Archive for February, 2011

The Political Animals

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

It was 1983, and James L. “Skip” Rutherford of Little Rock was suffering from political withdrawals.

Rutherford had left the staff of Sen. David Pryor and gone to work for Mack McLarty at Arkla.

“I missed seeing people who shared political interests, stories and conversations,” Rutherford says. “So I invited some of them to join me at the Coachman’s Inn for breakfast. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about Orval Faubus, 1957 and Little Rock Central High School. We had such a good time that we agreed to meet again. This time, people brought their friends. The rest is history.”

Ah, the Coachman’s Inn.

It was located where the downtown Little Rock post office now stands and owned by the Stephens family. Due to the steady decline of the Marion Hotel, the Coachman’s had become the state capital’s prime political gathering spot.

I finished college and moved to Little Rock in 1981 to work in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat. In those days, we would put out a first state edition, a second state edition and a city edition.

Between editions, I often would make my way down East Capitol to have dinner at the Coachman’s. The hotel had great food — the mixed grill with a fried chicken breast, a small steak and a couple of fried shrimp was a favorite — and veteran waitresses who called you “honey.”

I would eat there several times a week. On many of those nights, Faubus would be there dining alone.

One day he said to me: “I still have that article you did on me for the Arkadelphia newspaper a few years ago.”

Faubus had gone to each courthouse in the state to sell his most recent book, and I had done a lengthy feature for the Daily Siftings Herald after his visit to the Clark County Courthouse. I was amazed he remembered it.

He invited me to sit down, which I did. After that first meal, we would occasionally have dinner together — a man who at one time had been one of the most recognizable figures in the nation who now dined alone except when dining with a kid fresh out of college with a strong interest in Arkansas politics.

But I digress (it’s my blog, so I guess I can digress if I wish).

Back in 1983, Rutherford had formed what’s now the Political Animals Club.

“In the beginning, the membership was limited to those who were not running or did not hold elective office,” he says. “In 1987, when I announced that I was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, I stepped down as chairman because I was running for office. Political Animals had grown from the Coachman’s to the Little Rock Hilton on University Avenue by that time.”

Little Rock attorney George Jernigan took over as the second chairman of the Political Animals Club. He was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks, who in addition to practicing law is now the president of the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club. Russ and I share a love for both baseball and politics.

The fourth chairman of the organization was Bob Lyford, the senior vice president and general counsel for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas. Lyford often held the breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room at the cooperative headquarters in southwest Little Rock.

In January 2007, Lyford handed over the reins to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the Clinton White House. Ronnel orchestrated the switch from breakfast to lunch meetings and took the club to the Grand Hall of the Governor’s Mansion.

Ronnel also began the Political Animals Scholarship, an annual $3,000 college scholarship competition among public high school student body presidents in central Arkansas.

Late last year, I received a call from the Political Animals chairman. After four years, he was ready to step down. He said he had met with the previous chairmen. They had decided that I should be the sixth chairman in the history of the Political Animals Club.

Just what I needed — something else to do.

Yet how could I turn down the chairmanship of this unique organization whose meetings I had attended on a regular basis since moving back to Little Rock from Washington, D.C., in 1989?

So here I am the new chairman with my first meeting at the helm planned for next Wednesday, Feb. 16, at the Governor’s Mansion at 11:30 a.m.

Our speakers will be Senate President Pro Tempore Paul Bookout of Jonesboro and House Speaker Robert Moore Jr. of Arkansas City. They will talk about the current legislative session.

The cost for lunch is $20 at the door. You can RSVP by sending an e-mail to info@comgroup.com. If you’re not already on the e-mail list to receive the meeting notices, please ask to be added in a message to that same e-mail address.

Paul Bookout served in the House from 1999-2005. He was elected to the Senate in a special election in 2006 following the death of his father, former Senate President Pro Tempore Jerry Bookout. The Bookouts are the first father and son in the state’s history to serve as president pro tem. Jerry Bookout was one of the most popular legislators in Arkansas history, and his son is filling those big shoes well.

Speaker Moore hails from a Desha County family that has played a role in the state’s political arena for decades. He’s a lawyer and a farmer who had a long career in state government. His positions included director of the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and chairman of the Arkansas Transportation Commission. The speaker, who served in Vietnam, has a deep love for the Delta region of our state and has worked for years to find ways to revitalize the region.

Among the files handed over to me was a list of speakers dating back to late 1991.

The final four speakers of 1991 were (using the titles at the time) Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, governor’s chief of staff Bill Bowen, Clinton presidential campaign manager David Wilhelm and Sen. David Pryor.

The speakers for 1992 were a relatively unknown Baptist preacher who was about to run for the Senate (a fellow named Mike Huckabee), political columnist John Brummett, U.S. Rep. Ray Thornton, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Robert Starr, a young congressional candidate named Blanche Lambert, Sen. Dale Bumpers, a doctor from Great Britain named Norman Quick who talked about the British election system and finally a congressman-elect from Pine Bluff named Jay Dickey.

It was quite the eclectic group.

In both August 1993 and November 1994, the club heard from respected Arkansas journalist Steve Barnes and a Democrat-Gazette political editor named Rex Nelson. I’m sure Barnes was great. I don’t know about the other guy.

The beauty of the club is that it’s not a highly structured organization. There are no dues, and there is no board of directors. Anyone can join. There’s no staff. We just keep a list of those who want to receive the e-mail notices and send out those notices when meetings are coming up.

Still, with an e-mail list of more than 1,300 names, Skip Rutherford could never have dreamed how big this “little breakfast group” of his would become after almost three decades.

I hope to see some of you at the Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday.

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A plan for southeast Arkansas

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

It hasn’t always been this way.

Southeast Arkansas hasn’t always been an economically depressed area in search of answers — a region turning to the state government, the federal government, anyone who might could offer some relief.

Last June, Gov. Mike Beebe kicked off a meeting of a coalition whose members seem determined to come up with a plan for this corner of the state.

Representatives were present at that meeting from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, Arkansas State University, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Southern Bancorp, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and other organizations.

Here’s the idea: Do a better job of coordinating the incentive programs and other efforts of these various entities. Focus not only on a specific area of the state but also on designated private-sector business opportunities within that area. Try to make something actually happen rather than just producing another report to go on the shelf.

Here’s how the introduction of a draft strategy plan for the region reads: “Arkansas’ extreme southeastern corner — essentially the area from Arkansas Post south to the Louisiana line and bounded on the east by the Mississippi River and to the west by Bayou Bartholomew — is rich in history and heritage. Yet in many ways it’s among the most overlooked regions within the Natural State.

“That wasn’t always the case. In fact, prior to the Civil War, Chicot County was the richest county in Arkansas and among the wealthiest in the entire country. Its fertile Delta soils yielded tens of thousands of bales of cotton annually. Just to the north, Desha County was nearly as prosperous with its extensive production of cotton and other crops.

“The Civil War put an end to the slave-based agricultural system, and then Mother Nature wreaked havoc on the Lower Mississippi River Valley with the devastating flood of 1927, the worst flood in American history. Southeast Arkansas was particularly hard hit, and the region has never really gotten back on its feet.

“The mechanization of agriculture over the past century eliminated millions of farming jobs across the country and resulted in an out-migration of residents. Arkansas was certainly no exception to this societal transformation, which continues to this day in southeastern Arkansas. Although communities in the area have attracted small industries through the years, manufacturing employment remains relatively modest in this corner of the state. Given the rise of the global economy and current trend of outsourcing jobs, prospects for additional industrial growth will be a challenge.

“For decades now, a long list of local, regional, state and national leaders and their consultants have searched for answers to the region’s economic woes. Every year or two another study is released, citing the usual litany of problems: chronic unemployment, lagging growth and anemic tax collections. The typical recommendations range from education enhancements to transportation projects to industrial parks. Unfortunately, little actual progress has been made by the various efforts to stimulate significant economic development in Arkansas’ southeastern corner.”

One thing I’ve learned in community development is that any city, county or region must begin by identifying and then building on existing assets.

What are the existing assets in southeast Arkansas?

Consider these:

— The region is bordered by the Mississippi River.

— The Audubon Society has identified two “important bird areas” in the region.

— Arkansas Post, the first European settlement in the Mississippi River Valley, is managed by the National Park Service as a national memorial. The Parks and Tourism Department operates the nearby Arkansas Post Museum.

— Lake Chicot is the largest natural oxbow lake in North America. Lake Chicot State Park has undergone numerous improvements during the past decade.

— Arkansas State University has restored the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Chicot. It’s the only remaining antebellum plantation home along the river in southeast Arkansas.

— A spectacular bridge recently opened across the Mississippi River between Lake Village and Greenville.

— The Parks and Tourism Department combined forces with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to open a 3,000-square-foot welcome center overlooking Lake Chicot.

— The Game and Fish Commission has expanded its holdings in the area, including Choctaw Island, a prime wildlife habitat inside the Mississippi River levee.

— Desha County restored the historic courthouse at Arkansas City.

— Arkansas City also contains a replica of the boyhood home of John Johnson, the Ebony magazine founder.

— The Parks and Tourism Department is creating the Delta Heritage Trail, which will extend along a former railroad line for 75 miles from near Helena to near McGehee. This rails-to-trails conversion has the potential to attract hikers and bicyclists from across the country.

— There already are several fine restaurants and retail shops in the Lake Village area.

— The World War II-era Japanese-American relocation centers at Jerome and Rohwer have the potential to attract heritage tourists if there are proper interpretive exhibits and marketing efforts.

— The Great River Road, which is designated as a National Scenic Byway, passes through the area.

— Some of the finest hunting and fishing in the state can be found in southeast Arkansas.

It doesn’t hurt that the House speaker, Robert Moore Jr. of Arkansas City, has a deep love for the region and is pushing hard for this coordinated effort.

Seven potential projects have been identified as opportunities for helping spark a revival of the region. They are:

1. Redevelopment of the surviving buildings in the commercial historic district of Arkansas City. Possibilities for this old river port city include an antique shop, bed and breakfast inn, restaurant, music venue and outdoors outfitter.

2. Establishment of a marina along the lower Arkansas River so boaters can purchase fuel, bait, licenses and other supplies. A first-class marina could, in turn, lead to fishing resorts, overnight cabins and guide services.

3. Redevelopment of the Lake Village commercial district. More than a dozen structures in Lake Village are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the city’s downtown is a National Historic District. A bed and breakfast inn, restaurants and shops could draw visitors off U.S. Highways 65 and 82 and into the city. A driving tour could be established that would stretch from the Lakeport Plantation to Lake Chicot State Park, taking in Lakeshore Drive and the commercial district.

4. Further development of the Game and Fish Commission’s Choctaw Island West area for ATV tours, watchable wildlife programs and other services. Perhaps the commission could partner with an entrepreneur who would develop an overnight facility along the lines of the Shack-Up Inn at Clarksdale, Miss., or the Tallahatchie Flats near Greenwood, Miss.

5. Development of a lodge at Lake Chicot State Park. According to a publication from the southeast Arkansas coalition: “While the state parks system can’t afford to build and operate the lodge out of existing revenue sources at this time, the state as a whole may consider it worth the investment. A similar situation arose in 1973 when Stone County was the second poorest county in the United States. Federal investment in the Ozark Folk Center and Blanchard Springs Caverns has transformed the county, with 75.4 percent population growth since 1970 and the addition of 103 tourism-related businesses in Mountain View.”

6. Bringing a steamboat to Arkansas City to serve as a floating hotel. The hotel would be aggressively marketed to tourists in surrounding states.

7. Paving the top of the Mississippi River levee from Arkansas City south to the Louisiana border to serve as a unique attraction for visitors.

It’s important to understand that government can’t do all of this. The coalition will have to put together a package of tax incentives that’s strong enough to convince entrepreneurs they can make money from the projects.

At least, though, somebody is doing something rather than just wringing their hands and talking about the good ol’ days.

One of the things I constantly preached during my years with the Delta Regional Authority was that we had to get out of the old economic development mode that “bigger is better.”

As far as population counts are concerned, southeast Arkansas isn’t going to suddenly get bigger.

But there’s no reason it can’t become better, eventually stemming the population losses that now reach back almost 60 years.

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College bound from El Dorado

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

I wrote recently how excited I am now that my hometown has created a scholarship program known as the Arkadelphia Promise, based in part on the four-year-old El Dorado Promise.

Awarding college scholarships to all graduates of Arkadelphia High School — provided they meet certain standards — will do more to advance the town where I was born and raised than anything that has occurred there during my more than half century on this earth.

Four years into the program at El Dorado, the results of the $50 million commitment made by Murphy Oil Corp. are remarkable.

For years, the El Dorado School District had faced a slow but steady decline in enrollment.

The same thing has occurred at Arkadelphia despite the fact that the city is the home of two universities and is located on Interstate 30.

Here’s how the El Dorado superintendent, Bob Watson, puts it: “Nothing short of a bold initiative, which came in the form of the Promise, could reverse this trend.”

The El Dorado Promise was announced on Jan. 22, 2007. In the four years since then, enrollment in the El Dorado School District has increased 5 percent to 4,646 students. Consider the fact that enrollment in surrounding school districts has declined.

While El Dorado’s enrollment increased 5 percent from the fall of 2006 to the fall of 2010, the other five public school districts in Union County saw enrollment decrease 13 percent. Meanwhile, public school enrollment decreased 5 percent at Texarkana, 9 percent at Magnolia, 11 percent at Camden, 12 percent at Crossett and 14 percent at Fordyce.

It’s apparent that parents want their children to have the opportunity to attend college.

After spending 13 years in policy positions at the state and federal government levels, I’ve determined that the best thing Arkansas can do to ensure a brighter future is to increase the number of college graduates.

We’re next to last in the country — behind only West Virginia — in the percentage of residents who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

That must change.

It’s not just a problem among older Arkansans. According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, just 26 percent of Arkansans ages 25-34 have an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 38 percent nationally.

It’s estimated that more than 60 percent of all new jobs will require a college education by 2018. Gov. Mike Beebe has said the state must double the number of college graduates by 2025.

My strong belief that this is the most pressing issue facing our state is one reason I took on the post of president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities.

Since the Arkansas Supreme Court came down with its landmark Lake View ruling in November 2002, we’ve done a good job as a state improving K-12 education.

We’re also doing a better job getting students to attend college.

Now the task is to retain those students and ensure they obtain degrees.

Part of what we must do is change the culture of Arkansas, making far more families realize that it’s no longer enough in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century to simply obtain a high school degree and then find a good job in a manufacturing facility or down on the farm.

The jobs associated with manufacturing and agriculture are among those that have become increasingly high-tech.

We all know that policy changes are much easier to institute than cultural changes.

After four years of the El Dorado Promise, however, there seems to be a cultural change occurring in that Union County city.

“We have seen the atmosphere change as students, parents and teachers have embraced a college-bound culture,” Watson says. “From kindergarten, El Dorado students are introduced to the concept of college. They are encouraged to dream big, work hard in school and know that college can be a part of their future.”

The number of El Dorado students taking advanced placement and other rigorous courses has steadily increased. You see, there’s hope even in low-income families that college can become a reality.

The El Dorado Promise pays tuition and mandatory fees for all students who graduate from El Dorado High School, reside in the district and have been a student in the El Dorado School District since at least the ninth grade. Students can use the money at any accredited two-year or four-year college or university in the country. The maximum amount of the scholarship is based on the maximum resident tuition at an Arkansas public university. That’s currently $6,908 per year.

“We know that a big component in increasing the number of college graduates in Arkansas is overcoming financial barriers,” Beebe says. “The El Dorado Promise has shown how a community can help remove those barriers so that students are able to pursue college degrees and realize their dreams.”

Eighty percent of those eligible to receive an El Dorado Promise scholarship have gone on to college, exceeding state and national enrollment rates.

El Dorado students are using their scholarships at 54 colleges and universities. Twenty-one percent are at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, 15 percent are at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, 10 percent are at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, 10 percent are at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, 9 percent are at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, 11 percent are at other public institutions in Arkansas, 5 percent are at Arkansas private institutions, 11 percent are at out-of-state public institutions and 6 percent are at out-of-state private institutions.

In a recent survey of 117 El Dorado Promise students attending college, 98 percent said El Dorado High School prepared them well for college. Seventy-one percent of them said the El Dorado Promise influenced their decision to further their education goals.

The El Dorado Promise website puts it this way: “Low educational attainment has become a defining characteristic of our nation’s most economically challenged communities. While unemployment today touches all sections of the nation’s workforce, the jobless rate for those who have dropped out of high school is nearly three times that of college graduates. By taking down the financial barriers to attending college, the El Dorado Promise is increasing the number of students who go on to post-secondary education.”

The Lumina Foundation for Education has studied the El Dorado Promise and similar programs nationwide. The foundation believes these programs accelerate the necessary increase in the percentage of people receiving college degrees.

In its four years of existence, the El Dorado Promise has:

— Boosted enrollment in the school district

— Raised student expectations

— Improved student achievement

— Resulted in more students attending college

— Created tools for economic and community development.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if foundations, businesses and individuals could team up to create similar programs in even more Arkansas school districts?

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The Boy Scout Hut

Friday, February 4th, 2011

In my newspaper column for tomorrow, I mention the historic Boy Scout Hut in Arkadelphia.

Here’s the context: The column is basically a review of John P. Gill’s fascinating history of the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, “Open House,” which recently was published by the books division of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

I wrote: “While attending the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association several years ago at DeGray Lake Resort State Park, I was approached by Little Rock attorney John P. Gill.

“‘You’re from Arkadelphia, aren’t you?’ Gill asked.

“When I responded that Arkadelphia was indeed my hometown, Gill requested that I go into town with him.

“‘There are two things I’ve always wanted to see,’ he said. ‘I’ve never been up to DeSoto Bluff, and I’ve never been to the Boy Scout Hut.’

“We walked through the woods that warm spring day so Gill could see the bluff view high above the Ouachita River. We then went to the Depression-era log cabin known as the Scout Hut. Located in a wooded area of Arkadelphia City Park, the Scout Hut was constructed by the National Youth Administration.

“Few people from outside Arkadelphia would have known about either the bluff or the Scout Hut. But few people know this state, its history and its landmarks better than Gill. That’s why he was the perfect person to write a history of the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.”

I grew up in a wonderful neighborhood known as Ouachita Hills, within easy walking distance of both the bluff and the Scout Hut. It was a great neighborhood for running through the woods, going to the banks of the Ouachita River, exploring Mill Creek and wandering through Arkadelphia City Park.

When you’re young, you don’t think about the historic significance of things. It was only as an adult that I learned that the Scout Hut has quite a history.

It’s one of the best remaining examples of the work done by the National Youth Administration.

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program website gives this history of the NYA: “First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the leading advocate of the National Youth Administration and a leader in its establishment in June 1935. The NYA was an equal opportunity agency, providing aid and opportunities to all races and genders. It was established to provide emergency relief and employment to those between the ages of 16 and 25.

“The NYA program was twofold in that it catered to youth who were in school, as well as those not currently attending school. According to Robert Cohen, the NYA employed more than 2 million students between 1936 and 1943 (including more than 10 percent of the total college student population). This enabled them to continue their education, which many would not have been able to do were it not for the New Deal programs. The NYA also employed an additional 2.6 million youths in the out-of-school program.

“Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a writer and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, noted that the second part of the NYA program was due in part to an Arkansas experience. Located in Arkansas were four work-study homes that were a response to the Depression. Their results in combining agricultural work with study and an alternative to home life gained national attention. According to Fisher, these four ‘homes’ promoted a degree of job training, health, enthusiasm and good citizenship, which later became goals of the NYA.

“The NYA was responsible for employing youth across America. Arkansas youths completed various NYA projects throughout the state from 1935, the year of the program’s implementation, to the year of its termination. Congressional conservatives brought an end to the NYA in July 1943, eight years and one month after its establishment.”

The Boy Scout Hut at Arkadelphia was constructed in 1938-39 under the supervision of a district supervisor named Edwin Dean from Camden and an area supervisor named Edward Wayte from Hope. Almost 30 unemployed local boys were paid by the NYA for work on the project.

Local leaders ranging from school superintendent L.M. Goza to Mayor Thedore Goodloe were involved.

Arkadelphia is in timber country, and local timbermen and forestry-related companies were quick to pitch in. Tom Clark provided trucks and 850 feet of lumber, while John Sturgis provided 500 feet of center-match slabs. The Sturgis Lumber Co. donated cypress lumber, the Ozan-Graysonia Lumber Co. contributed the logs for the walls, the Clark County Lumber Co. donated cash and materials, the Arkadelphia Sand & Gravel Co. suppled gravel and sand and the Kraft Paper & Pulp Co. supplied additional logs.

The Arkadelphia Rotary Club donated $217.28 to purchase windows and doors, and the city provided the use of its trucks.

In other words, the entire community pitched in.

The building was considered city property, but it provided a meeting space for the two local Boy Scout troops — Troop 23 and Troop 24 (I was in Troop 24 and became an Eagle Scout in 1976). The Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts were later allowed to use the building. Even though the facility is known as the Boy Scout Hut, it has been used far more by the Girl Scouts in recent decades.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “The Arkadelphia Boy Scout Hut is typical of buildings constructed by the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and NYA during the Great Depression. However, it is the only known structure, out of the 724 properties surveyed in Arkadelphia, built by the NYA.

“More than likely, any federal funds received through the numerous New Deal programs were funneled into the town through other programs. The WPA funded the construction of the National Guard Armory in 1940, but these are the only two properties in Arkadelphia known to have been built with funds from the New Deal programs. Thus the Boy Scout Hut is not only unique because of its association with the NYA but also because it is the only Rustic-style building in Arkadelphia designed during the New Deal era.”

So that’s the Scout Hut.

We’ll tackle the bluff at a later time. After all, my Eagle Scout project was to clean up the bluff. I consider it one of the finest pieces of undeveloped property inside the city limits of any Arkansas town.

I took Mike Huckabee to see the bluff one day with this in mind: If lightning struck and he became president, his presidential library should go there with large windows that would take advantage of those marvelous views of the Ouachita River, the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain to the east and south and the Ouachita Mountains to the north and west.

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