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Last month, I was reading this newspaper's account of yet another study on the future of Little Rock when I checked my social media feed. A friend who owns a business in downtown Little Rock reported that the large glass windows at his business had been broken out for the second time in less than a week.

I went back to the newspaper story, which began this way: "A group of young professionals backed by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and a subgroup of business leaders unveiled an action plan Thursday that they said will make the Little Rock region thrive." I kept reflecting, though, on my friend's difficulties operating a business just blocks from Little Rock City Hall, the Pulaski County Courthouse and the state Capitol.

"Blah, blah, blah," I thought to myself. I couldn't finish the story.

I've never cared much for groups that refer to themselves as "young professionals." I was young once but never a professional; I was a newspaperman, for gosh sakes. There's an elitist, exclusionary feel to the term. My main problem, however, is this: The state's largest city has been studied to death since I moved back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989. Ad agency employees--no doubt young professionals sitting around tables brainstorming while sipping lattes--have come up with catchy names for each successive plan. This latest one is called Think Big Little Rock.

We've coined vapid terms such as "visioning process" while so-called facilitators have used their Sharpies to mark up countless big pieces of paper as the usual suspects have droned on and on. Slick reports have been produced. Little has changed.

Let's face it. Little Rock has been relatively stagnant for years. We look five hours to the east on Interstate 40 and see construction cranes towering over Nashville. We look five hours to the west on Interstate 40 and see the same thing happening in Oklahoma City. We don't even want to think about what's taking place in Texas cities such as Austin. Back in Little Rock, there hasn't been an office skyscraper built downtown in decades. And those that were built in the 1970s and 1980s now appear worn on the outside with giant bank lobbies on the inside that are vacant.

Despite some recent progress in bringing downtown back, what should be the most prominent business intersection in the state--Capitol and Main--is dominated by the empty, decaying hulk of the Boyle Building. It sends the wrong message to visitors. Pulaski County's growth between the 2000 census and the 2010 census paled when compared to growth in the surrounding counties of Saline, Faulkner and Lonoke. When the 2020 census is conducted, those percentages likely will look much the same.

Following a second cup of coffee, my mood mellowed. I finished reading the news story and decided that I was glad that several dozen Little Rock residents between the ages of 25 and 40 were thinking about the city. In an era when participation in civic clubs is falling and those ages 25-40 can't seem to look up from their phones, the fact that Think Big participants would take the time to have such discussions is admirable. My hope is that each of them will follow through on their promise not to let this be just another report.

While realizing that several of those involved in the Think Big process are overly sensistive to constructive criticism, I'll make this observation: The action steps recommended rely too much on government. That has been a trademark of the plans and reports that have been churned out the past three decades. If Little Rock is going to resemble Nashville and Oklahoma City more than it does Jackson, Miss., the private sector will make it happen, not any government entity.

So what does government need to do?

At the city level, the first priority is public safety. There's not even a close second. Until the dozens of vacancies at the Little Rock Police Department are filled, there's nothing else to discuss. Full staffing will allow saturation patrols in crime-ridden neighborhoods. It also will allow more foot patrols in downtown Little Rock in order to crack down on aggressive panhandling and property crimes such as windows being broken and graffiti being painted on walls.

So-called young professionals probably consider this politically incorrect, but trust me: If the panhandling issue isn't addressed more effectively, the downtown renaissance will stall.

At the state level, legislators must stop starving the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. If there's dramatic growth in Little Rock during the next several decades, it will be because smart entrepreneurs figured out how to monetize research being done at UAMS and UALR.

The drop through the years in the percentage of the UAMS and UALR budgets that comes from the state is disturbing. If Think Big participants were to ask me the most important thing they could do, it would be to lobby the city to fully staff LRPD and lobby the Legislature to better fund UAMS and UALR. Do those things and watch the private sector take off.

Another request for the Think Big crowd: Run yourself or get behind quality candidates for area school boards, city boards and quorum courts. That's where the action is. I've covered both the Arkansas Legislature and the U.S. Congress. Believe me when I tell you that seats in those legislative bodies are overrated as far as being able to get much done. Also consider becoming an entrepreneur or at least joining forces with a friend who's starting a business.

It might not be as comfortable as that state government job, that banking position or that big law firm where you now work. But if Little Rock is going to progress, the action must come from the business sector. Thank you for thinking big. Now, let's stop talking and start acting.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 01/07/2018

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