Future Little Rock (Jeff Hankins Publisher's Note)

I'm not part of the club that meets to pontificate about the future of Little Rock, no one has asked for my views, and I don't hold public office. Fortunately, I have access to this space and you. 

In the mid-1990s, while I was still editor, Arkansas Business Publisher Wythe Walker contemplated running for mayor of Little Rock. He took Mayor Jim Dailey and other city leaders to task regularly, and did so as a Little Rock native and blueblood.

While I have resided in Little Rock for only 14 years, my family will be here for many years to come. My children were born in Little Rock and will be raised and educated here, and most of my business interests are here. I've grown to love the city and want it to continue to be a great place to live and work.

I'm concerned about a degree of overall stagnation that we could be facing in the next decade.

Bright Spots, Problem Areas

This isn't to say we don't have our share of growth bright spots, including:

- Tourism growth fueled by the Clinton Presidential Library.

- Recruitment of new manufacturers and continued expansion of the aviation industry.

- Continued expansion of health care services and research by Baptist Health, St. Vincent Health System, UAMS Medical Center and the specialty hospitals and clinics.

- Ongoing redevelopment of downtown Little Rock, including housing with high-rise condominiums.

- Widespread retail developments.

- The spin-off of Windstream Communications by Alltel Corp. that saved hundreds of jobs and gave the city another publicly traded company.

But we also have problem areas:

- The Little Rock School District continues to bring divisiveness among leaders and even segregation to the city.

- Our efforts to fight crime are to a great degree in the hands of Pulaski County, which isn't providing enough jail space. Voters don't trust county government enough to give it more tax money.

- We're slowing down development by trying to micromanage developers. If Target tells the Midtown Development District that a two-story store isn't economically feasible in the University Mall area, we need to listen.

- Dillard's Inc. is struggling with the rest of the department store industry and can't be counted on for growth. The future of Acxiom Corp. is up in the air. The outlook for Alltel employment is good for the short term but precarious in the long run.

- Several of our cultural and arts organizations are struggling because of increased competition for charitable dollars and the loss of major corporate gifts.

- Little Rock's tax base is flat because of little population growth and major retail developments in cities like Conway, Bryant and Cabot.

- Traffic congestion is a result of the increased commuter population. The interstate system is being improved, but the city hasn't been able to keep up with changing traffic patterns.

Action Plan

Here are some ideas about what the city's government, business and education leaders need to do:

- Seek out the city's innovators and entrepreneurs and give them the capital and opportunity to build companies. Don't let the next FedEx get away.

- Support a tax increase for the jail system but attach more accountability from county government.

- Embrace the research efforts of UAMS, which offers the best opportunity to deliver biotechnology success.

- Call a truce between business leaders and the school board. A prerequisite must be agreement that attorney John Walker will finally get out of the way.

- Consolidate the nonperformance functions of the performing arts entities - the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, the Arkansas Children's Theatre, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Wildwood Park, maybe others. Imagine centralized ticketing, marketing, administration and fundraising.

- Make sure the future of War Memorial Park emphasizes the future (i.e., attracting more visitors with a stronger zoo and park and maintaining War Memorial Stadium for Razorback football games) instead of the past (i.e., pouring a bunch of money into the antiquated Ray Winder Field).

This dialogue is just starting. E-mail your thoughts to jhankins@abpg.com and I'll share them in future columns.  

(Jeff Hankins can be reached via e-mail at jhankins@abpg.com.)