The headlines bruised Little Rock's image: "At Least 25 Shot at Little Rock Nightclub," said the Washington Post; "Little Rock Nightclub Shooting May Be Gang Related," wrote the Los Angeles Times; "Cowboys' Darren McFadden Says Family Members Injured in Arkansas Shooting," blared CBS News online.
And perhaps the the worst for the city's reputation? "34 Shot in Little Rock Over 9-Day Period," from KARK.
The list goes on, and several Arkansas media and public relations professionals fear that negative perceptions of the capital city are reaching a critical mass in the wake of the mass shooting July 1 at the Power Ultra Lounge on Sixth Street downtown.
Rex Nelson, the former senior vice president and communications chief with Simmons First National Corp. who now writes columns for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, described his fears of a "tipping point" in a July 3 post on his own blog, Rex Nelson's Southern Fried. He said Little Rock may be poised to follow the trajectory of Memphis; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi if it doesn't control a surge in violent crime, losing population and business.
On Wednesday, several Little Rock image specialists, including Mike Sells and Pam Jones, weighed in after reading Nelson's post, and they largely agreed with his viewpoint.
Nelson noted that Memphis had more than 500,000 people in 1960, but fewer than 300,000 on the same footprint of land (it has annexed many neighborhoods) in 2010. Birmingham and Jackson have followed the same path. The Memphis exodus helped fuel the rise of Jonesboro as northeast Arkansas' hub, with the city more than tripling over 57 years to a population of about 75,000.
"People in small towns throughout northeast Arkansas turned their backs on Memphis," Nelson wrote. "They now read the Jonesboro newspaper, watch Jonesboro television stations, listen to Jonesboro radio stations, go to Jonesboro to visit the doctor, shop, eat out, attend concerts, etc."
As violence dominates the news in the Little Rock television market, residents of growing nearby towns like Conway, Benton and Cabot increasingly fear Little Rock, Sells and Jones said. "Perception becomes reality," Nelson warned.
The ultimate fear is that Little Rock's business owners and professionals — doctors, lawyers, bankers and accountants — may see crimes like the Power Ultra Lounge shooting as a signal to take their business elsewhere.
The ultimate outcome may well hinge on how the city and state respond.
Sells, CEO of the Sells Agency, a Little Rock marketing agency with offices about a block away from the July 1 shooting site, said he was asked about violence in his hometown by two people he met on a business trip to Indiana about a week ago. He also pointed out a meme growing popular in some Facebook circles, particularly among residents of some of Little Rock's bedroom communities.
"It features photographs of people with an insane number of holsters and a comical amount of guns strapped to them," Sells told Arkansas Business. "All of them have captions like 'now I'm ready to go to Little Rock.' "
Sells said Little Rock luckily sidestepped the worst outcome at the nightclub because nobody was killed. Deaths would have made a two-day national news story into one with legs. But still, Sells worries that the national press may have found a neat frame for an easy characterization.
"The media runs on narratives," Sells said. "News outlets are aware that 25 people got shot in downtown Little Rock, so if something else happens it Little Rock and it fits that narrative, they'll say let's run it."
Pam Jones, the president and lead strategist of Culturally Connected Communications in Little Rock, said Little Rock's image is beyond the tipping point.
"Last year we saw the death of two young innocent bystanders, with both stories making the national news," she said in an email, adding that the lounge shooting "will always be a reference point" for discussions of mass gun violence, taking its place alongside place names like Columbine and Sandy Hook.
"Every business in Little Rock should be concerned, and they must join the discussion" and be part of the solution, she said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced a task force involving federal, state and local law enforcement groups in the wake of the shooting.
"This means that 16 law enforcement people will be working largely full time to get a handle on Little Rock's violence," Sells said. "That's what needs to happen."
Jones addressed an issue that Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and others raised in assessing the environment that led to the July 1 shooting, including numerous liquor violations at Power Ultra Lounge, which has since been shut down by the authorities, and the fact that a rap artist performing at the club that night promoted his appearance with ads that depicted him pointing a gun at the camera.
"Using gun imagery to promote a rap concert is problematic, but many artists across different genres have used guns to promote their music," said Jones, who is sensitive to such issues as a black owner of a marketing and communications business. "Should that be an excuse to allow them to continue?" Her answer is no, she said, but a "bigger discussion about the desensitization of gun imagery in general" is absolutely necessary. When people are enticed to attend an event by ads depicting weaponry, "we have a much bigger problem," she said.
Nelson's first prescription is to fill more than 30 positions that the Little Rock Police Department has lost through attrition. His other ideas include a special legislative session to toughen standards for paroling Arkansas felons and giving the state Alcoholic Beverage Control agency more leeway in shutting down problem venues.
"This is going to tip one of two ways," Sells said. "We're either going to get violence under control, or we're going to pay a price not only in population but in business development."
If crime trends follow their present course, he said, "the folks over at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission are going to be getting questions about whether companies actually want to put a facility out at the Port of Little Rock or elsewhere in town. We want to be able to convince them that this is a good place to do business."