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Take that, Book Ban Dan

I'm sitting in the monthly meeting of the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission, looking out the window at what once was the Fones Brothers Hardware warehouse.


I'm thinking about how fortunate we are in Arkansas.


We're fortunate to have quality museums such as HAM (once the Arkansas Territorial Restoration). I can't imagine how much most other states would give to have a site like this right in the middle of the state's capital city.


But as I look at that former warehouse, I'm also thinking how blessed we are to have one of the finest library systems in the country.


My father owned a sporting goods store in Arkadelphia and occasionally made trips to Little Rock to pick up items from Fones Brothers. I remember accompanying him on some of those trips to the huge building constructed in 1920.


Little Rock was blessed to have some true visionaries in the 1980s and 1990s. These men and women saw what downtown could be when others only saw urban decay. Jimmy Moses, of course, comes to mind first whenever we talk about the rebirth of downtown.


Another of those visionaries was Bobby Roberts, who at the time headed the Central Arkansas Library System. Roberts moved the main library to the emerging River Market District. He viewed the Fones warehouse as the perfect place for a library. The move took place in 1997.


Roberts had taken over the system in 1989 and headed it until 2015.


It's rare for an institution to replace one visionary with another, but the CALS board did just that when it hired attorney Nate Coulter to succeed Roberts.


Coulter is the man behind the current plan to pump almost $30 million into downtown to renovate the main library. During what was known as a wall-breaking ceremony last week, Coulter unveiled his plans. Those plans include a branch of Boulevard Bread Co., a new glass facade and a rooftop deck.


Don't underestimate the importance of this $30 million investment. It adds momentum to what's already happening downtown.


There was the opening last year of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, which is now attracting visitors from across the country. There are the exciting plans for a deck park over Interstate 30.


Coulter sees the big picture in Arkansas and knows the library's place in it. That's why he's also playing a leading role in seeing to it that almost 19 acres across the street, which were opened up by the removal of interstate ramps, will become a world-class urban park.


This is all happening on one side of Interstate 30. Meanwhile, what's known as the East Village gets ready to explode with development on the other side of the interstate.


Construction already has begun on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's Stella Boyle Smith Music Center.


You've no doubt read about some problems in the launch of dental and veterinary schools on that side of the interstate by Lyon College, but the best minds in the state are now working on the issue. I have no doubt both schools will move forward.


Also in East Village, the Windgate Artspace will provide housing for 60 artists and their families. Completion of this project will lead to galleries, additional restaurants and more retailers in the neighborhood.


The Clinton Presidential Center is moving forward with plans for an additional wing. And don't forget the recent announcement by Dassault Falcon that it will add 800 jobs to the 1,400 people it already employs just down the road from East Village. This should lead to additional residential development.


Coulter often speaks of "a critical mass of cultural amenities in this part of the city." CALS is certainly doing its part with this $30 million investment.


Another reason I appreciate Coulter and the other folks at CALS is because they're leading the way -- along with the public library in Fayetteville (along with Little Rock, this is the top library in the state) and the public library in Eureka Springs (one of just two libraries in Arkansas still operating in a Carnegie building) -- in the fight against those who would ban books and defund libraries.


It's a dark period in Arkansas politics. We have showboat legislators like state Sen. Book Ban Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro attacking our libraries and their employees.


We have a governor who appoints religious zealot Jason Rapert to the state Library Board just so he can create division. The governor's appointment of Rapert was nothing short of a middle finger to the people of Arkansas, her petulant way of screaming "I'm in charge now; I don't care what you think!"


It's an era when Republican women's groups and even GOP county committees (Craighead and Saline counties being among the worst) have become the modern equivalents of the old John Birch Society chapters.


Remember how the Birchers used to see a communist behind every tree? That's pretty much the position of these strange fringe characters as they now attack our public libraries.


Thanks Bobby for what you did. Thanks Nate for what you're doing. Now turn off that television set and go read a good book, folks.


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