Author Archive

The little things

Friday, March 17th, 2023

Several hundred people gathered one afternoon last month at the Statehouse Convention Center as the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau released its first-ever citywide tourism master plan.

The plan’s unveiling had the feeling of a celebration and came at the end of a long process in which there were focus groups, hundreds of survey responses and 60 individual meetings.

As someone who understands the importance of quality-of-life amenities to the economic health of cities and states, I read every word of the master plan and LRCVB’s 2023 business plan. We must stop thinking of projects such as these as simply efforts to attract tourists.

In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, the same things that attract tourists also attract smart, talented residents. Such efforts are just as important to economic development as industrial recruitment was in the 1950s and 1960s.

I liked some of the recommendations. But as I read through the slick publications, I couldn’t help but think that we must take care of the little things first.

For instance, I’ve been looking for a year now at graffiti on the back of the Robinson Center-DoubleTree Hotel-LRCVB parking complex as I take LaHarpe Boulevard into downtown Little Rock.

As far as I can tell, no one has lifted a finger to remove the graffiti even though thousands of cars pass it each day. I don’t get it.

I also don’t get why Little Rock city government won’t assign teams to remove graffiti and pick up trash along the city’s major thoroughfares. The failure to do so creates an impression among people across the state that this is a dangerous, out-of-control place. Perception becomes reality.

The little things, in other words. They matter.

That will be the subject of my column Saturday on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I hope you will check it out.

The visionary

Tuesday, March 14th, 2023

Melissa Taverner moved to Arkansas in October 2017 when she accepted the position of provost and dean of faculty at Lyon College in Batesville.

Before coming to Lyon, she was an associate professor of biology for 22 years at Emory & Henry College, a well-known liberal arts school in southwest Virginia.

Taverner is a Virginia native.

Last April, Lyon announced it was developing plans for the state’s first dental and veterinary schools in Little Rock as part of its College of Health Science. The college is partnering with a private company, OneHealth Education Group.

In May, it was announced that OneHealth is purchasing downtown Little Rock’s Heifer International campus to house the schools. Heifer International will remain, leasing space from OneHealth. A founding partner of OneHealth is Merritt Dake, previously chief executive officer of Rock Dental Brands.

“Soon after I got to Lyon, we began having serious discussions about the future of the school,” Taverner told me. “People mentioned that the time had come to add graduate programs, so we began to examine where the gaps are in higher education in Arkansas. What were the greatest needs?

“We also asked ourselves what were our strengths and how could we play to those strengths. Well, we’re really good in science and math. And Arkansas has a real need for dentists and veterinarians. It seemed to fit.”

Taverner has an exciting vision for Lyon. And I’m glad that vision includes downtown Little Rock.

I’ll have more in my column Wednesday on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I hope you’ll check it out.

A different standard

Monday, March 13th, 2023

Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised by the reaction of the Arkansas sports media after a University of Arkansas staff member went after a student journalist in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday night.

In case you missed it, the Razorback basketball team was leaving the court following its fourth loss in five games. A state employee with the title of “director of internal operations” for the basketball program turned toward Jack Weaver, who works for the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper.

Weaver reported that the UA’s Riley Hall “grabbed my phone and threw it at the ground.”

UK describes Weaver as someone who always “embodies professionalism on the job.”

I typically would expect journalists to come to the defense of a fellow journalist. But in Arkansas, sports “journalists” have always lived in fear of losing access to The Program.

So the response to Hall’s action from multiple sports “journalists” was, in essence, this: “The kid was having a bad day. Let’s move on.”

Hunter Yurachek, the UA athletic director, later issued a written apology. To my knowledge, Hall hasn’t personally issued an apology.

The late Paul Greenberg often would write of a time when men who embarrassed their employers not only would personally apologize but also resign.

Let’s make a few things clear. Despite what some would have you believe, Hall is not “a kid.” He graduated from college seven years ago. He’s a full-time, well-compensated state employee.

His bio on the UA website says he “works closely with head coach Eric Musselman.”

What if an English teacher at the UA had left the classroom and done the same thing to a student journalist in the hall outside?

You know the answer to that question.

What if someone working at a state revenue office were to come out from behind the counter and react the same way toward an Arkansas taxpayer waiting in line to have car tags renewed?

You also know the answer to that.

What if someone working at the state Capitol were to approach a journalist during a legislative committee meeting and do what Hall did?

Again, you know the answer.

We seem to have two standards here in Arkansas. There’s one standard for state employees with a Hog logo on their shirts. There’s another standard for all other state employees.

Yurachek’s statement fell far short of what should have been the university’s reaction. I fear that Hall’s actions might speak to far deeper problems. What was so egregious in that tunnel that Hall felt the need to make sure there was no video?

Did it have something to do with Musselman, whose volatile temper has been on display more than once during this disappointing season. This is, after all, a team in the preseason Top 10 that limps into the NCAA Tournament with a 20-13 record.

Was it an attempt to hide the actions of one or more players? A lack of discipline has been evident on the court throughout the season.

Those are questions Yurachek must ask to ensure this isn’t the tip of a larger problem.

Major sports events are an important part of our society and reflect on the state as a whole. Less than 24 hours after it was shot, Weaver’s video of Hall coming toward him had been viewed more than 6 million times.

Rather than soft peddling Hall’s actions, let’s state the obvious: Going after a journalist is never OK. A state employee who did that in any other sector of state government would have already been fired. Hall and the others leaving that court should have looked straight ahead, said nothing and walked into the dressing room.

Instead, Hall tried to cover up what really was going on in that tunnel. In a less coarse society, Hall would have personally apologized and resigned before the sun set Saturday.

The Lee Ronnel story

Tuesday, March 7th, 2023

In December, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra announced the largest individual gift in its 56-year history.

The gift came from the estate of Lee Ronnel, who died in January 2022 at age 85.

Christina Littlejohn, the orchestra’s chief executive officer, put it best that day when she said: “We’ve had good years and bad years. And through them all, there was Lee Ronnel.”

He was born June 16, 1936, in a Russian-speaking community in Shanghai. His name was Elias Itkis.

Ronnel, the founder of Little Rock’s Metal Recycling Corp., was a professionally trained pianist. For more than half a century, he supported ASO. He did everything from leading conductor search committees to chairing fundraising events with his wife of 61 years, Dale Ronnel.

“Lee understood the power of music and the arts to lift people up and bring them together,” Dale said.

ASO will use part of the money to create an endowment to operate the $9 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, an education and administration facility that will be built between the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International campus.

The rest of the funds will be used for the E. Lee Ronnel Music Academy, which will include everything from youth orchestras to string instruction.

We’ll have Lee Ronnel’s story in my column on the Voices page of Wednesday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I hope you’ll read it.

The bridge park

Monday, March 6th, 2023

The term “game-changer” is overused. But the bridge park proposed for downtown Little Rock truly will be a game-changer.

It was announced last month that the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded a $2 million planning grant for the city of Little Rock to design a deck park over Interstate 30 between Sixth Street and Ninth Street.

If you’ve ever experienced Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, you have a sense of what a great deck park can do for a neighborhood.

This park — with interstate traffic flowing underneath — will connect the new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts on one side of the interstate with the Clinton Center, the Heifer International campus and the emerging East Village on the other side.

Once Lyon College opens dental and veterinary schools on the Heifer campus, almost 1,000 additional people (students, faculty, staff) will spend their days in the area. It will be their park of choice.

Guests at the high-rise Holiday Inn and Comfort Inn, which face a busy interstate, will soon look down on a park instead of concrete and cars. Hotel business will increase.

Property values will soar at the Quapaw Tower, a venerable condominium complex whose residents will look down at the park on one side and the arts museum on the other side.

I know what you’re saying: “This is only $2 million for a project that will cost $100 million or more. How do we know it will happen?”

I worked in government long enough to know that they’re not going to spend $2 million to plan something that’s never constructed. The park will be built through a combination of federal, state and city funds.

Remember that massive infrastructure bill that Congress approved? The U.S. Department of Transportation will award annual construction grants for such projects across the country during the next four years.

The deck park will complement a nearby 18.9-acre urban park. Space for the larger park, which borders the River Market District and the main campus of the Central Arkansas Library System, was created by the 30 Crossing project. Interested parties already are meeting on a regular basis to make plans for the larger park.

Two new parks, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (housed in a facility that has already received international media coverage), the dental school and the veterinary school should lead to additional residential complexes along with more restaurants, bars and retailers.

Things suddenly look favorable for downtown.

Downtown Little Rock

Thursday, March 2nd, 2023

In this Saturday’s column on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I’ll return to the subject of downtown Little Rock.

There’s a lot going on.

In the “coming soon” category, we have:

— Next month’s grand opening of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, the biggest thing to happen downtown since the Clinton Presidential Center opened in November 2004.

— The Artspace Windgate campus in the emerging East Village part of downtown. This is a $36 million project.

— The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s $9 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, which will be built between the Clinton Center and the Heifer International campus.

— Lyon College’s dental and veterinary schools in the Heifer International building.

— Expansion of the ambassadors program, which will make visitors to downtown feel safer.

— Lighting the Broadway Bridge, a project of the venerable Little Rock Rotary Club.

Now, here’s my list of things that also must happen for downtown to reach its potential:

— Fill the more than 80 Little Rock Police Department vacancies. That will allow the department to have officers who walk beats downtown. The biggest problem downtown is an image problem. People across the state don’t think it’s safe.

— Restore Capitol Avenue. The city has created a committee to make recommendations. City officials need to take those recommendations seriously. The road leading to the steps of the state Capitol should be the grandest urban boulevard in Arkansas.

— Attract developers to transform the empty Boyle and Donaghey buildings on Main Street into residential housing to serve the dental and veterinary schools.

— Convince the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to have a major downtown presence. How about moving the business school and associating it with the Little Rock Technology Park?

— Properly develop the urban greenspace adjacent to the River Market District that’s being created by the 30 Crossing project.

City of the arts

Wednesday, March 1st, 2023

For those of us who live in Little Rock, it’s easy to point out the problems. There are:

— The record murder rate.

— The large number of people who blatantly ignore traffic laws with virtually no enforcement from the chronically understaffed Little Rock Police Department.

— Aggressive panhandling that discourages people from going downtown.

— The graffiti epidemic that has scarred the city.

— The trash along roadways that isn’t picked up and the grass that isn’t mowed.

Want to feel better? Take a look at the major investments being made in the arts here in the capital city. To wit:

— The spectacular new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, which is the subject of my column on the Voices page of today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. AMFA has raised more than $150 million for that project.

— The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s Stella Boyle Smith Music Center. The 20,000-square-foot facility will be between the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International campus. Earlier this year, ASO announced that the late Lee Ronnel left the largest individual gift in the organization’s 56-year history. The amount wasn’t disclosed, but it will allow development of the E. Lee Ronnel Music Academy. The academy will expand ASO’s capacity to serve children and adults through youth orchestras, strings classes, summer strings camps, children’s choirs and more.

— The $71 million renovation of downtown’s Robinson Center, which occurred from 2014-16.

— The Artspace Windgate campus in the emerging East Village part of downtown. Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects announced last fall that it has partnered with the Windgate Foundation to build a mixed-use project for the arts. The four-story, 94,000-square-foot development will have 60 live-work units for artists. Artists and their families will be actively recruited to the state. Completion of the $36 million project is projected for the fall of 2024.

This adds up to more than $250 million in capital investment for the arts in just one part of the city. That’s impressive for a city of 200,000 people.

The huge amount of money being spent on the arts is among the factors leading to renewed interest in downtown Little Rock. Other factors include:

— The nascent recovery of Capitol Avenue. There are new owners for Regions Center and the former Bank of America Plaza. There’s also a committee appointed by the mayor charged with spurring a revival of that corridor.

— Plans by Lyon College to open dental and veterinary schools in the Heifer International building.

— The planned bridge park over Interstate 30 and a nearby urban greenspace that’s being opened up by the 30 Crossing project.

A really big deal

Tuesday, February 28th, 2023

On April 22, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts will hold its grand opening. The AMFA debut in MacArthur Park is the biggest thing to happen in downtown Little Rock since the Clinton Presidential Center opened in November 2004.

Consider this fact: In 2021, Icon magazine published a piece headlined “Architecture To Look Forward To.” The eight projects in the story included only one in the United States — the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

That’s a big deal for Arkansas.

“Another major cultural project for Jeanne Gang and her studio, AMFA provides a new public gallery and gathering space,” the magazine noted. “The project … also focuses on strengthening and clarifying connectivity with the broader AMFA campus.”

Gang, a MacArthur Fellow (commonly known as the genius grant) and a professor in practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design, heads Studio Gang. Her firm does work around the world.

Meanwhile, internationally known landscape architecture firm SCAPE designed 13 acres of MacArthur Park surrounding the museum. SCAPE has as sterling a reputation as Studio Gang.

“In working with Studio Gang and SCAPE, we’re realizing the most contemporary ideas about museums and public spaces,” says Victoria Ramirez, AMFA’s executive director.

Along with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AMFA will give this state two world-class art museums. That’s pretty amazing for a state of just more than 3 million people.

I’ll have more in my column Wednesday on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I hope you’ll take the time to read it.

House of chaos

Monday, February 27th, 2023

The fallout from a governor’s office that’s far more intent on raising the governor’s national political profile than it is on actually running state government continues.

Last week, I wrote about a sweeping directive from the governor’s office that has left people across state government scratching their heads. The order was that there must be approval from the governor’s office before anyone can speak with the media.

Consider the fact that many state departments have full-time people who deal with the media. Let’s say that I’m in such a position at the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. I get a call from a newspaper reporter doing a travel piece on Arkansas. That reporter is in Chicago and on deadline.

Must I get permission from the governor’s office before I return the call?

Or is the order directed specifically toward certain people in Arkansas (which would be even worse and signal a paranoia unlike anything we’ve seen in Arkansas since the Faubus administration)?

I do hope the news side of my newspaper and other media outlets in Arkansas can find the time to dig for answers to these questions.

Here’s part of an email I received from an agency director: “The order was handed down to us through my immediate supervisor, who indicated to me that he did not know what to make of it or how exhaustively or literally to carry it out. I have not yet received additional guidance on how to honor the administration’s order while still being able to converse with all comers. I live in hope, however, of either this happening or the order being effectively, if slowly, walked back.”

Gov. Sarah Sanders continues to receive bad advice from the out-of-state political apparatchiks in her office, the group I’ve dubbed the Traveling Trumpettes. Only a political hack would advise the governor to do an exclusive interview on changes affecting Arkansas schoolchildren with The Washington Examiner (a far-right publication on the East Coast) rather than a publication Arkansans would actually see.

Here’s my hope: There are other people the governor listens to and trusts who will tell her what she needs to hear, not what she necessarily wants to hear.

They will say something along these lines: “Cut out the angry, divisive approach. Call on your better angels. Let’s focus on building Arkansas rather than raising money nationally for a campaign that’s more than three years away.”

When this administration ends and historians write about it, the governor will look back and most appreciate not the brownnosers but those who spoke honestly. The honest ones will be those who truly cared about her personally and cared about this state. The political hacks will have long since moved on to other states and other jobs.

I ask myself each day why our governor comes across as so angry. She has lived a charmed life. Her father was a highly popular governor during her teenage and college years. She was able to see and do things unlike any other girl in Arkansas.

She has two great parents, two witty and fun brothers, a wonderful husband (make sure to read Sunday’s High Profile story on Bryan Sanders; it’s a good story on a good man) and three adorable children.

She worked at a high level at the White House and then became the nation’s youngest governor.

There should be a constant aura of gratitude, humility and pure joy (a happy warrior as we used to call them in politics) for this golden opportunity to improve life in the state where she was raised.

So are the anger, scowls and tough words (which I can only describe as redneck bravado) simply a cynical way to raise even more money from the Trump cultists nationwide?

And for what reason is that money being raised now that she has achieved her goal of becoming Arkansas’ first female governor?

I realize she’s young and is holding public office for the first time. Our prayer must be that she has the maturity to realize she’s off to an awful start, that there must be course corrections immediately and that a smile, kind words and a willingness to listen still go a long way in Arkansas.

End of an era

Friday, February 24th, 2023

I often give a speech about how Arkansas lost more population per capita than any other state from 1940-60. We’ve been gaining population consistently since the 1960s, however.

What led to that turnaround?

On the private-sector side, I point out the amazing business titans — people like Sam Walton, John and then Don Tyson, William Dillard, Charles Murphy, J.B. Hunt and others — who built some of the nation’s top companies in this small, poor state and kept them here.

Also on the private-sector side, I point to Witt and Jack Stephens, who in essence brought Wall Street to Arkansas. They had the ability to take the ideas of the state’s entrepreneurs and then take them public, allowing them to grow to the next level.

On the government side, I point to the power of the Arkansas congressional delegation during the 1960s when we began to turn it around. Those members of Congress were able to bring us projects such as the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments and more. Such projects helped rescue desperately poor rural areas of Arkansas.

I would always end the speech by saying that we had been blessed since the election of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1966 with a run of moderate, pragmatic governors. This was unusual for a Southern state. And it was not a partisan thing. Five of these governors were Democrats — Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Beebe. Four of the governors were Republicans — Rockefeller, Frank White, Mike Huckabee and Asa Hutchinson.

While they might be a bit more partisan on the national stage, back home in Arkansas they governed from the middle. And that was a good thing.

We’re less than two months into the administration of Gov. Sarah Sanders, but it appears that long era has come to an end.

Sanders seems intent on bringing the chaos and divisiveness of the Trump administration to state government — from rushing through a major education overhaul in an attempt to avoid needed debate, to avoiding the Arkansas media while relying on national far-right outlets, to her mindless tweets.

The name calling from the governor is puerile and frankly just tired — the sign of a shallow person unwilling to debate issues on their merits.

“The left is becoming even more desperate with their lies and false attacks,” she tweets.

“We are not messing around in Arkansas. Every kid will have access to a quality education whether the left likes it or not.”

“The left.”

“The radical left.”

So predictable.

So unimaginative.

We’ve not seen anything like this in Arkansas since Orval Faubus and his minions were branding those who would dare ask questions as Communists.

The governor is demeaning her own constituents on a daily basis. And as a native Arkansan who loves this state, it ticks me off.

I think back to when Mike Huckabee was thrust into office following the 1996 resignation of Tucker. Huckabee dropped out of a U.S. Senate race he was going to win and immediately surrounded himself with experienced Arkansans. His senior management team in the governor’s office included highly respected former legislators such as Dick Barclay, Jim von Gremp and Joe Yates.

Huckabee later brought in strong, outspoken women (all native Arkansans with long years of service to the state) such as former legislator Carolyn Pollan of Fort Smith and Judge Betty Dickey of Pine Bluff. Huckabee’s chief of staff his entire time in office was Brenda Turner of Texarkana. Turner worked behind the scenes and kept a low profile, but she was a force of nature.

Sanders, meanwhile, has surrounded herself with political hacks who have no concern about the people of Arkansas or this state’s future. It’s all about the boss’ national political standing inside a Republican Party that is morally and intellectually bankrupt. They’ll simply move on to other states when they’re done here.

There are modern-day Barclays and Pollans out there, governor, who would be happy to help you.

I sincerely pray that you find them and listen to them. It’s still early in your administration. It’s not too late to turn it around.

Arkansas must come first.