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That new Little Rock tax

The first thing they need at Little Rock City Hall is a good editor.

There’s that line the mayor likes to use about being the “next great American city in the South.”

I guess that’s so we won’t be confused with the “next great French city in the South.”

If you’re going to engage in rank hyperbole, at least make it a bit less convoluted: “The next great Southern city.”

I went to my polling place along Mississippi Street early Tuesday morning and voted for both the three-eighths of a cent sales tax increase and the five-eighths of a cent sales tax increase.

I did so reluctantly, knowing the dire straits that would otherwise be faced by our policemen and firefighters with their unfilled positions, worn-out vehicles, antiquated communications system and mold-filled police headquarters.

I’ll readily admit that I was reluctant in part due to my dismal experience with the city in trying to save one of this state’s most historic structures, Ray Winder Field. That whole process was a sham. It was wired from the start.

I wish I had been wise enough not to become involved. I wish I would have realized that the cause was hopeless.

There was no interest in saving an important part of our state’s history.

There was no interest in providing a badly needed baseball facility for the youth of a city that has fallen far behind its neighbors when it comes to providing baseball fields, softball fields, soccer fields and the like.

There was only an interest in receiving a payment from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, a pittance when you consider what was lost.

You have to wonder about the priorities of any city that turns its back on children and instead sells off valuable parkland for parking lots.

I also have my doubts about the $22 million that’s going to be put into a so-called research and technology park. Having worked as a presidential appointee for several years on economic development issues, I can list the cities that have tried similar projects with decidedly mixed results.

It’s not as if Little Rock is on the cutting edge in this respect.

Here’s how The Economist recently put it: “Build a magnificent technology park next to a research university; provide incentives for chosen businesses to locate there; add some venture capital. This is the common recipe for harnessing higher education and industry to spur economic growth as prescribed by management consultants touting the ‘cluster theory’ developed by Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter.

“Hundreds of regions all over the world have spent billions on such efforts; practically all have failed. Yet others are following suit. … All of those are well-intentioned efforts to build Silicon Valley-style technology hubs, but they are based on the same flawed assumptions: that government planners can pick industries they want to develop and, by erecting buildings and providing money to entreprenuers and university researchers, make innovation happen.

“It simply doesn’t work that way. It takes people who are knowledgeable, motivated and willing to take risks. Those people have to be connected to one another and to universities by information-sharing social networks.

“Regional planners and some academics get very defensive when asked to produce evidence of cluster theory’s success. They commonly tout Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park as examples of the success of government-supported clusters. Research Triangle Park is a 50-year-old project that achieved success decades ago but lost momentum in the Internet era. And the success of Silicon Valley was achieved without government involvement.”

If we were intent on going down this path, we at least should have done it on a regional basis. If I learned anything in the years I spent with the Delta Regional Authority, it’s the importance of regionalism. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital are tremendous economic engines for the capital city and the state. Rather than Little Rock going its own way, it would have been nice if Children’s Hospital, UALR and UAMS had taken advantage of what the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County is already doing at the Bioplex between Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

Almost 1,500 acres of Pine Bluff Arsenal property was deeded to the alliance a decade ago by the U.S. Department of Defense. Situated next to these 1,500 acres are the Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research, the FDA’s Arkansas Regional Laboratory and what remains of the Pine Bluff Arsenal.

Just last month, the FDA signed an agreement with the state that will establish a joint center to enhance regulatory science. NCTR has about 550 workers, 150 of whom have their doctorates. When I was at the DRA, we sank money into the Bioplex because we believed in the potential of private businesses taking advantage of what’s already there.

Rather than Pine Bluff going one way and Little Rock going another, it would have made more sense for the Little Rock-based entities to cooperate with the folks to the southeast. Little Rock city officials, in turn, would have better served the citizens by sinking that $22 million into even more road, sidewalk and parks improvements.

Don’t get me wrong. I like living in Little Rock. If I didn’t like the city, I wouldn’t be raising my two sons here. But it’s high time the folks at City Hall realize that in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, you attract young, smart, creative people by having a high quality of place. Frankly, that has a lot more to do with quality schools, parks, trails, restaurants, bars, wifi connections, sports facilities and cultural amenities than it does with research parks.

Talented people who are new to a city can quickly sense if it’s going to be the right place to live. It either has that creative vibe or it doesn’t. It also needs to be clean and efficient.

I remember shaking my head last week on a trip from my office downtown to Riverdale. First, I dodged potholes on Broadway that could swallow a small car. Along Cantrell Road, the weeds adjacent to the River Trail — something that has the potential to be among this city’s landmark amenities — stood four to five feet tall in places.

I crossed a railroad overpass into Riverdale, and the weeds were just as tall on either side of that bridge.

If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that City Hall was making things look as bad as possible so people would vote for the two-tiered tax proposal.

I know, I know. The budget is tight. I’m not a conspiracy theorist.

Yet when the additional dollars start rolling in come January, I hope the city will concentrate at the outset on taking care of what it already has before setting off on some wild building spree.

The beauty of the statewide effort in 1996 to pass a one-eighth of a cent increase in the state sales tax for conservation and parks improvements (I worked on that campaign) was that we promised voters we would not build additional state parks. Instead, we would make the state parks we already had the best in the nation.

In the end, I did what many of my fellow white males in my age and income groups did — I turned out and voted for both taxes.

Now, I’ll watch closely and hope the Little Rock media keep the heat on in the years ahead to ensure the money is spent wisely.

I know of virtually no one who disputed the needs of the Little Rock Police Department and the Little Rock Fire Department. These extra tax dollars should make us a safer city.

It’s in the other areas that the priorities become fuzzy.

How do we make this the next great Southern city?

Some ideas:

— Waste no time hiring those additional code enforcement officers that are promised and then have the most rigid code enforcement in the country. Remove dilapidated buildings and homes rather than letting them rot year after year.

— Finish the Little Rock portion of the River Trail.

— Add as many miles of new sidewalks and streetlights as possible to make this the next great walkable city in the South.

— Truly create a system of city parks that’s the envy of the region. That slogan “City In A Park” (the city probably paid some advertising agency good money for that) rings hollow in a town where they sell off ballparks for parking lots.

— Have the smoothest streets of any city this size in the country and make sure the right of ways are mowed and kept free of trash.

If you have a safe city with the above attributes, you might be amazed what entreprenuers in the private sector can accomplish without government subsidies.

Heck, mayor, we might just become the next great American city in the South.

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