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An agenda for Little Rock

One of my favorite websites is www.urbanplanet.org. 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?

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