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It Worked (Editorial)

2 min read

The North Little Rock arena project did what it was supposed to do.

When Pulaski County voters approved a one-year, 1-cent sales tax to fund the River Project on Aug. 1, 1995, they set in motion a long line of redevelopment dominoes that led to revitalization along both sides of the river and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic growth.

The tax paid for the construction of what was first Alltel Arena — then Verizon Arena and, in October, what will be Simmons Bank Arena — along with an addition that doubled Little Rock’s Statehouse Convention Center.

Public and private interests joined to sell the River Project to voters. Leaders included then-Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines, then-Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey and then-North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays. The Arkansas Legislature approved $20 million for the arena, and Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, raised money from private donors for it.

Supporters ranged from Republican Mike Huckabee, then the lieutenant governor, to the late Brownie Ledbetter, a liberal activist. “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,” though who’s who in that metaphor depends upon your interpretation of the Good Book.

The arena project itself was not without problems. On Aug. 3, 1998, Arkansas Business broke this news: “Oops! Arena Workers Miss Mark by Six Inches.” A contractor’s error in calculation meant that a row of concrete pillars and beams was off the mark, delaying construction on the $80 million project. And in October 1999, the first event at the arena was canceled because cracks were discovered in a beam. Repairs were made and since then the arena has functioned safely.

The River Project demonstrates the power of a public-private economic development partnership hitched to a good idea.

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