Archive for September, 2009

An agenda for Little Rock

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

One of my favorite websites is If you go to the Little Rock Metropolitan Area forum on that site, you’ll find some of the most intelligent discussion on the Internet as it pertains to the future of this state’s largest city.

The people who contribute to this forum are well-educated, engaged individuals who care deeply about Little Rock. In the way of a sneak preview, I’ll tell you that my column in Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will outline what I consider the five priorities for government, business and civic leaders in the city I’ve called home since moving back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989.

In his State of the City address back in March, Mayor Mark Stodola said he intends to work with others to make Little Rock “the next great American city in the South.” Talk is cheap. That’s not to say that the mayor has not backed up his talk with some real accomplishments, but’s there’s going to have to be a collective decision on the part of this state’s most influential people that the urban core of the capital city matters a great deal.

No, Little Rock does not yet suffer the total dearth of political leadership and the massive outmigration seen in recent years just two hours to the east in Memphis. As the mayor pointed out in his March address, the city of Memphis faces a $12 million defict this fiscal year and a $25 million deficit the next fiscal year.

Yet anyone who is honest realizes that like many cities its size with a sizable underclass, Little Rock faces serious problems. There’s a lack of population growth and a declining urban core as white families have fled the Little Rock School District for years now in order to enroll their kids in the Bryant, Conway, Cabot, Benton and other surrounding school districts. Without annexations to the west through the years, Little Rock would be a shrinking city. Witness the reduced population of its core during the past 40 years. One cannot solve problems without admitting them and confronting them direclty.

Thus the five priorities (in order of importance) I will lay out in Saturday’s column:

1. Public safety — Yes, mayor, you correctly point out that crime rates dropped in 2008. But the television news coverage beamed statewide focused on the murders of Arkansas Democratic Party chairman Bill Gwatney and KATV reporter Anne Pressly. I spend a lot of time in rural Arkansas and can assure you that the perception is widespread that Little Rock is a dangerous place to live and a dangerous place to visit. I love raising my family here, but the perception is not good due in part to the obsession of Little Rock television stations with covering crime stories that rate only a paragraph or two in the newspaper. Reporting a murder or a wreck is easy and provides video. Reporting on government and economic development takes work. So the decision of the television news directors can perhaps be understood.

Still, it’s time for Little Rock leaders to adopt James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” approach that Rudy Giuliani used in his first term as New York’s mayor. This approach calls for aggressive enforcement of even minor offenses such as graffiti, aggressive panhandling and loitering. It’s high time for people from places like Star City and Strawberry to feel safe walking the streets of downtown Little Rock.

2. The public schools — Even those residents with children in private schools (an ever-increasing percentage of the city’s white population) should feel they have a personal stake in the improvement of the Little Rock School District. Without that improvement, the exodus to Cabot, Bryant, Benton and Conway will continue at the expense of the urban core. Property values will decline, and Little Rock will reach an unwelcome tipping point. Given the infighting in the Little Rock School District, its bloated administrative structure and racial divisions on the school board, that tipping point might be a lot closer than we want to believe. Residents also must take a renewed interest in school board elections, which typically draw few voters.

The Little Rock School District can be saved, but there are going to have to be systematic changes. Again, perception is important. When people go to a LRSD athletic event and see almost as many people wearing shirts and jackets that proclaim “Security” as they see students, those people aren’t likely to be anxious to enroll their kids in a public school where they sense there’s a lack of discipline and an excess of foul language. Fair or not, we state again that perceptions matter.

3. Higher education — UALR and Pulaski Tech has record fall enrollments. UAMS continues to prosper. These three institutions are economic engines that must continue to be nurtured. If UAMS, UALR and Pulaski Tech thrive in the decades ahead, Little Rock will be OK. And things also are looking up at the city’s two historically black colleges, thanks to the dynamic leadership of Walter Kimbrough at Philander Smith College and Fitz Hill at Arkansas Baptist College. The city’s white business leaders would do well to financially support the efforts of these two black college presidents.

4. Rigid code enforcement and infill development — The mayor pointed out in his State of the City address that the city is hiring additional code enforcement officers and that he and City Manager Bruce Moore “are committed to improving our code enforcement activities this year. Clean streets will be our mantra. These types of ongoing operations, coupled with new ordinances such as the extended stay motel ordinance, the mobile home ordinance and the potentially dangerous breed ordinance, collectively will continue to improve the neighborhoods of Little Rock.”

Let’s hope this code enforcement focus is for real. Let’s also hope that in this recession, the city’s powerful commercial real estate interests will focus on using existing properties rather than constantly trying to receive tax breaks and waivers of various sorts to build new developments that promote urban sprawl. The current recession has left a great deal of empty retail space as big-box chains such as Circuit City, the Sharper Image and Linens N Things bite the dust. Other businesses have simply moved down the street, leaving behind abandoned buildings on major corridors and creating blight. Witness, for example, the empty buildings left behind in west Little Rock by Haverty’s Furniture on Shackleford and Hank’s Fine Furniture just around the corner on West Markham.

5. Parks — Let’s quit talking about being a “city in a park” and do it. The current refinancing of parks bonds is a start. It will provide $1.65 million for Little Rock Zoo improvements and $1.25 million for other improvements to War Memorial Park. It will allow the city to acquire the old Western Hills Country Club for $1 million, giving it another 18 holes of golf that will connect with the Hindman Park golf course on one side and the First Tee facility on the other side. It also will allow for long-needed improvements to the Rebasmen Tennis Center, which once was one of the finest tennis facilities in the South before being allowed to deteriorate due to a lack of interest at City Hall.

These, however, are only first steps. If the city is really intent on having great parks, it will find a way over the next decade to make War Memorial Park this city’s smaller version of New York’s Central Park or St. Louis’ Forest Park. Spruce up those 18 holes at Western Hills and then remove the 18 holes of golf at War Memorial, replacing it with green space, pavilions, fishing ponds and hiking and biking trails. Quit worrying about making certain groups mad and do the right thing. Meanwhile, also find a way to fund the master plan for MacArthur Park and the surrounding neighborhood.

The mayor was justified in pointing out in his address that Southern Business & Development magazine proclaimed that “if Little Rock were a stock, I’d buy shares in it.” He also was right to point out that Site Selection magazine included Little Rock along with Austin, Baton Rouge and Oklahoma City as places that are “shining through a cloudy economy.”

But I have questions: How many of the employees of the new industries these magazines were writing about will actually live within the Little Rock city limits? How many will drive into the city from elsewhere and head back to the suburbs as soon as their shifts are done?

Focusing on the above priorities, Little Rock can avoid that unwanted tipping point. Too many wrong moves at this time, though, will put us on the same downward path as Memphis and Detroit. It’s a critical time in the life of Arkansas’ capital city.

What are your top priorities for Little Rock? What’s right with the city? What’s wrong? And who do you see as the future leaders?

The “miracle mater”

Friday, September 4th, 2009

If your Labor Day travels take you near Des Arc, you might want to go down on Main Street and check out what Harvey Joe Sanner is calling the “miracle mater.”

“Nature can produce some amazing sights, and one of those sights is a tomato plant growing out of a brick wall,” Harvey Joe reports. “In a narrow space between T.J.’s Kountry Kitchen and Garth’s Hardware Store, the plant is approximately four feet off the ground with no visible reason for it to be growing there. Yet it seems to be thriving. This ‘miracle mater’ has captured the attention of several diners at T.J.’s, who have monitored its growth since it first appeared. As time passed, it began to bear tomatoes. Currently, there are four ripe tomatoes and 10 green ones. The tomatoes are of the samller variety that us older folks refer to as Tommy Toes. Similar varieties may be called cherry tomatoes or salad tomatoes.”

The Tommy Toe is an heirloom tomato from the Ozarks that’s famous for its flavor. Tommy Toes often bear the most fruit in September. Harvey Joe says the Ozark heritage might explain how the plant can survive growing out of a brick wall.

“The plant appears to be very healthy,” he says. “In fact, it looks better than most of the tomatoes growing in rich soil this year, perhaps because it’s out of reach of the flood rains and plant diseases. Regardless of how it got there or how it continues to produce fruit from what seems to be an impossible location, it has generated quite a bit of conversation among the customers at T.J.’s. That has provided some relief from the normal topics of baseball, football, farming and the all-time generator of hot air, politics. Anyone smart enough to explain why and how this tomato is doing what it’s doing might be wise enough to solve the health care reform debate. Nature is truly a wondrous thing.”

I take a special interest in this plant because the building that houses the hardware store was built by my grandfather, W.J. Caskey, in the early 1900s. It has housed a hardware store for almost a century. My grandfather owned both the hardware store and the adjacent funeral home (a common combination in Arkansas farming communities in those days). He also purchased an old streetcar in Little Rock and put it on Main Street in Des Arc as a diner. Walking with him to the hardware store and hearing people greet him as Judge Caskey (he had once been the Prairie County judge) made him seem like one of the most important men in the world to me as a small boy.

My grandfather, who died in the hot summer of 1980 at the age of 96, was also a prolific gardener. He had a green thumb, and his garden was always a site to behold. I can assure you he would be pleased to know a tomato plant is coming out of the brick wall of that building.

What’s your best fruit or vegetable story? The joys of reading weekly newspapers in Arkansas include looking at the photos of people who have brought strange-looking or especially large items from their garden to the newspaper office — a sweet potato that looks like Abe Lincoln or a cucumber shaped like the Liberty Bell.

Thanks for the story, Harvey Joe. I have to go to Searcy on Sunday. I might just run by Des Arc to check out your “miracle mater.” 

The family-owned newspaper

Friday, September 4th, 2009

I began thinking anew this week about the demise of family-owned newspapers after reading of the death of Frank Robins III, the former publisher and last family owner of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway.

Frank Robins III was the president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1974. His father had been the president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1940. And his grandfather had been the president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1923. Talk about a family tradition.

The newspaper, one of the most uniquely named publications in the country, had been purchased by the family in 1894 in a trade for a sawmill. Frank Robins III went to work there in 1949 as soon as he graduated from Hendrix College. He became the publisher in 1959 following the death of his father.

I loved the quote about Mr. Robins in The Associated Press story from former Log Cabin editor John Ward: “He was very hard-nosed about assumptions. Reporters, in gathering information for a story, sometimes tended to make two or three assumptions so they could crank out one story and go on to something else. Frank hated assumptions. If you made an assumption and it was wrong, he was a hard man to deal with.”

There was something special about those local owners and editors who had their lives deeply invested in the communities where they lived. It’s something that simply can’t be matched by many of the publishers who work for newspaper chains and tend to bounce from city to city.

I remember hearing stories growing up about Mr. Phil McCorkle of Arkadelphia and his stewardship of my hometown daily newspaper, the Daily Siftings Herald. There also was a weekly newspaper in Arkadelphia at the time, The Southern Standard, which was owned by 1961 Arkansas Press Association president Keith Tudor. By the time I went to work for the Siftings Herald (another Arkansas paper with a name not replicated elsewhere), the paper was under the ownership of the Freeman family of Pine Bluff. But we still considered ourselves a family-owned publication since the Freeman “chain” consisted only of newspapers at Pine Bluff, Arkadelphia and Yazoo City, Miss.

Ed Freeman, one of those publishers who cared deeply about the English language, who mark up past editions on a regular basis and send his comments back to us. I would have loved to have been able to listen back at the Commercial offices when Mr. Freeman and Paul Greenberg would discuss the content of editorials for hours at a time.

It’s fun to look at the list of past Arkansas Press Association presidents and remember some of the newspaper greats in Arkansas — Charles Young and Porter Young in Helena, O.E. Jones in Batesville (the newspaper there is still controlled by the Jones family), Ray Kimball in Magnolia and later DeQueen, J.E. Dunlap in Harrison, Sam Hodges in Benton, Louis Graves in Nashville, Melvin Schexnayder and later Charlotte Schexnayder in Dumas, Cone Magie in Cabot, Tom Gillespie in Atkins, Ted Larimer in Green Forest, Fred Wulfekuhler in Paragould, Orville Richolson in Newport and others.

As the sports editor at Arkadelphia, I often would cover University of Arkansas football games at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. Representatives of the small dailies (there was not room for weekly newspaper representatives in those days) would sit at the far end of the press box. I often found myself seated next to J.E. Dunlap. I was young and convinced that a sportswriter should not show bias. Mr. Dunlap would have none of that. He always showed up in the press box in a bright red blazer and a tie with Razorbacks on it.

That’s the same Mr. Dunlap who, upon receiving some self-serving news release from an ad agency, was known to insert a rate card and mail the release back to the agency.

The people like him were the ones I looked up to as a young newspaperman. There was nothing better than attending an APA convention, sitting back, shutting my mouth and listening to the old guys tell stories. I miss them. They were a special breed.

There are still a number of family-owned weekly newspapers in Arkansas, but the family-owned daily is becoming a rare breed. I never got around to buying a newspaper, which is probably for the best given the current state of the industry. But it would have been kind of fun to have turned into “a hard man to deal with” for young reporters who made assumptions.

Give the scores

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

In the previous post, I made predictions for the football games involving every four-year college team in the state. We’ll do that each week.

With the college football season getting into full swing Saturday, I’m curious about something: Will the radio scoreboard show following the University of Arkansas football broadcasts give us the scores for other colleges in Arkansas? And will KTHV-TV, Channel 11, in Little Rock give the scores for all the in-state schools?

When KATV-TV had the rights to the Razorback radio broadcasts, scores for the other Arkansas schools were never given on the scoreboard show.

That was strange since KATV is always good about passing on the scores during its television sportscasts. Was it an edict from the athletic department in Fayetteville that scores from other Arkansas schools were not to be passed along on the radio? Was the athletic department really that insecure? Did the leadership of the mighty Razorback program believe that giving an Arkansas Tech Wonder Boy score or a UAM Boll Weevil score might diminish its fan base?

I listen to a lot of college football on the radio, and I can tell you that you’ll hear all of the Louisiana scores — from Grambling to Louisiana College — on the LSU network’s scoreboard show. Ditto for the University of Tennessee and many others.

I have not noticed that the policy has changed since ISP obtained the rights to the Razorback broadcasts. But maybe I missed something last year. Is it not possible for Scott Inman to work in the scores of the other games in the state? It would take less than a minute Saturday night to tell us how Arkansas State did against Mississippi Valley State, how UAPB did against UAM, how Arkansas Tech did against Incarnate Word, how Henderson did against McNeese State and how Ouachita did against Texas College.

And if the university has a policy against giving those scores, could someone please supply a written explanation why that policy was created? I would love to see the reasoning or lack thereof.

As for KTHV, the only explanation I got from them a couple of years ago had to do with “time limitations” and “fan interest.” Does a station that gives Friday night scores from tiny high schools across the state (and that’s a good thing, mind you) think there’s more interest in those scores than in the scores of an Arkansas Tech or a Harding or a Henderson that has thousands of alumni across the state?

As my personal protest, I haven’t watched a Channel 11 newscast in two years. I did make an exception in order to check the late sports on two Saturday nights last year. Both times the station failed to give any Gulf South Conference scores. So my boycott goes on.

I’ll be driving home from Tyler, Texas, late Saturday night. Someone listen to the radio scoreboard show following the Razorback game. And someone please watch the late sports on Channel 11. Let us know Sunday if they have changed their ways.