bond issue for the Central Arkansas Library System will allow momentum to continue in the River Market District. The bond issue will provide $13 million for an auditorium, a parking deck and other improvements to the already impressive downtown CALS campus — main library, Arkansas Studies Institute and Cox Creative Center — that Bobby Roberts (who also is on my list of Little Rock visionaries) has built.

The hope is that a public-private partnership will allow Moses-Tucker to move forward with a development to be known as The Arcade. Continued momentum in the River Market District is necessary if development is to spread to Main Street.

Now if only the folks at City Hall would plug that hole in the River Trail, we would really be on a roll as a city.

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Garrett Uekman, Catholic High and ties that bind

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

When I wrote a newspaper column earlier this week on Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys, I knew I would receive feedback.

I don’t write columns with feedback in mind. But understanding how strongly Catholic High graduates feel about the place, I knew this particular column would generate calls, texts and e-mails.

As I noted in the column, I’m not a Catholic High graduate. Our oldest son graduated from there in May. The night he graduated as valedictorian (he is blessed to have his mother’s brains) was among the proudest moments of my life.

Austin is now at Hendrix College. His younger brother is a freshman at Catholic High. That means I’ll have the pleasure of being a Catholic High dad for another four years.

What I didn’t have in front of me when I wrote that column was the text of the amazing eulogy the school’s principal, Steve Straessle, gave at the funeral of Catholic High graduate and University of Arkansas tight end Garrett Uekman.

Here’s part of what he said: “Letting go of a good kid is hard to do. Letting go of an exceptional kid is almost unbearable. At Catholic High, we’re surrounded by boys who are striving to be exceptional young men. You should see them. They all enter our doors as scared, shaking little freshmen who are wondering if they can survive in a school with no girls and no air conditioning. Then, as seniors, they graduate as confident young men who know that they are armed with strong faith, a strong work ethic and the ability to endure life’s pitfalls.

“No easy roads are promised at Catholic High. Instead, Catholic High promises the strength to rise to challenges and to be more than just an average man. Oftentimes, we are fortunate to get a few freshmen who are not shaking and scared. We get a few of them who are quietly confident in their ability and revel in the challenges we present them. That was Garrett Uekman.”

Steve added this: “At Catholic High, we have one rule that encompasses all the others, one rule that transcends everything else and is at the heart of Christ’s message. That rule is: Never be a bystander. If your faith is tested, defend it. If someone is hungry, feed him. If one is downcast, encourage him. If your test is difficult, prepare for it. If your friends are troubled, step up. If the little guy needs you, be there. Bystanders watch life go by. People like Garrett Uekman get in the game. Bad things happen when bystanders are in the crowd. Good things pour forth when people like Garrett step up. You don’t live your dreams by twiddling your thumbs when action is called for. You live your dreams by getting into the game. It’s just that simple, and Garrett was the embodiment of that spirit.”

“That spirit.”

Spend some time around Catholic High, its alums and the boys who currently attend school there and you’ll know that spirit is real.

Michael Moran, who graduated from Catholic High in 1961 and later spent four decades teaching at the school, wrote a book titled “Proudly We Speak Your Name: Forty-Four Years At Little Rock Catholic High School.”

Through the stories he tells in his book, which was published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in 2009, he captures the essence of the school.

He sets the stage for the book this way: “Catholic High School for Boys was established in Little Rock in 1930 by Bishop John Morris at 25th and State streets, where Little Rock College and then St. John’s Seminary had formerly been located. In January 1961, CHS moved to 6300 Lee Ave. (now Father Tribou Street). The first graduating class of 1931 numbered five. Since then, more than 7,000 students have become alumni.

“Father George Tribou is the towering figure in Catholic High history. Coming to Little Rock from Jenkintown, Pa., George Tribou was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Little Rock and in the second year of his priesthood was assigned to CHS, where he served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years, until his death in 2001.

“Any recollection of Catholic High School would be incomplete without recognition of the centrality of Father Tribou’s role in defining its character. Even when elevated to the position of monsignor in his later years, he preferred to be called ‘father,’ a role he played in the lives of untold numbers of Catholic High boys.”

Ah, Father Tribou.

As a boy, he had worked as a film projectionist back home in Pennsylvania. He later would say that part of his inspiration for becoming a priest was seeing the movie “Boys Town” and Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of Father Flanagan.

His approaches were unique – and effective:

— Boys were sometimes allowed to settle disputes with boxing gloves. They would then spend the next day at school together and be allowed only to talk to each other.

— He once announced to the student body that he had seen a boy smoking a cigarette on the school grounds. He said that if that student did not show up in his office immediately, his penalty would increase. Within minutes, there were more than a dozen boys in Father Tribou’s office.

— He was known for getting to the point. When a number of urban schools began installing metal detectors, Father Tribou said of Catholic High: “That would not work here. These boys have too much lead in their asses.”

I know Father Tribou would be proud of the job Steve Straessle is doing in the role of principal.

At one time, Steve wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating from college in 1992, he decided he wasn’t quite ready for law school.

Steve, a Catholic High graduate and the son of a Catholic High graduate, called Father Tribou one night to say he was thinking about teaching history for a year before entering law school. As luck would have it, a history teacher at Catholic High had asked for a one-year sabbatical.

Steve’s grandfather had been a custodian when the school moved to its current location in 1961.

“My grandfather walked through these halls,” Steve told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette several years ago. “And while I’m walking through the school, I often can’t help but think of my grandfather sweeping the halls. I learned a couple of things from my grandfather — the importance of humility and hard work.”

He went on to tell the newspaper this about his experience as a Catholic High student: “It laid the groundwork perfectly for the next stone of education to be laid in college. It was also about Christian formation, and at Catholic High in particular, we still hammer home the idea that we want you to be successful. But success to us means that you are a good husband, a good father and a good citizen as well as a good member of your profession. My classmates were and still are my best friends. They were in my wedding. They are my closest confidants. They are the people who will carry me to my grave.”

At the end of that newspaper story, Steve had this to say about Father Tribou and about Catholic High: “He was a child of the ’40s. He was raised in the era of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and Humphrey Bogart. I was raised in the ’80s in the era of Van Halen and Charlie Sheen. Those are big differences, but there are some things that are timeless such as the adherence to the belief that rigorous academics and high expectations are the keys to success, the belief that self-discipline and work ethic are virtues and the idea that all ambition should be tempered by a doctrine of faith — and the absolute fact that a sense of humor is as important as an arm or a leg. This is our school. In succinct terms, this is what we do.”

As the father of a Catholic High graduate and the father of a current student, I’ve come to understand the Catholic High brotherhood.

Here’s how the school’s website describes it: “At CHS, boys experience a special kind of fraternity, often referred to by faculty, graduates and students alike as the Catholic High brotherhood. What forms this brotherhood? From time immemorial, challenges have bonded men, and the rigorous academics and strict discipline of CHS are certainly enough for that; but all-school masses, pep rallies with the skit cheerleaders, athletic events and intramurals serve to strengthen CHS boys’ brotherhood, rooted, as it is, in faith, laughter, competition and common goals.”

Faith.

Laughter.

Competition.

And common goals.

Sadly, it took a tragedy for many Arkansans to realize what a treasure resides in the middle of Little Rock.

God bless Garrett Uekman.

Long live Catholic High.

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College football: Week 12 (Razorbacks in the Rock)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

It has become a November tradition in our family: The Ouachita football season has ended, meaning it’s time to attend a Razorback game at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.

The November opponent in Little Rock has alternated in recent years between Mississippi State and LSU.

The LSU contest is the one you really look forward to, but there’s nothing wrong with playing the Bulldogs. We’ll do as we always do. We’ll park in Hillcrest, walk down Van Buren Street and head to Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party about two hours before kickoff. We’ll hit Brenda’s party again after the contest while the traffic clears. With the traffic gone, I can be home from War Memorial in less than 10 minutes. It’s great.

Normally, you would expect CBS to pick up Ole Miss-LSU as its national Southeastern Conference telecast on this weekend each year. Two years ago was the Tigers’ infamous clock-management meltdown in Oxford as Verne Lundquist exclaimed: “What are they doing?”

But the Rebels are so awful this year that there was no way CBS was going to telecast that rout nationally.

Thus the Razorbacks get a chance to show off for the national television cameras Saturday afternoon. They should take advantage of the opportunity. So should the fans.

The folks at War Memorial Stadium — who did a nice job getting those in attendance to wear alternating red and white shirts earlier in the year to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — have come up with a new idea for this Saturday. They’ve purchased more than 50,000 red-and-white pompons that will be placed in the seats.

It should make for quite a sight on national television.

The War Memorial Stadium Commission was joined by the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, Bank of America, Regions Bank, the Mitchell Williams law firm, the Friday Eldredge & Clark law firm, Ark and Nancy Monroe and Kevin and Cathy Crass in making the purchase.

These individuals and entities realize how important those two Razorback football games are each year to Little Rock.

Kevin Crass, the chairman of the stadium commission, described it as a “privilege” to host two games in an era when few schools play home games away from campus.

In the unique state that’s Arkansas, I think UA athletic director Jeff Long has come to understand how much the Little Rock games mean to fans not only in central Arkansas but also those in south and east Arkansas. Expect to see plenty of those in attendance from south and east Arkansas in hunting clothes since Saturday is the first day of duck season and the second Saturday of modern gun deer season.

Add to the football game the fact that Mike Anderson’s basketball team will take on Houston on Friday night in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena.

Hugh McDonald of Entergy Arkansas, the current chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, noted during a Wednesday news conference at War Memorial Stadium that the events will have an estimated $6 million impact on the city.

McDonald also noted that part of economic development these days is “creating an environment in which people like to live.”

Especially in the South, people like to live in a place that has some big-time college football.

Given the Razorbacks’ long history of playing Little Rock games, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola made the point at the news conference that War Memorial is also a home stadium for the university.

“The Little Rock games offer an opportunity to bring this state together,” the mayor said. “We’re proud of our partnership with the university. This is going to be a wonderful Razorback weekend with wins Friday night and Saturday afternoon.”

Stodola also correctly pointed out that the golf course in War Memorial Park provides the setting for one of the best tailgate scenes in America.

Shake those free pompons Saturday afternoon and make it look good for the CBS cameras.

As part of what’s known as RazorRock, a pep rally will be held at 4:45 p.m. Friday at Little Rock’s Park Plaza Mall. The Razorback band, cheerleaders and mascots will be in attendance.

As for the game itself, it’s important to point out that Mississippi State is not to be confused with Tennessee. Though the Bulldogs are just 5-5 overall and 1-5 in the SEC, they’re a far better team than the Vols. That’s not to say that the Hogs shouldn’t pull away in the second half. Coach Dan Mullen is just 2-11 against SEC West teams since coming to Starkville (he has defeated a fellow from Ole Miss named Nutt on two occasions). Last week, Alabama’s defense held the Bulldogs to only 131 yards of offense en route to a 24-7 victory.

This Bulldog team easily could be 7-3 rather than 5-5 had it made key plays down the stretch in losses of 41-34 to Auburn and 14-12 to South Carolina. Top-ranked LSU only beat the Bulldogs by 13 points, 19-6.

Arkansas has won 14 of the 21 meetings between these two schools, including nine of the past 10. The Razorbacks are 5-0-1 against the Bulldogs in Little Rock. Mississippi State last beat Arkansas three years ago in Starkville.

Meanwhile, Arkansas State needs a win at Middle Tennessee on Saturday afternoon to secure at least a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship. And UAPB ends the regular season at home against Texas Southern.

We were 7-1 on our picks last week, making the record 73-19 for the season. We not only would have gone 8-0 had Ouachita been awarded a touchdown on the final play of the Battle of the Ravine but also have had the margin correct since we had picked the Tigers by one. Oh well.

On to the picks for Week 12:

Arkansas 35, Mississippi State 19 — Razorback fans couldn’t find much to complain about in the wake of that 49-7 win over Tennessee in Fayetteville last Saturday night. The Hogs have now won six consecutive games and 10 in a row at home. It was their largest winning margin in an SEC game since beating Mississippi State in Fayetteville in 2003 by a score of 52-6. I attended that game. Arkansas has now won seven consecutive games against SEC East teams, dating back to the narrow 2009 loss at Florida. At 4-6 overall and 0-6 in the SEC, Tennessee will have six or more conference losses for the first time since 1962. How long ago was that? Tulane was still in the conference. It was the largest margin of defeat for a Tennessee team since a 44-0 loss to Georgia in 1981. It’s fair to say the Hogs are rolling now. With Joe Adams’ remarkable punt return, Arkansas has now scored seven nonoffensive touchdowns this season, including one in each of the past four games. Tyler Wilson was 16 of 26 passing against Tennessee for 224 yards while Dennis Johnson rushed for 97 yards. My thinking is this: A similar performance against Mississippi State in Little Rock on Saturday afternoon results in a margin of victory between 14 and 21 points.

Arkansas State 31, Middle Tennessee State 24 — Last Saturday’s 30-21 win in Jonesboro over a good Louisiana-Lafayette squad was huge for Red Wolves. In the first year of the Hugh Freeze era, ASU is 8-2 overall and 6-0 in conference play. The Red Wolves converted five turnovers into 17 points against Louisiana-Lafayette. Ryan Aplin was 20 of 32 passing and added 80 yards rushing. Middle Tennessee is 2-7 overall and 1-4 in conference play. The wins came by scores of 38-31 over Memphis and 38-14 over Florida Atlantic. The losses have been by scores of 27-24 to Purdue, 49-21 to Georgia Tech, 38-35 to Troy, 36-33 to Western Kentucky, 45-20 to Louisiana-Lafayette, 24-0 to Tennessee and 42-14 to Louisiana-Monroe.

UAPB  21, Texas Southern 12 — The Golden Lions can give Monte Coleman his first winning season in four years as head coach. They evened their record last Saturday at 5-5 overall and 4-4 in the SWAC with a 15-3 victory over Mississippi Valley State. Texas Southern comes to town with records of 4-6 overall and 2-6 in the SWAC. The wins came by scores of 49-6 over Texas College, 14-7 over Alcorn State, 42-11 over Central State of Ohio and 29-15 over Southern University. The losses were by scores of 37-34 to Prairie View A&M, 58-13 to Jackson State, 43-29 to Alabama State, 24-21 to Alabama A&M, 12-9 to Mississippi Valley State and 29-25 to Grambling. The good news for UAPB is that all of those suspensions that resulted from the brawl at the end of the Oct. 15 win over Southern have now been served.

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The next great Southern city?

Friday, September 16th, 2011

I recently came across a copy of the October 2003 edition of Little Rock magazine, a pretty nice monthly publication that had a short run before folding due to its inability to turn a profit.

That issue of the magazine contained an article by John Brummett on the Vision Little Rock process. Brummett described that process as “300 of the city’s finest people voluntarily spending two years at the behest of the City Board of Directors compiling a report submitted in January 2002 on where the city needed to go over the next decade. … Nothing much came of it. Bob East, one of three chairmen of Vision Little Rock, says he’d hoped the city would take the report and run with it, availing itself of the political capital and energy of the 300 mobilized citizens and putting an infrastructure and public safety tax to an expedited vote.”

East told Brummett at the time: “I’m disappointed at the lost momentum.”

Turn the clock forward almost eight years as 54 percent of those who turned out in a special election voted for a sales tax increase that will raise an estimated $31.6 million a year for operations while also approving a separate sales tax increase that will raise an estimated $196 million during the next decade for capital improvements.

This week’s special election marked the city’s sixth attempt since 1981 to get a sales tax increase approved. Only two of those attempts have been successful. The previous time an increase was approved was 1994.

I see similarities between what happened almost two decades ago and what happened this week.

The gang situation had reached its zenith in Little Rock in 1994, and people had quite simply had enough.

I’ve always thought the low point for the decade of the 1990s was the Friday night when Chef Andre was shot in front of a full house at his restaurant in that converted Hillcrest home. I remember being in the newsroom of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when we received the news. I grieved not only for Andre and his family but also for Little Rock.

The year 1994 was also when the HBO documentary “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” ran over and over and over again.

There were Bloods. There were Crips. There was a city that looked hopeless to HBO viewers around the world, a sort of Detroit of the South.

Those of us who loved Little Rock had had enough. A majority of us voted for a half-cent sales tax to, among other things, beef up the police force. The gangs weren’t totally eradicated, but progress occurred. Little Rock had blossomed into (dare I say it) sort of a hip Southern city by the end of the century.

It’s 2011, and many of us had again become concerned about the state of the city.

Here’s how Mayor Mark Stodola put it in his State of the City address back in March: “The city enacted a half-penny city sales tax in mid-year 1994, some 17 years ago. The rate has never increased. In 1995, the first full year of collecting our half-penny sales tax, we had a total of 1,537 employees. … Now we have 1,542 employees on the payroll for a net gain of five employees. Consider for a moment that in 1994, when our tax began to be collected, we had a total of 869 employees in our police and fire departments. Now, 17 years later, we have 1,106 employees in our police and fire departments, for a net increase in the area of public safety of 237 employees. Obviously, it is apparent that all of our other operating departments have been cut so that we do everything possible to ensure that public safety is our first and foremost obligation.”

Despite the increased number of folks working at the police and fire departments, there are severe problems. Cars and trucks are failing apart. The police headquarters is far from adequate. The communications system is on its last legs.

Problems in other areas also are severe. Little Rock doesn’t have nearly enough code enforcement officers. Street resurfacing has become a thing of the past. City parks are woefully maintained.

I took a history-loving visitor from Washington, D.C., to MacArthur Park this summer and immediately felt the need to apologize. Tall weeds and trash were everywhere. I was embarrassed for my city.

“Enough is enough,” we said in 1994.

“Enough is enough,” we said again on Tuesday.

While Little Rock has its share of urban decay, that decay is not as widespread as in the cities of some of our neighboring states — think Jackson in Mississippi, Memphis in Tennessee, St. Louis in Missouri.

“Enough is enough,” we said Tuesday. “We don’t want to be Jackson, Miss.”

But this is a huge amount of new money for City Hall, which is why in yesterday’s post I urged everyone to be vigilant so this money is spent in the wisest possible manner.

Here’s how Jim Lynch put it in a Tuesday guest column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “$511 million in new taxes is almost equal to $1 million in new taxes paid every week to City Hall for the next 10 years. Please think about this scenario again — $1 million deposited every Monday morning in the City Hall treasury for the next 10 years.”

If invested wisely, that money can set the stage for greater private investments and the attraction of smart, talented, creative people to Little Rock.

Yet it’s far from certain how wisely the money will be spent.

Let’s go back to that 2003 Brummett article. He wrote: “The story of Vision Little Rock and its aftermath is one encompassing all the plots, subplots and contradictions of modern civic life in the capital city. It is a story of pervasive distrust of the city’s political leadership even as the mayor enjoys wide public approval. It is a story of a city in a veritable cultural renaissance that can’t fill potholes or keep its patrolmen in low-mileage cars. … It is, at the moment, a city with blurred vision.”

Pervasive distrust of the city’s political leadership.

A city with blurred vision.

The more things change. . .

We can only hope the vision clears a bit as this extra $1 million a week begins pouring in come January. Actually, we can do more than hope. We can attend meetings of the board. We can call board members. We can write letters to the editor. We can hold elected officials’ feet to the fire.

Brummett had a separate column in the back of that October 2003 issue of Little Rock magazine.

That column also bears quoting since its words ring as true today as they did eight years ago.

Brummett took offense at “the occasional pointlessness of slogans as designed by advertising and marketing consultants and adorned with cosmetic inanity. It’s better simply to be than to brag, and it’s better to do the job than to crow you’ve done it. Baseball players call it letting their bats do the talking. That’s because they don’t know any better than to use cliches.

“One should understate in a manner akin to the way old money reveals itself without effort or spectacle. Let it be seen, but do not expose it. Real quality resides in the passive voice.

“So it should be with the city of Little Rock, which has had its ups and downs — with the ups holding their own — over the last decade or so, first as city leaders paid consultants for the privilege of going around saying, ‘I’m big on Little Rock,’ then to talk about ‘Little Rock — city limitless.’

“The bigger the boosters got on Little Rock, the smaller the percentage of voters agreeing to tax increases for infrastructure and services. The more limitless the boosters proclaimed the city to be, the more limited the city budget became.

“Our city might well save a few consulting dollars by simply being rather than bragging.

“The fact of the matter is that Little Rock is not bad. Our bat can do some pretty fair talking. We’re better than Shreveport, better than Jackson and better than Mobile even with all those camellias and Bellingrath Gardens.”

So let’s harken back to yesterday’s blog post.

The next great American city in the South?

A city in a park?

Forget all of that for the next decade.

Let’s focus on how we invest that extra $1 million a week (see the suggestions in yesterday’s blog post).

Do that and our bats indeed will do the talking. We won’t have to come up with a slogan. That’s because others across the country will be able to proclaim in the fall of 2021 that Little Rock has become the next great Southern city.

I can dream, can’t I?

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That new Little Rock tax

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

The first thing they need at Little Rock City Hall is a good editor.

There’s that line the mayor likes to use about being the “next great American city in the South.”

I guess that’s so we won’t be confused with the “next great French city in the South.”

If you’re going to engage in rank hyperbole, at least make it a bit less convoluted: “The next great Southern city.”

I went to my polling place along Mississippi Street early Tuesday morning and voted for both the three-eighths of a cent sales tax increase and the five-eighths of a cent sales tax increase.

I did so reluctantly, knowing the dire straits that would otherwise be faced by our policemen and firefighters with their unfilled positions, worn-out vehicles, antiquated communications system and mold-filled police headquarters.

I’ll readily admit that I was reluctant in part due to my dismal experience with the city in trying to save one of this state’s most historic structures, Ray Winder Field. That whole process was a sham. It was wired from the start.

I wish I had been wise enough not to become involved. I wish I would have realized that the cause was hopeless.

There was no interest in saving an important part of our state’s history.

There was no interest in providing a badly needed baseball facility for the youth of a city that has fallen far behind its neighbors when it comes to providing baseball fields, softball fields, soccer fields and the like.

There was only an interest in receiving a payment from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, a pittance when you consider what was lost.

You have to wonder about the priorities of any city that turns its back on children and instead sells off valuable parkland for parking lots.

I also have my doubts about the $22 million that’s going to be put into a so-called research and technology park. Having worked as a presidential appointee for several years on economic development issues, I can list the cities that have tried similar projects with decidedly mixed results.

It’s not as if Little Rock is on the cutting edge in this respect.

Here’s how The Economist recently put it: “Build a magnificent technology park next to a research university; provide incentives for chosen businesses to locate there; add some venture capital. This is the common recipe for harnessing higher education and industry to spur economic growth as prescribed by management consultants touting the ‘cluster theory’ developed by Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter.

“Hundreds of regions all over the world have spent billions on such efforts; practically all have failed. Yet others are following suit. … All of those are well-intentioned efforts to build Silicon Valley-style technology hubs, but they are based on the same flawed assumptions: that government planners can pick industries they want to develop and, by erecting buildings and providing money to entreprenuers and university researchers, make innovation happen.

“It simply doesn’t work that way. It takes people who are knowledgeable, motivated and willing to take risks. Those people have to be connected to one another and to universities by information-sharing social networks.

“Regional planners and some academics get very defensive when asked to produce evidence of cluster theory’s success. They commonly tout Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park as examples of the success of government-supported clusters. Research Triangle Park is a 50-year-old project that achieved success decades ago but lost momentum in the Internet era. And the success of Silicon Valley was achieved without government involvement.”

If we were intent on going down this path, we at least should have done it on a regional basis. If I learned anything in the years I spent with the Delta Regional Authority, it’s the importance of regionalism. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital are tremendous economic engines for the capital city and the state. Rather than Little Rock going its own way, it would have been nice if Children’s Hospital, UALR and UAMS had taken advantage of what the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County is already doing at the Bioplex between Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

Almost 1,500 acres of Pine Bluff Arsenal property was deeded to the alliance a decade ago by the U.S. Department of Defense. Situated next to these 1,500 acres are the Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research, the FDA’s Arkansas Regional Laboratory and what remains of the Pine Bluff Arsenal.

Just last month, the FDA signed an agreement with the state that will establish a joint center to enhance regulatory science. NCTR has about 550 workers, 150 of whom have their doctorates. When I was at the DRA, we sank money into the Bioplex because we believed in the potential of private businesses taking advantage of what’s already there.

Rather than Pine Bluff going one way and Little Rock going another, it would have made more sense for the Little Rock-based entities to cooperate with the folks to the southeast. Little Rock city officials, in turn, would have better served the citizens by sinking that $22 million into even more road, sidewalk and parks improvements.

Don’t get me wrong. I like living in Little Rock. If I didn’t like the city, I wouldn’t be raising my two sons here. But it’s high time the folks at City Hall realize that in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, you attract young, smart, creative people by having a high quality of place. Frankly, that has a lot more to do with quality schools, parks, trails, restaurants, bars, wifi connections, sports facilities and cultural amenities than it does with research parks.

Talented people who are new to a city can quickly sense if it’s going to be the right place to live. It either has that creative vibe or it doesn’t. It also needs to be clean and efficient.

I remember shaking my head last week on a trip from my office downtown to Riverdale. First, I dodged potholes on Broadway that could swallow a small car. Along Cantrell Road, the weeds adjacent to the River Trail — something that has the potential to be among this city’s landmark amenities — stood four to five feet tall in places.

I crossed a railroad overpass into Riverdale, and the weeds were just as tall on either side of that bridge.

If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that City Hall was making things look as bad as possible so people would vote for the two-tiered tax proposal.

I know, I know. The budget is tight. I’m not a conspiracy theorist.

Yet when the additional dollars start rolling in come January, I hope the city will concentrate at the outset on taking care of what it already has before setting off on some wild building spree.

The beauty of the statewide effort in 1996 to pass a one-eighth of a cent increase in the state sales tax for conservation and parks improvements (I worked on that campaign) was that we promised voters we would not build additional state parks. Instead, we would make the state parks we already had the best in the nation.

In the end, I did what many of my fellow white males in my age and income groups did — I turned out and voted for both taxes.

Now, I’ll watch closely and hope the Little Rock media keep the heat on in the years ahead to ensure the money is spent wisely.

I know of virtually no one who disputed the needs of the Little Rock Police Department and the Little Rock Fire Department. These extra tax dollars should make us a safer city.

It’s in the other areas that the priorities become fuzzy.

How do we make this the next great Southern city?

Some ideas:

— Waste no time hiring those additional code enforcement officers that are promised and then have the most rigid code enforcement in the country. Remove dilapidated buildings and homes rather than letting them rot year after year.

— Finish the Little Rock portion of the River Trail.

— Add as many miles of new sidewalks and streetlights as possible to make this the next great walkable city in the South.

— Truly create a system of city parks that’s the envy of the region. That slogan “City In A Park” (the city probably paid some advertising agency good money for that) rings hollow in a town where they sell off ballparks for parking lots.

— Have the smoothest streets of any city this size in the country and make sure the right of ways are mowed and kept free of trash.

If you have a safe city with the above attributes, you might be amazed what entreprenuers in the private sector can accomplish without government subsidies.

Heck, mayor, we might just become the next great American city in the South.

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Touchdown for the Little Rock Touchdown Club!

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

It was on a Tuesday — June 8, 2004, to be exact — that I met David Bazzel for lunch at Ciao in downtown Little Rock.

Yes, I keep my old calendars.

I was working in the governor’s office at the time. David, as is still the case, had his fingers in multiple pies.

Neither of us needed anything else to do, but there was something we agreed on that day — Little Rock was hungry for a football club that would meet weekly during the fall.

In fact, Little Rock was one of the largest Southern cities without a high-profile football club that would bring in outside speakers, earn media attention and allow folks to celebrate a sport that borders on religion in this part of the country.

I don’t know that you can say the Little Rock Touchdown Club was born over pasta that June day, but it’s as good a starting point as any.

Fortunately, David took the ball and ran with it.

On Aug. 25 of that year, a small group of Little Rock football enthusiasts met in the private room that’s just off the main dining room of the Little Rock Hilton to formally start the club.

On the ballroom level of the Hilton, the first official meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club was held on Monday, Sept. 13, 2004.

We met each week through the first Monday in December. Each week, the crowds grew. We held the club’s first awards banquet on the evening of Dec. 16, 2004.

Seven years later, the club is among the most successful organizations of its type in the country. It outgrew the Hilton ballroom that first year and has called the Embassy Suites home since 2005.

Earlier this afternoon in the lobby of the Metropolitan Building in downtown Little Rock, David announced the 2011 lineup. It might be the best yet.

The club again will meet for lunch on Mondays at the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock. The lunch buffet will open at 11 a.m. each week, and the program will begin at 11:50 a.m.

Bobby Petrino will kick things off Aug. 29. Two years ago when the Arkansas head football coach spoke, almost 700 people were in attendance. With the excitement levels as high as I’ve ever seen them in Arkansas, it should be another full house this year.

Here’s the rest of the schedule:

Sept. 6 — Gene Stallings, who won a national title as head coach at Alabama in 1992 and now lives in Paris, Texas. This is the one meeting that won’t be on a Monday since that Monday is Labor Day. It will be on Tuesday.

Sept. 12 — Bobby Bowden, the legendary former head coach at Florida State. This is the one meeting that won’t be at Embassy Suites. It will be at the Peabody Little Rock.

Sept. 19 — Lloyd Carr, the former Michigan coach who led the Wolverines to the national championship in 1997.

Sept. 26 — Barry Lunney Jr. and Tony Cherico, the former Razorback stars who are now on the coaching staff at Bentonville High School.

Oct. 3 — Pat Dye, the former Auburn head coach. This will be Dye’s third appearance in Little Rock. He might just be my favorite speaker in Touchdown Club history.

Oct. 10 — Hugh Freeze, the new Arkansas State head coach who first spoke to the club last year (as Red Wolf offensive coordinator) on the day Steve Roberts was dismissed.

Oct. 17 — Jeff Long, the Arkansas athletic director who has done an excellent job during his tenure of reaching out to the Central Arkansas business community.

Oct. 24 — Larry Lacewell, the former Arkansas State head coach who is one of the funniest men I know.

Oct. 31 — Clint Conque, the UCA head coach who is now the winningest head football coach in school history.

Nov. 7 — Johnny Majors, the former Pittsburgh and Tennessee head coach who will be addressing the club for the second time.

Nov. 14 — Mark Mangino, the former Kansas head coach who received nine national coach of the year awards following the 2007 season.

Nov. 21 — Mark Schlabach, a national college football columnist for ESPN.com who has covered college football for two decades.

Nov. 28 — Brothers Jay and Chris Bequette, both former Razorbacks.

Football clubs have a long tradition in this country, especially in the South.

The Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C., for example, was formed back in 1935 by Arthur “Dutch” Bergman, who had played football with George Gipp at Notre Dame (and would go on to coach the Washington Redskins in 1943). He would later manage RFK Stadium in Washington, where I watched many great NFL games during the years I lived on Capitol Hill.

The Touchdown Club of Washington held its first awards dinner at the venerable Willard Hotel in 1937 and began calling its awards the Timmie Awards in 1946.

In September 1938, a group of football fans in Georgia formed the Touchdown Club of Atlanta. That club is still going strong after all these decades.

Even though it was formed in 1939, a year after the Atlanta club, I consider the Monday Morning Quarterback Club of Birmingham to be the granddaddy of Southern football clubs because of the enormous amout of charitable work it has done through the years.

The club was started by Birmingham News sports editor Zipp Newman. At the time, polio was rampant, affecting thousands of children nationwide. Club members promoted an annual high school football game to raise money to care for children with polio. More than $3 million was raised through the years for the Crippled Children’s Clinic and Hospital.

In late 1969, that facility became part of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s medical center. The Crippled Children’s Foundation was formed. In November 2008, the club pledged $8 million for the construction of a new children’s hospital.

Birmingham — where college football is discussed 365 days a year — even has a second club, the Over the Mountain Touchdown Club. That club presents the Bobby Bowden National Collegiate Coach of the Year Award.

Down in Montgomery, meanwhile, 30 businessmen got together in September 1940 at what was then the Jeff Davis Hotel to form the Montgomery Quarterback Club. Bear Bryant of Alabama and Shug Jordan of Auburn would make regular appearances through the years. The club now holds dinner meetings on Tuesday nights during the season.

In 1941, businessmen in Selma formed the Selma Quarterback Club. Despite the loss of population and economic vitality in Selma through the years, the club plugs on.

In neighboring Florida, the Tallahassee Quarterback Club has been around since 1949. It holds dinner meetings and presents the annual Biletnikoff Award to the nation’s oustanding college wide receiver.

Up in St. Louis, the Greater St. Louis Quarterback Club was formed in 1960.

The Touchdown Club of Houston has been around since 1966.

Two hours to our east, the Touchdown Club of Memphis was established in 1975. The club generally meets for dinner on a Monday or a Tuesday at the Chickasaw Country Club.

As you can see, Little Rock was ripe for such a club in 2004.

Metropolitan National Bank will again be the title sponsor (its seventh year) with additional support from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s ARpreps.com and the Crain Automotive Team.

Club membership is $50 per year. Weekly lunch prices are $15 for returning members and $25 for guests. For a $250 annual fee, you will have a reserved seat up front each week and be able to have your photo taken with the speaker.

For a business membership of $1,650, four people will receive admission, lunches, priority seats and photos each week. For a business membership of $2,000, those benefits will go to six people per week.

The club had more than 500 members last season. That gathering in August 2004 in the private room at the Hilton had 17 people in attendance.

Of course, the June luncheon that year had two people in attendance.

Not bad. Not bad at all. It has been quite a ride, and there’s no sign that things are about to slow down.

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Vision (or lack thereof) for Little Rock

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

I’m honored to have been invited to Chenal Country Club in Little Rock for Friday night’s 30th anniversary celebration of the Arkansas Preservation Awards. The event, presented by the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, should be a nice one as legendary philanthropist and preservationist Theodosia Murphy Nolan receives the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement.

A number of other awards will be presented. I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that I had been chosen for the Outstanding Preservation Reporting in the Media Award for my efforts to save Ray Winder Field.

I would be less than honest, though, if I didn’t tell you I have mixed feelings.

I appreciate having the efforts of those of us who have worked to save Ray Winder recognized. But I feel I’m being honored for an initiative that failed. And that’s sad.

To be clear, no one at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has come right out and said there’s no way for part of the park to be saved. On the other hand, I certainly haven’t been given any encouragement. I’ve not found anyone in a position of influence at UAMS who shares my vision.

I’ve written about this subject before, and I won’t go on at length here. To sum up my feelings: UAMS is missing out on a golden opportunity to add something the campus badly needs — green space. Wrap a building around the current field from first base to third base. In left field (if indeed UAMS is successful in purchasing the Ricks Armory property), build up rather than out with that tall building looking down on the diamond.

Can you imagine the uniqueness of looking out of offices and clinics onto a baseball field — one that’s actually used for amateur games. When not being utilized for baseball, UAMS employees could take advantage of a walking trail that would be built inside the fence. The field itself could be used for various employee wellness programs. Think about the possibilities.

UAMS is supposed to be all about promoting good health, right?

I suspect all that will result for now is an ugly parking lot until UAMS can decide what else to do with the property. A great opportunity — one that could draw national media attention and win architectural awards — will have been wasted.

But we’re used to that in Little Rock, aren’t we?

Far too often, we settle for less than the best because of a lack of vision. We talk a good game about being the next great Southern city, but time after time our leaders fall short of the mark, taking the easy way out rather than tackling projects that require imagination, patience and perserverance.

That’s just what Little Rock city government did when it came to Ray Winder. A private foundation had been formed to help the city operate the historic facility for the residents of a place that’s horribly lacking in sports facilities for its youth. But City Hall took the easy way out — sell it to UAMS, take the money and run. Operating a ballpark would have actually taken some work, you see.

I fear we’re facing the same situation with a much newer facility, the 15-year-old Aerospace Education Center. It recently was announced that the nonprofit Arkansas Aviation Historical Society was closing the center because it could no longer afford large annual deficits.

To my knowledge, no one has yet stepped forward to say: “This is an important part of the city’s cultural fabric, and we’ve come up with a creative way to save it.”

As is the case with Ray Winder, that would take some hard work.

Last week, I wrote a column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in which I suggested that the embattled Little Rock Airport Commission use the Aerospace Education Center to turn the tide of public opinion and better position Little Rock National Airport in the public’s mind as an economic engine for our state.

Here are four steps the commission should take:

1. Take over the Aerospace Education Center. Allow the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society to sell its collection to pay off debts. Replace the old exhibits with exhibits that tell the story of the work being done adjacent to the airport by Hawker Beechcraft Corp. and Dassault Falcon Jet Corp. Despite layoffs during the Great Recession, these two companies still employ almost 3,000 people in Little Rock. Erect additional exhibits on the companies that operate in the nearby Little Rock Port Industrial Park.

2. Enter into agreements with Hawker Beechcraft, Dassault Falcon, the industries at the port and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce to help operate the center in exchange for publicizing the work private companies do. Continue to show films in the IMAX theater and operate the domed Episphere planetarium as a way to draw visitors, but focus the exhibits on the economic engine that the airport, the port and the businesses that operate there have become.

3. Work with the Little Rock School District, the Pulaski County Special School District, the North Little Rock School District, Pulaski Tech and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to ensure a steady stream of people who will come to the facility to learn about the jobs available in the area.

4. Use the center as a marketing tool to attract new businesses. Tell them, “If you put your facility near the airport, we’ll publicize you each day inside the Aerospace Education Center.”

As I noted in the newspaper column, Memphis has done a far better job than Little Rock in marketing its airport as an economic development powerhouse, not just as a place to catch a plane. Memphis now describes itself as America’s Aerotropolis.

“All of this emerged in a haphazard fashion,” Arnold Perl, the chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, told the Memphis Business Journal last year. “We’ve had these different modes, but they’ve been silos. They haven’t been connected. … To me, aerotropolis is a compelling world brand. It visualizes the greater Memphis region in the 21st century.”

Andy Ashby of the Memphis Business Journal wrote last year: “In 2009, the Greater Memphis Chamber started changing marketing efforts from America’s Distribution Center to America’s Aerotropolis. In fact, it has trademarked the logo and phrase Memphis: America’s Aerotropolis. … Several cities worldwide have seized on the aerotropolis concept for their economic identity. In March, economic development officials from France, including some from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, came to Memphis for a three-day tour of the area’s four transportation modes.”

In addition to having the busiest cargo airport in the world, Memphis boasts five Class I railroads, the fourth-largest inland port in the nation and the third-busiest trucking corridor in the country.

While Little Rock is no Memphis in that regard (remember, we let Fred Smith and FedEx get away), we are the place where Interstate 40 and Interstate 30 meet, we’re on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System and we’re well-served by Union Pacific. There are some similar distribution advantages.

Here’s how the head of the Memphis Chamber, John Moore, put it: “People who come to visit the community have to have a first impression and last impression of our community. Those are important to the chamber because we need positive impressions in order to attract attention to our community, to get people to come and recognize our brand and see what we can do for their business.”

What kind of impression will we be making in Little Rock if we allow the Aerospace Education Center to sit empty?

What if we were to use it as the platform to promote the things being accomplished in that part of the state’s largest city?

Does anyone on the Little Rock Airport Commission, which has been bashed so relentlessly in recent weeks, share the vision?

Anyone?

Anyone?

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Of Bruno’s, the Minute Man and Hank’s Dog House

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Once again, I’ll refer you to Raymond Merritt’s website at www.rrmerritt.com/mabelvale.

For those interested in famous restaurants from Little Rock’s past, the website contains some wonderful photos along with drawings from postcards.

Take Bruno’s Little Italy, one of the oldest Little Rock restaurants.

There’s a photo of the 3600 Roosevelt Road location. The sign proclaims that Bruno’s is the “original home of Italian foods” and notes that it’s “air conditioned.” The site earlier had been occupied by a restaurant known as Harry’s Fried Chicken. When Harry died, Bruno’s moved from Levy to this location on Roosevelt Road next to Hank’s Dog House.

I made a drive down Roosevelt Road this week in order to attend the Arkansas State Fair. It caused me to think about both Bruno’s and Hank’s.

In the restaurant history prepared by Gio Bruno on the Bruno’s website, it’s noted that it was 1903 when “brothers Gennaro, Nicolo and Vincenzo Bruno arrived in the United States from Naples, Italy. Sometime between 1903 and 1907, Vincenzo returned to Naples, but his brothers remained here and encouraged another of their brothers, Giovanni Bruno, to join them in America.”

Gennaro, Nicolo and Giovanni opened what the website claims was the first pizzeria in New York.

Gio writes: “My father was Vincent “Jimmy” Bruno, Giovanni’s son. Giovanni was considered an extraordinary chef and baker but was probably better known and revered as a gifted Neapolitan poet and lyricist. He was friends with the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and wrote several published tribute poems in Caruso’s honor. Giovanni died in 1950.”

Jimmy Bruno began working at a young age in his father’s restaurant and bakery. During World War II, he was stationed at Camp Robinson, where he worked as a chef. After leaving the service, he opened a pizzeria that was part of a Chicago yacht club.

“It was a turbulent time in Chicago with organized crime trying to sell protection to or take over many legitimate businesses,” Gio writes. “This influenced Jimmy’s decision, after less than two years there, to return to Arkansas and start the Little Italy Cafe in Levy.”

The move across the river to Roosevelt Road came in May 1949. Jimmy added an extra dining room to what had been Harry’s and built a house on the back lot. The restaurant would remain in that location for the next 29 years. It was the first Italian restaurant listed in “Darnell’s Guide to Good Eating in the South.”

“As his uncles and father brought pizza to America, Dad brought it to the South, at first having to teach his customers how to pronounce the word,” Gio writes. “He was also the first man ever to show how a pizza is made on television. For years he delighted children and adults alike by tossing the pizza dough into the air and preparing his wares behind a glass window visible to all his patrons. Generations grew up being greeted by the hefty, personable restaurateur and watching him and later his sons twirl pizzas.”

In 1978, as the businesses along Roosevelt Road declined, Bruno’s moved to Old Forge Road in west Little Rock. Jimmy’s three sons — Jay, Gio and Vince — all helped with the restaurant along with stepson Wayne Gilchrist. Jimmy died in 1984 at age 65.

In May 1987, the famed Little Rock restaurant closed.

It didn’t remain closed for long, however. Bruno’s reopened in December 1988 on Bowman Road as Jay and Vince teamed with Little Rock businessman Scott Wallace. Almost 22 years later, the restaurant is still going strong, and Vince is still in the kitchen.

The 3614 Roosevelt Road location was occupied in the 1930s by Gordon Adkins Restaurant, whose sign advertised it as having the “South’s Finest Foods.”

According to a postcard from the ’30s that Raymond Merritt has on his website: “For 20 years the name Adkins in Little Rock has been synonymous with good food.” It noted that the restaurant had “glorified spring chicken and U.S. choice steer steaks” while doing catering for “parties, banquets, socials, marriages, receptions, luncheons, teas, bridge or any occasion.”

By the late 1930s, Gordon Adkins had moved his restaurant to 10th and Broadway. After World War II, the restaurant at 10th and Broadway became The Ritz Grill. Meanwhile, Hank’s Catering House took over the 3614 Roosevelt Road location after Gordon Adkins moved to Broadway. By the 1950s, the restaurant there was known as Hank’s Dog House.

I’ve written before on this blog of the fond memories I have of trips to Hank’s for dinner each August. My parents’ anniversary is Aug. 11. On a Saturday near that date each year, we would come to Little Rock for the high school all-star games. The high school all-star basketball game was played in the afternoon at Barton Coliseum. The high school all-star football game was played in the evening at War Memorial Stadium. Between the two games, we would have an early dinner at Hank’s. I was amazed that the restaurant had live lobsters in a glass tank. I could have watched those lobsters forever.

For a young boy from Arkadelphia, Hank’s was considered the finest restaurant in the state.

Raymond Merritt’s website also has a photo of the plaque in the building where I now work which proclaims that “on this site (407 Broadway) the first Minute Man restaurant was opened May 26, 1948. Wesley T. Hall, founder.”

As he expanded his chain of restaurants throughout the region, Wes Hall opened a Minute Man in Arkadelphia in the 1960s adjacent to Ouachita’s football stadium, A.U. Williams Field. There’s no way to estimate the number of hamburgers and “radar deep dish pies” (I think that would be described these days as something heated in a microwave oven) I had at the Minute Man as a child. There was a pool hall connected to the back of the restaurant (the Rack & Cue), and the parking lot was always filled as students from Henderson and Ouachita flocked to the place.

We lived just a couple of blocks away. One of our beagles would walk down there on a regular basis, be fed fries by the college students and sleep under the pool tables before coming home late each evening.

Does anyone out there still have a Minute Man menu?

What was your favorite burger?

Isn’t the last remaining Minute Man on Main Street in El Dorado?

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Dear ol’ Mabelvale High (and Little Rock dining)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about Little Rock’s past. As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve spent the past week reading Jay Jennings’ excellent new book, “Carry The Rock,” which takes the reader from 1927 through 1987 in the state’s largest city.

For those who want to take a trip back into the Pulaski County of the 1950s, I strongly recommend a website created for graduates of Mabelvale High School, a school that existed from 1881 until 1966. I somehow stumbled upon it while doing Arkansas history research. You can find plenty of strange things on the web, wasting time in the process. But occasionally you’ll find a treasure. This is a treasure, the work of Raymond Merritt, Mabelvale High School class of 1960.

It’s at www.rrmerritt.com/mabelvale.

He writes, “I had this website on my business server in 2006, and when I retired and closed the business I had to take it all down. I tried to put the site on my free Comcast pages, but Comcast is slow. I am now hosted by godaddy.com, and I’ll stay here as long as I can afford to keep up the payments. … This is a work constantly in progress. There are no pop-ups, no advertisements, no link to porn or nude women or cell phone companies or mortgage services. Nothing here but memories.”

As someone who writes often about food, I particularly enjoyed the memories of the food that was eaten in those years and the restaurants that served Pulaski County residents.

“We predated fast-food restaurants,” Merritt writes. “The first fast-food chain I remember was McDonald’s on University across from UALR. It was an original-style McDonald’s with the two huge 60-foot yellow arches that could be seen from Meadowcliff. And McDonald’s didn’t have a Big Mac until 1968, and the quarter-pounder didn’t show up until 1971. … When I ate my first 15-cent McDonald’s hamburger, I discovered they put ketchup on them and they wouldn’t leave it off whether you liked it or not, so it was off to Roach’s for me.”

Roach’s was at Geyer Springs and Mabelvale Pike. According to Merritt, the foot-long chili dog there was second only to Perciful’s Drive-In. The original Perciful’s was at Eighth and Arch. It opened in 1942. A second location was opened next to the state fairgrounds on West Roosevelt. There’s now a Perciful’s way out at 20400 Arch St.

“Before there were fast-food restaurants there were lunch counters, which served the same purpose: a quick meal at a reasonable cost,” Merritt writes. “Walgreen’s and Lane drugstores at Fifth and Main both had lunch counters. Woolworth’s lunch counter on Main made the best club sandwich in town. Baseline Pharmacy on Baseline Road made the best malts. If you went to the lunch counter in the Village Drugstore in the Village Shopping Center at Asher and University, the pharmacist, Eli Wolf, might personally make you a chocolate soda, but you had to watch that he didn’t drop cigar ashes in it.”

He continues, “At a lunch counter, you really could get a vanilla Coke, or a cherry Coke or the nectar of the gods, a cherry lime. Or a shake or malted (just called a malt). Or a float (root beer or Coke). Or an ice cream soda, fizzed the old-fashioned way, an art this is most likely now lost. Or a Coke freeze (blended Coke and vanilla ice cream). All served in glass glasses. With whipped cream. With a maraschino cherry. And chances are good that anything creamy was made with Fortune’s Famous Ice Cream from the Fortune’s factory on Asher. When I went into the Navy, I was stationed in Boston. I couldn’t find shakes or malts, so I gave up. I was there over a year before I found out they have them there, but they call a shake a frappe. And if you ask them, they’ll add the malt. Stupid Yankees.”

Among the old restaurants mentioned on the website are the Canton Tea Garden at 211 Main, Granoff’s at 10th and Main, Peck’s on Markham, Peck’s Barbecue on Asher, Howard Johnson’s at Asher and University, Old King Cole at Capitol and Broadway, Sandy’s on Markham, Hammon’s Dairy Bar on Chicot Road, Cloverdale Dairy Bar at 8025 New Benton Highway, Frosty House on the New Benton Highway at the entrance to Meadowcliff, the Satellite Burger Barn on Asher, Miller’s Coffee Shop on Main, the Little Rock Inn at 14th and Main, the Sweden Creme at 15th and Main, Beasley’s at the intersection of Stagecoach and Colonel Glenn, Winkler’s at Seventh and Johnson across from Lamar Porter Field, Tom & Andrew’s on Capitol between Louisiana and Center, Shakey’s on Rebasmen Park Road, SOB on Markham at Stifft Station, Wes Hall’s Minute Man at 407 Broadway, Franke’s on Capitol, Harry’s Fried Chicken on West Roosevelt and Bruno’s Little Italy in Levy and then on West Roosevelt from 1949-78.

Do you have memories of any of these restaurants? Please share them in the Comments section if you do.

The website has additional information on several Little Rock restaurants from those days. Here are a few of the listings:

— “Snappy Service, affectionately known as just Snappy’s, at Seventh and Broadway. Before you drove into Snappy’s, you stopped a couple of blocks away and detached the vacuum line to your carburetor. Then your engine would lope as you drove through. All the parking was covered, and the cover acted like a megaphone so a loping engine echoed and shook the ground. I don’t even remember if Snappy’s had inside seating. If they did, nobody ever went there. You couldn’t see and be seen if you were inside. Snappy’s had the first carhops in Arkansas, and before long every drive-in followed suit. Snappy Service was a chain based in Indiana. It went out of business in 1983. Closest thing now is Sonic. According to Sandra Mizumoto Posey, who holds a doctorate in folklore from UCLA, the word “carhop” dates back to the early 1920s when servers at the Pig Stand Drive-In (on U.S. 80 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area) would hop onto an automobile’s running board to deliver food. Running boards disappeared after World War II, but the carhop lives on.”

— “Lido: There were three Lidos in the early 1950s, owned by the same people. Lido Cafeteria at 615 Main, Lido Inn at 103 Roosevelt and Lido Minute Man at 407 Broadway. Wes Hall bought the Broadway location and turned it into Wes Hall’s Minute Man, the Main Street cafeteria closed and by 1959 the Lido Inn at Main and Roosevelt was the only one remaining.”

— “Hank’s Dog House at two locations, 1714 Main in North Little Rock and 3614 Roosevelt in Little Rock, for after-the-prom impressions. Despite the name, Hank’s was upscale and featured steaks served by suited waiters on white tablecloths and fine china. For many years, it had the only oyster bar in Arkansas.”

— “Herb’s Barbecue started out at Markham and Van Buren and later moved to Fair Park Boulevard on the first curve north of Asher. Not as good as The Shack (Herb’s sauce was less tomato, contained mustard, wasn’t as spicy). Herb’s was closer than The Shack, though, and they had bulk takeout with a family pack that included everything you needed to make your own sandwiches. So lots of families, including mine, often went to Herb’s after church to buy the makings to take home.”

We’ll end with Browning’s. We’ve written about Browning’s a couple of times recently and are still hoping for that promised reopening later this fall.

Merritt writes, “After the movie, three steaming soft corn tortillas, a pat of butter and hot sauce. Ten cents. When I get to heaven, I’ll know I’m there because that will be on the menu, and I’ll have a pocket full of dimes.”

I do love those hot tortillas with butter. My south Texas wife used to tell me it was a “gringo thing” to put butter on tortillas. Then, she tried it and liked it. And we’ve never claimed Brownings was a Mexican restaurant. It wasn’t even Tex-Mex. It was Ark-Mex, and we miss it.

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