'Dear Little Rock' Does City A Disservice (Blake Rutherford Commentary)

It is not often that, in the midst of the most competitive and high profile corporate recruitment effort perhaps ever, a city can come ahead by deciding not to chase the opportunity. After all, the very nature of economic development demands that cities reach for opportunities that at first glance may beyond their reach. It was the theory that the late Herschel Friday adopted when, on the evening that then-Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States in 1992, he immediately began thinking about how to best position Little Rock as the site for what is now the Clinton Presidential Center, a transformative project that has, in time, redefined the city.

Enter Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, who announced that his company would be accepting bids for a second campus that would, among other things, become home to 50,000 employees, Initially, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola announced that the city would go for it. Sure, at first glance Amazon's infrastructure criteria was well beyond Little Rock's capability. But those things could be gained or built (Missouri proposed a hyperloop to connect St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia in its Amazon bid). This is, after all, the corporate equivalent of landing the Olympic Games. 

And as my late grandfather once explained, "You can't catch any fish unless you put your line in the water."

As we know, Little Rock decided not to make that bid for Amazon, joining Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Hawaii, and Vermont. This, in and of itself, would not have been newsworthy outside central Arkansas, but the Little Rock Regional Chamber, not wanting to ignore the marketing potential of bowing out, chose to make its decision public with a campaign called "Love, Little Rock." 

(Full disclosure: from 2006-2010 I worked at Stone Ward, the advertising agency responsible for the "Love, Little Rock" campaign. I first learned about the campaign, as with just about everything else in my life, on Twitter the day it launched.)

I found "Love, Little Rock" to be clever, cheeky even, but also a little corny. That said, I thought its positive tone along with an emphasis on technology and innovation was forward-thinking, not always something associated with Little Rock. In a broader context, with so many cities clamoring to say yes (Newark, New Jersey offered a whopping $7 billion in tax breaks in its Amazon bid), how many cities were willing say no, at least in such a public way? Very few, I figured, and this is what made the "Love, Little Rock" campaign intriguing. I followed it closely. 

Four days later, in a post on the Arkansas Times' blog, I learned of a counter-effort called "Dear Little Rock," which declared, among other things, that Little Rock had "embarrassed our town on a national level." Living in Philadelphia, the fourth largest media market in the United States, I found such a serious accusation head-scratching to say the least. Not a single negative news story or blog post about Little Rock had appeared here, even though Philadelphia, which presented its own bid, has been abuzz about Amazon for some time.

I have the benefit of looking at both campaigns from a distance, and with a unique perspective. After all, I grew up in Little Rock, graduated from Little Rock Central High School and worked as a professional there for 10 years after law school. I founded Movies in the Park in 2004, which still thrives today, and I provided pro bono legal services to the Little Rock Film Festival and the ACLU. I blogged, and criticized the city openly when I felt it was necessary. I served on the 50th Anniversary Commission to commemorate the Little Rock Crisis of 1957, and saw first-hand desperate need for investment in neighborhood revitalization programs south of I-630. On three occasions, I was a victim of crime, including having my home in Hillcrest burglarized. Although it's been four years since I moved, I engage with Little Rock in some form on a daily basis.

Philadelphia, like Little Rock, has its challenges. It has the highest rate of urban poverty in the country. Homicides are on the rise. Its public schools are woefully underfunded compared to the rest of Pennsylvania. All this while Philadelphia combats a severe opioid epidemic that claims 100 lives a month, on average.

Little Rock has roughly 199,000 people, Philadelphia has 1.6 million. But their commonality is this: cities are works in progress. They always will be. 

As to the "Love, Little Rock" campaign, I cannot be sure what it takes to achieve "embarrassing" status since neither the letter from "Dear Little Rock" nor the website explains it effectively. Regardless, I think before slinging that accusation around, it's worth, say, reading the pages of Little Rock's bleak civil rights history. In context, what "Dear Little Rock" has declared as embarrassing Little Rock "on a national level" doesn't measure up, not even close. And if there remains a question about the success of the "Love, Little Rock" campaign, the measurement metrics paint a persuasive picture. 

What also confused me about "Dear Little Rock" was that it professed to be an "intervention." Huh? Had, for example, Little Rock decided to launch a scorched earth media campaign against Amazon, maybe. But "Love, Little Rock" contained exclusively positive messaging in an attempt to raise awareness about the city and its economic attributes.

After re-reading the "Dear Little Rock" letter and spending more time at dearlittlerock.org, I finally figured it out: "Dear Little Rock" simply didn't understand what an intervention was, or how to stage one successfully.       

An intervention, after all, is an action taken to improve a situation. Consider this from the "Dear Little Rock" letter:

"As a city full of kids going to school some mornings without anything to eat, did that really seem like a good outlay of cash? Too bad you didn't print the ad in the Democrat-Gazette. At least that way some of the homeless people trudging three miles out of town to get something to eat because you had the police run them off from the charities that feed them near downtown could use it to line their sleeping bags so they don't freeze to death this winter. Another idea: print two full-page ads in the Dem-Gaz, one featuring a scowling criminal holding a knife to an old lady's throat and another showing an unarmed African-American. Use those for shoot/don't shoot target practice, so this city doesn't erupt into another Ferguson or Baltimore at some point in the very near future."

Like, what? To be honest, this is akin to something Howard Beale would have said in his looniest of moments. But it seems that "Dear Little Rock" intended for this to be taken seriously by the city.

I've been on the provider side of a life-saving intervention, and offering constructive solutions is essential or the intervenors lose credibility and things get much worse. "Get your shit together and focus," the letter concludes. One can envision the city, in resting bitch face, flipping "Dear Little Rock" the bird in response.

But more to the point, "Dear Little Rock" failed to intelligently explain how the city should get its "shit together and focus." 

Examine the content at dearlittlerock.org for yourself. It is predominantly composed of declarations, some scandalous, others sensational, and offered at times without proof of the claim, although there are few links to opinion blog posts written by Max Brantley, senior editor of the Times

In fact, the headline on the website reads: "Good people. Taken advantage of by big business and corruption." Again, what? Public corruption isn't an issue to be taken lightly, and here "Dear Little Rock" has accused the business community and city government of entanglement in such activities, as though Little Rock has somehow become the real-life version of the corrupt "True Detective" cities of Nic Pizzolatto's imagination. 

There are reasons to be critical of Little Rock, although "Dear Little Rock" does a poor job of making its case. That's disconcerting because Little Rock's online community has traditionally been a marketplace of interesting ideas and criticism about education, crime, governance, local journalism, and homelessness, to name a few. I know because I was once a part of it. 

But "Dear Little Rock" demonstrates just how far that community has devolved, and how much contempt and cynicism for the city resides among those "great bars and great restaurants, a very nice bicycle and footbridge down by the river and some excellent stores." 

It's unfortunate. Little Rock, a city in need of innovative ideas to address serious problems, would have been well-served by something a lot less vapid than what "Dear Little Rock" put forward.

Blake Rutherford is a graduate of Little Rock Central High School and the University of Arkansas School of Law. He lives in Philadelphia and is an attorney at Cozen O'Connor. He can be reached at Rutherford.Blake@gmail.com.