Vision (or lack thereof) for Little Rock

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?



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