Stephens Floats City Merger Idea at Chamber Luncheon

Warren Stephens, president and CEO of Stephens Inc. of Little Rock, said business and community leaders in central Arkansas should consider merging governments in the region — including Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County — to cut waste and raise the profile of the area.

Stephens made his comments Thursday at the 136th annual meeting of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce at the Statehouse Convention Center. Stephens mentioned the merger among other ideas that could improve central Arkansas, making it more attractive in recruiting businesses and workers.

"I really think it's something that's time has come ... [to] really combine our government and resources," Stephens said.

Stephens said a new combined city of about 500,000 people could move the region to the top 30 cities in the country, capturing the attention of businesses and other entities that want to relocate or set up a new part of their operation.

Citing the construction of the Alltel Arena as one example, Stephens said Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County governments have proved they can work together. He also pointed to the Central Arkansas Transit Authority and the newly formed Central Arkansas Water as examples of cooperation among Pulaski County cities.

"Why stop there?" he said.

The idea is not a new one. Jim Porter, who last month was defeated by Stacy Hurst in the race for the Ward 3 seat on the Little Rock board of directors, had also proposed adopting a single countywide government.

"Fact is, I would like to see all cities within Pulaski County become one government, run by a representative council, one mayor, one public works, one police and fire department, etc.," Porter said in a letter to the editor of Arkansas Business. "This would streamline local government, improve efficiency, unify the community, eliminate much waste and boost economic development. Imagine the savings."

Other Keys to Development

Stephens also said improving central Arkansas' infrastructure is important to the economic development of the region.

Stephens said Arkansas state government should consider creating toll roads to help defray the cost of roads. Although the idea of toll roads has been debated in the state before, Stephens said legislators and business leaders should consider other arrangements to make them possible, including public-private partnerships that could manage the tolls for a period of time before turning them completely over to government.

Stephens and Scott Ford, CEO of Alltel Corp. of Little Rock, who also spoke at the meeting, both advocated improving Rebsamen Road as a link to downtown Little Rock. Stephens suggested adding another bridge across the river to ease traffic along Cantrell Road near downtown, possibly near the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge near Dillard's Inc. headquarters. He also said city leaders will need to rethink the intersection of Interstate 630 and Shackleford Road, adding that continued congestion there could choke more development in west Little Rock.

Ford, who spoke before Stephens, said the two things Alltel recruits have said is attractive to them about Little Rock is the lifestyle and the brief commute. He noted that two of his top executives, Jeff Gardner and Kevin Beebe, came to Little Rock from Chicago, where a commute could last as long as two hours. In Little Rock, the two have found they spend less time in the car and more time with their families.

New President

Also Thursday, the chamber of commerce welcomed its new president for 2003, Lunsford Bridges, president and CEO of Metropolitan National Bank, who replaces Bob Birch, president and CEO of Twin City Bank.

"The emphasis on infrastructure is critical to economic development," Bridges said, adding that infrastructure, along with economic development, would continue to be a priority for the chamber next year.