Several hundred people gathered one afternoon last month at the Statehouse Convention Center as the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau (LRCVB) released its first-ever citywide tourism master plan. The plan's unveiling had the feeling of a celebration and came at the end of a long process in which there were focus groups, hundreds of survey responses and 60 individual meetings.
As someone who understands the importance of quality-of-life amenities to the economic health of cities and states, I read every word of the master plan and LRCVB's 2023 business plan. We must stop thinking of projects such as these as simply efforts to attract tourists. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, the same things that attract tourists also attract smart, talented residents. Such efforts are just as important to economic development as industrial recruitment.
I liked some of the recommendations. But as I read through the slick publications, I couldn't help but think that we must take care of the little things first. For instance, I've been looking for a year now at graffiti on the back of the Robinson Center-DoubleTree Hotel-LRCVB parking complex as I take LaHarpe Boulevard into downtown Little Rock.
As far as I can tell, no one has lifted a finger to remove that graffiti even though thousands of cars pass it each day. I don't get it.
I also don't get why Little Rock city government won't assign teams to remove graffiti and pick up trash along the city's major thoroughfares. The failure to do so creates an impression among people across the state that this is a dangerous, out-of-control place. Perception becomes reality.
The little things, in other words.
One area in which city government and LRCVB recently woke up was the ambassadors program. Both entities have now set aside money to expand the program. Ambassadors will work closely with the Little Rock Police Department, pick up trash, remove graffiti and do other things to make downtown more pleasant.
Ambassadors also will be expected to engage the public to create positive experiences, provide directions, provide support for downtown events, and serve as an additional set of eyes and ears for LRPD.
Under the headline "crime and brand awareness," the master plan notes: "It is recommended that LRCVB take a supporting role to further conversations about crime and its impacts on the destination's brand appeal. This will be accomplished in parallel with the new community engagement effort, with a concerted focus on the impacts of crime and perceived safety issues.
"It is recommended that LRCVB evolve its action plan and engagement with local law enforcement while gaining industry insight on additional actions that can be taken as new information becomes available. In addition to tackling the issues of crime, it is recommended that LRCVB leverage its marketing and public relations efforts to tell positive stories where the community is aligned and incorporate factual data when applicable."
The above two paragraphs are written in what I call "consultantese."
Here's my version in plain English: "LRCVB must demand that the mayor and city directors make filling the dozens of LRPD vacancies the highest priority for city government. Once the vacancies are filled, LRPD will have enough officers to assign a number of them to walk beats downtown. These officers will work with the expanded corps of ambassadors to ensure the safety of those who work and visit downtown. They also will be able to address the epidemic of aggressive panhandling that stunts downtown's growth."
LRCVB can spend millions of dollars on facility improvements in downtown Little Rock, and it won't matter if people don't feel safe. In post-pandemic America, for a neighborhood to thrive, it must feel safe, clean and fun.
Back to the consultant: "While there is a need to address the actual issues of crime and safety, allowing the negativity to continue in headlines only bolsters perception issues. Stakeholders felt strongly that Little Rock has too much to offer to be brought down by crime statistics that do not penetrate the tourism districts.
"It is recommended that LRCVB engage in a public relations campaign to lift the positive perception of the destination and lessen the impact of the crime and safety issues that are perpetuated."
I'm reminded of the "Pine Bluff Loves People" public relations campaign from many years ago. Remember that? The bumper stickers looked good, but the public's reaction across the state went something like this: "I'm glad you love me, but I'm not visiting you if I believe I might get shot."
While I found much in the master plan to like, I must vehemently disagree with the consultant at this point. The last thing the state's largest city needs in 2023 is a public relations campaign. The first thing it needs is a commitment to hiring those dozens of additional police officers. We don't need television and radio ads. We need actual officers on the streets to ensure folks elsewhere that the capital city is a safe place to shop, eat in restaurants, attend concerts, visit the doctor, etc.
People also need to see crews removing graffiti, picking up trash and mowing the grass. I travel Arkansas every week. I can assure Little Rock leaders that their city has a severe image problem in places like Smackover, Stuttgart and Springdale. It's one that won't be solved by a public relations campaign. It will only be solved by action. In that sense, the little things have become the big thing.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.