I can remember when it became clear to me that the city of Little Rock's effort to increase the sales tax by a penny would go down in flames. In politics, you see, perception is reality.
I was driving through the Riverdale area of the capital city on what should be one of its most beautiful parkways. The parkway's median strip hadn't been mowed in months. The weeds were several feet high in places. There was trash everywhere. It gave me the feeling of living in a place where the people in charge don't care.
It's the same feeling I get each evening when I travel west on Cantrell Road. People routinely drive 20 and even 30 miles per hour above the speed limit. Running red lights is common. They feel they can break the law with impunity because there's rarely any enforcement by the Little Rock Police Department, even though this is the busiest stretch of non-interstate roadway in the state.
"Does nobody care?" I ask myself on the way home.
If I feel this way, I can assure you that plenty of other Little Rock voters have these feelings. Even though they love Little Rock, they weren't willing to give the city more of their hard-earned tax dollars until city government shows that it can take care of the basics such as enforcing traffic laws, mowing grass and picking up litter.
The sales-tax proposal went down overwhelmingly as 62 percent of those who bothered to show up for the Sept. 14 special election voted against it.
A voter named Gary Jones summed it up perfectly in his quote the next day in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "I'm sympathetic to a lot of progressive notions, but this seems a little force-fed, a little undefined, possibly subject to political abuse. So I'll wait until something comes along that's a little more to my sensibilities, I guess."
Voters in our state's largest city are inclined to support tax increases when it's clearly spelled out how every dollar will be spent. That kind of transparency wasn't evident in this proposal.
Also, voters sensed that the proposal had programs such as the pre-kindergarten initiative that quite frankly aren't the purview of municipal government; a municipal government, mind you, that can't get the little things like enforcing traffic laws and mowing grass right.
If Mayor Frank Scott Jr. is as savvy as I think he is, he will do these things going forward:
• Emphasize the basics. As busy as a mayor is, I've always thought the top elected city official should spend an hour or two every day just driving around different parts of town with an aide. Take notes and then make phone calls about the things that need to be taken care of--a stop sign blown down here; a vacant lot filled with trash there. You get the point.
• Fix the Little Rock Police Department. It's obvious there are severe leadership problems at LRPD. It will be sad if Scott, who grew up in Little Rock and truly loves the city, sees his political career end because of stubborn support of a police chief who doesn't even hail from Arkansas. Also, Scott said during his 2018 campaign that he would fill vacancies in the department and then add 10 additional officers per year. Along the way, his original agenda took a detour. It's time to get back to it.
• Convene a summit of the city's business leaders and truly listen to their suggestions. Don't just pay them lip service. Booming northwest Arkansas is a shining example of the fact that cities and regions aren't built solely by government investment. There must be significant private-sector investment. Little Rock is home to some brilliant business leaders. It's time for Scott to ask them these questions: "What can city government do to make life easier for you? How do we get you to invest additional capital? What are the roadblocks to your company's growth? Why is Little Rock not growing at a faster rate? If you were mayor, what are the first five things you would do?"
• Work with members of the Little Rock Board of Directors to craft a replacement for the three-eighths-of-a-cent sales tax that sunsets at the end of this year. A new proposal must focus on what I call the Three Ps: public safety, parks and potholes. Devote part of the funds to meeting the equipment and facility needs of LRPD and the Little Rock Fire Department. Devote part of the funds to making War Memorial Park and Hindman Park more of an attraction for Little Rock residents. And devote the rest to infrastructure projects such as street resurfacing. Outline in advance how every dollar will be spent during the next 10 years. Don't leave anything to voters' imaginations.
It's important for all of Arkansas that its largest city do well. We live at a time when 53 of the state's 75 counties are losing population. Despite its success, the northwest Arkansas economy can't carry the entire state. Little Rock must pick up the pace.
Don't despair. The city has plenty of things working for it. I've long preached that cities must play to their strengths. Little Rock's strengths are:
• It's still the state's center of government, finance and legal activity. Little Rock has a chance to become a major financial player when you combine its financial technology companies, the fintech programming done by the Venture Center in downtown Little Rock, and its strong banking sector. Bank OZK has opened an incredible headquarters in west Little Rock and plans to eventually have an entire corporate campus there. Simmons Bank already has filled up the former Acxiom building that it bought in the River Market District. Drive down Chenal Parkway and see the other bank buildings currently being constructed.
• Its status as a regional medical hub. With an aging population, the importance of the medical sector will only increase. World-class work is being done at places such as the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children's Hospital with specialties that serve patients from across the country. The growth of that sector bodes well for the city.
• The Port of Little Rock and Clinton National Airport. These facilities are the home of thousands of jobs. The decision by Amazon to make Little Rock a regional hub (the company likely will wind up employing 2,000 people just at the port; that doesn't count those it will employ at a large center in North Little Rock and at another facility in southwest Little Rock) sends a signal to other companies that the city is positioned to be a nationally known distribution and logistics center with its multiple interstates, river transportation, railroad operations and quality airport. Almost 7,000 people now work for companies with operations at the port. Bryan Day, the port director, believes that number will be closer to 15,000 a decade from now.
• A wealth of tech talent. Much of that talent dates back to when Alltel was headquartered in Little Rock. People started their own companies, and a few of those companies are poised for solid growth. The presence of the aforementioned Venture Center in the Little Rock Technology Park--its programs bring tech-savvy entrepreneurs to the city from around the world--will lead to other start-up companies choosing to base operations in Little Rock.
• The fact that Little Rock remains a regional draw for dining, shopping and entertainment. Restaurants, hotels, small retailers and arts organizations all took a hit during the pandemic. This is another area in which city government must ask: What can we do to help you thrive?
The fantastic restoration of Robinson Center downtown and the current expansion of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts show us that Little Rock can still do big things. The Amazon announcement during those bleak pandemic days before a vaccine had been developed couldn't have come at a better time. It was one of the world's top companies making a multimillion-dollar bet on the city.
Before moving on to other big things, though, city government must get the basics right, starting with LRPD. Voters clearly sent that message last month.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.