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The next great Southern city?

I recently came across a copy of the October 2003 edition of Little Rock magazine, a pretty nice monthly publication that had a short run before folding due to its inability to turn a profit.

That issue of the magazine contained an article by John Brummett on the Vision Little Rock process. Brummett described that process as “300 of the city’s finest people voluntarily spending two years at the behest of the City Board of Directors compiling a report submitted in January 2002 on where the city needed to go over the next decade. … Nothing much came of it. Bob East, one of three chairmen of Vision Little Rock, says he’d hoped the city would take the report and run with it, availing itself of the political capital and energy of the 300 mobilized citizens and putting an infrastructure and public safety tax to an expedited vote.”

East told Brummett at the time: “I’m disappointed at the lost momentum.”

Turn the clock forward almost eight years as 54 percent of those who turned out in a special election voted for a sales tax increase that will raise an estimated $31.6 million a year for operations while also approving a separate sales tax increase that will raise an estimated $196 million during the next decade for capital improvements.

This week’s special election marked the city’s sixth attempt since 1981 to get a sales tax increase approved. Only two of those attempts have been successful. The previous time an increase was approved was 1994.

I see similarities between what happened almost two decades ago and what happened this week.

The gang situation had reached its zenith in Little Rock in 1994, and people had quite simply had enough.

I’ve always thought the low point for the decade of the 1990s was the Friday night when Chef Andre was shot in front of a full house at his restaurant in that converted Hillcrest home. I remember being in the newsroom of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when we received the news. I grieved not only for Andre and his family but also for Little Rock.

The year 1994 was also when the HBO documentary “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” ran over and over and over again.

There were Bloods. There were Crips. There was a city that looked hopeless to HBO viewers around the world, a sort of Detroit of the South.

Those of us who loved Little Rock had had enough. A majority of us voted for a half-cent sales tax to, among other things, beef up the police force. The gangs weren’t totally eradicated, but progress occurred. Little Rock had blossomed into (dare I say it) sort of a hip Southern city by the end of the century.

It’s 2011, and many of us had again become concerned about the state of the city.

Here’s how Mayor Mark Stodola put it in his State of the City address back in March: “The city enacted a half-penny city sales tax in mid-year 1994, some 17 years ago. The rate has never increased. In 1995, the first full year of collecting our half-penny sales tax, we had a total of 1,537 employees. … Now we have 1,542 employees on the payroll for a net gain of five employees. Consider for a moment that in 1994, when our tax began to be collected, we had a total of 869 employees in our police and fire departments. Now, 17 years later, we have 1,106 employees in our police and fire departments, for a net increase in the area of public safety of 237 employees. Obviously, it is apparent that all of our other operating departments have been cut so that we do everything possible to ensure that public safety is our first and foremost obligation.”

Despite the increased number of folks working at the police and fire departments, there are severe problems. Cars and trucks are failing apart. The police headquarters is far from adequate. The communications system is on its last legs.

Problems in other areas also are severe. Little Rock doesn’t have nearly enough code enforcement officers. Street resurfacing has become a thing of the past. City parks are woefully maintained.

I took a history-loving visitor from Washington, D.C., to MacArthur Park this summer and immediately felt the need to apologize. Tall weeds and trash were everywhere. I was embarrassed for my city.

“Enough is enough,” we said in 1994.

“Enough is enough,” we said again on Tuesday.

While Little Rock has its share of urban decay, that decay is not as widespread as in the cities of some of our neighboring states — think Jackson in Mississippi, Memphis in Tennessee, St. Louis in Missouri.

“Enough is enough,” we said Tuesday. “We don’t want to be Jackson, Miss.”

But this is a huge amount of new money for City Hall, which is why in yesterday’s post I urged everyone to be vigilant so this money is spent in the wisest possible manner.

Here’s how Jim Lynch put it in a Tuesday guest column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “$511 million in new taxes is almost equal to $1 million in new taxes paid every week to City Hall for the next 10 years. Please think about this scenario again — $1 million deposited every Monday morning in the City Hall treasury for the next 10 years.”

If invested wisely, that money can set the stage for greater private investments and the attraction of smart, talented, creative people to Little Rock.

Yet it’s far from certain how wisely the money will be spent.

Let’s go back to that 2003 Brummett article. He wrote: “The story of Vision Little Rock and its aftermath is one encompassing all the plots, subplots and contradictions of modern civic life in the capital city. It is a story of pervasive distrust of the city’s political leadership even as the mayor enjoys wide public approval. It is a story of a city in a veritable cultural renaissance that can’t fill potholes or keep its patrolmen in low-mileage cars. … It is, at the moment, a city with blurred vision.”

Pervasive distrust of the city’s political leadership.

A city with blurred vision.

The more things change. . .

We can only hope the vision clears a bit as this extra $1 million a week begins pouring in come January. Actually, we can do more than hope. We can attend meetings of the board. We can call board members. We can write letters to the editor. We can hold elected officials’ feet to the fire.

Brummett had a separate column in the back of that October 2003 issue of Little Rock magazine.

That column also bears quoting since its words ring as true today as they did eight years ago.

Brummett took offense at “the occasional pointlessness of slogans as designed by advertising and marketing consultants and adorned with cosmetic inanity. It’s better simply to be than to brag, and it’s better to do the job than to crow you’ve done it. Baseball players call it letting their bats do the talking. That’s because they don’t know any better than to use cliches.

“One should understate in a manner akin to the way old money reveals itself without effort or spectacle. Let it be seen, but do not expose it. Real quality resides in the passive voice.

“So it should be with the city of Little Rock, which has had its ups and downs — with the ups holding their own — over the last decade or so, first as city leaders paid consultants for the privilege of going around saying, ‘I’m big on Little Rock,’ then to talk about ‘Little Rock — city limitless.’

“The bigger the boosters got on Little Rock, the smaller the percentage of voters agreeing to tax increases for infrastructure and services. The more limitless the boosters proclaimed the city to be, the more limited the city budget became.

“Our city might well save a few consulting dollars by simply being rather than bragging.

“The fact of the matter is that Little Rock is not bad. Our bat can do some pretty fair talking. We’re better than Shreveport, better than Jackson and better than Mobile even with all those camellias and Bellingrath Gardens.”

So let’s harken back to yesterday’s blog post.

The next great American city in the South?

A city in a park?

Forget all of that for the next decade.

Let’s focus on how we invest that extra $1 million a week (see the suggestions in yesterday’s blog post).

Do that and our bats indeed will do the talking. We won’t have to come up with a slogan. That’s because others across the country will be able to proclaim in the fall of 2021 that Little Rock has become the next great Southern city.

I can dream, can’t I?

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