Stephens Encourages Regional Cooperation

Recent events — including the Little Rock Marathon, the Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Tournament and the Rolling Stones concert — are "proof that our community is alive and on the move," Warren Stephens, CEO of the Stephens Group Inc., told the Downtown Little Rock Rotary Club on Tuesday.

In a speech focused on the newfound importance of tourism, and especially sports tourism, to Arkansas, Stephens praised central Arkansas political leaders for working together better than at any time in the past for the mutual benefit of the entire region. He specifically commended a "noncompete pledge of commitment" signed by most of the municipalities in the 11-county Metro Little Rock Alliance.

"That is huge. It speaks volumes to the rest of the world about who we are and what we can do as a community," Stephens said.

But he did not repeat his earlier suggestion that Pulaski County combine to form a countywide, metropolitan government.

Stephens said he was surprised by the reaction to that suggestion, made in a speech to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce in December 2002. And he said the experience of the Little Rock and North Little Rock Boys & Girls Clubs, which have expanded their programs by sharing administrative costs, proves that there can be benefits to cooperation that falls short of actual merger.

"We don't have to merge cities to reap some of the benefits of cooperation," he said.

Stephens indicated that he thought the Little Rock Wastewater Utility, which is building a secondary treatment facility near Highway 10 in west Little Rock, had been too quick to reject the idea of piping wastewater across a new pedestrian bridge to an existing site in North Little Rock.

But Reggie Corbitt, director of the Wastewater Utility, said Tuesday afternoon that the issue was not as simple as Stephens may have led the Rotary audience to believe.

Under state law, wastewater contracts between cities cannot extend longer than 15 years, which Corbitt said could create political problems in the future. What's more, he said, it took North Little Rock 12 years to get a permit to operate the existing oxidation pond on White Oak Bayou near the Burns Park soccer fields, and a completely different type of permit would be needed for the type of secondary treatment facility that Little Rock needs.

"And thirdly, there was as much opposition by people who live on a ridge overlooking that site as there was at any other site we looked at," Corbitt said.

Sports Tourism

Using statistics that appeared in the March 6 issue of Arkansas Business, Stephens encouraged the continued efforts to draw sports fans to the state.

"Sports works for us. Sports fans spend money, and we ought to give them the opportunity to spend it here," he said.

Sports tourists report having a very good experience in central Arkansas, which Stephens said was because "Arkansas has always been able to make people feel welcome. I don't think we ever realized we could make money at it."

Sports fans spend money on other activities as well, he said, noting that the Clinton Presidential Library had its single biggest admission day with more than 2,000 passing through the doors on Saturday, March 4, the day before the Little Rock Marathon.

But when a member of the audience asked if he was hoping to draw a Professional Golfers' Association event to his private Alotian Golf Club west of Little Rock, Stephens said it was not in his plans. While Alotian may play host to some smaller events, he said, there were "logistical problems" with moving large crowds around the course.

"To tell you the truth, I'm still trying to get the darn thing finished," he said. While the course and clubhouse are complete, road work continues, he said.

Clinton-era Press

In response to another audience question, Stephens said that he believed negative stories in The New Republic magazine in the mid-1990s that suggested nefarious relationship between the Stephens organization and then-President Bill Clinton had cost his family business. But like the harm to Little Rock's reputation from the Whitewater investigation, the damage has not been permanent, he said. "I'll stack up the mores of Arkansas against anyplace I've ever been, particularly New York and Washington, D.C.," he said.

Asked about the Little Rock School District's hesitance to build new schools in west Little Rock, billionaire Stephens — whose two school-aged children attend the private Episcopal Collegiate School — called himself "one of the biggest supporters of public schools based on my tax bill." And he said the idea that building public schools in mostly white west Little Rock would encourage more "white flight" was misguided.

"We're only going to have strong public schools if we have schools where people can go to them," he said.