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JOHN BRUMMETT: Passion and vision in Little Rock

by John Brummett | July 26, 2020 at 1:58 p.m.

Mayor Frank Scott passionately expresses a vision for the city and a determination to lead boldly.

He was envisioning with passion and boldness on the phone just the other day.

An element of that boldness is his unilateral invitation to golfing and sports bar establishments to offer proposals for private development on a conceivably leased section of the closed War Memorial Golf Course, a green city-owned midtown island.

The issue has him taking heat from persons named and a writer unknown.

But Scott is undeterred. He explained himself so vigorously over the phone that he texted afterward to apologize if the passion got a little thick.

His story is that he ran to be a new kind of mayor, a political leader rather than business-style manager. It's that his vision is of Little Rock as a peer of Charlotte, Nashville and Austin. He calls that an ambition we should not shrink from, but attainable with "qualify-of-life and quality-of-place amenities," both public and commercial, for all ages.

It's that he saw early--and said so -- that Little Rock needed a Topgolf or Topgolf-like golf entertainment establishment.

But his first challenge as mayor was that the city was broke.

Closing the revenue-losing War Memorial Golf Course was one of the most obvious cuts, and he made it. "I wish I was that smart," he said to the suspicion among some that he closed the course for the conspiring purpose to lease some of it to Topgolf.

His next major initiative was a sales-tax proposal that would raise money for myriad improvements, among them new public activities on the War Memorial course.

But then the virus hit, and the economy constricted. It was no time to think of asking the people to tax themselves more.

"But you can't just give up your vision to covid," Scott said. "You have to get creative."

Part of that creativity was testing whether revenue could be generated, and how much, if the city were to lease 18 acres of the 90-acre War Memorial golf course to Topgolf or one of its competitors, one or more of which had taken a shine to the location.

You must understand, Scott told me, that, without additional revenue, either from a sales tax or creativity, none of the other popular amenities envisioned for War Memorial--an entertainment area and a regional sports complex among them--would be possible.

He acted unilaterally to seek these golf-sports bar proposals because he knew people would react angrily. He figured he'd get the proposal in the field before inviting anger rather than seek pre-emptive consensus that would ignite emotions before he could even begin to get an idea what a proposal might look like.

The mayor said he has no idea whether he'll get responses. If he gets them, we'll all look at them, he said, and, even if he wanted to go forward, he couldn't without the consent of the city board.

The board's current mood seems averse, if not as averse as the public's, at least as expressed in social media and in public comments at last week's board meeting.

Nor does the board's aversion match that expressed in a remarkable bit of anonymous commentary under a column bylined "The Observer" posted last week on the Arkansas Times website.

That column had its own passionate vision, which was that, in a few years, a big neon monstrosity on the edge of what might have been a nice park would become less popular and profitable--because Little Rock is not the size of Dallas or Memphis and is famously fickle regarding chain restaurants.

And it's that Topgolf or something like it would then shut down, leaving a wasteland of abandoned asphalt, curbs, and lights as well as the lingering aroma of overpriced burgers and average-tasting chicken wings.

It would be better, The Observer counseled, to spare ourselves that desolation and the necessity of a full restart, and to commit ourselves from the beginning to using all that public park land as public park land.

The Observer recommended the mayor look at what the people of Little Rock prefer consistently year after year.

It's not a faddish chain dining establishment. It's the Big Dam Bridge. It's the Pinnacle trails for hiking and climbing and gathering.

I told the mayor I liked his passion, vision, and boldness, and support him generally, but that, on this particular issue, it appeared to me that The Observer had bested him badly.

There was no shame in that; I saw this snark-laced anonymous essay as a triumph of written persuasion.

But Scott doesn't much care for this theme of what Little Rock is too small to do.

"I'm saying it's not 'either/or,' but that it can be 'both/and,'" he said.

I'm thinking the public also leans to "both/and," meaning both a park undisturbed and a golf entertainment venture somewhere else.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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