A week ago, I asked a question in this column: Do talented young people across the state still want to move to Little Rock? Having grown up and attended college in Arkadelphia, I couldn't wait to move to Little Rock at age 22 in 1981.
I travel this state a great deal to speak and gather column material. The subject of the state's largest city--where I've lived since returning to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989--often comes up. I can tell you that more and more people view Little Rock as a stagnant city, a place that's simply unable to overcome its high crime rates and the problems with its public schools.
Those of us who work downtown have witnessed the amazing transformation that has taken place in this neighborhood during the past two decades. With a few more pieces, downtown Little Rock truly will be one of the most attractive places in this part of the country for entrepreneurs to live and work. But what's the perception out there? Are the best and brightest across Arkansas still excited to move to the capital city once they finish college?
"The answer in my view is a resounding no," wrote one reader. "My son is a senior at Arkansas State. He wants to stay in Jonesboro when he graduates and is already trying to find a job there. His second choice is Northwest Arkansas. He uses words like 'energy' and 'attitude' to describe those areas. It's hard to clearly define what makes those areas different. But as Justice Potter Stewart once said about obscenity, 'I know it when I see it.' My son equates Little Rock with crime, regression and unimaginative leadership. There's no vision. Even when they try, they fail. ... The capital city should be more. It should be a place where young, wide-eyed professionals want to be. It's just not."
My thoughts about Little Rock were spurred by the recent suspension of operations at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. That announcement fueled the perception on the part of many across this state that Little Rock is a city in decline. One veteran educator wrote to say that he has "fought the urge to make the budget work by eliminating theater, art and music programs simply because they're indicators that we're indeed a civilized society. Without a soaring trajectory for the heart, the soul will never follow."
By all means, let's save The Rep. Let's also use its crisis as the launching pad for a conversation about the trajectory of the city. Arkansans in all 75 counties do better when the capital city is doing well. To paraphrase an old saying, "When Little Rock sneezes, Arkansas catches a cold." That remains true despite the economic boom in Northwest Arkansas. With large parts of south and east Arkansas bleeding population, we simply must have both Northwest Arkansas and the Little Rock metropolitan area doing well.
Looking at the comments posted on this newspaper's website after last week's column ran, there was what I call the standard "angry old west Little Rock white man" response. It said that I have the same "myopic view that has helped make this city what it is today." Let me state for the record that I'm a lot closer to age 60 than I am 50. I live as far west in Little Rock as you can get. Yet I understand that the future of the city will be defined by its ability to attract talented people. And folks with talent increasingly want the urban vibe that can only be found downtown. Leaders of the past can whine all they want while drinking at the big round tables in the men's grill at their country clubs. They would be better served by understanding what the leaders of the future desire.
I've not made a decision who I'll vote for in what's shaping up to be a heated race for mayor of Little Rock. Yet I'm hopeful that it will spur this needed discussion. Given the current situation, it's among the most important political races in the state's history. Yes, you read that correctly--the state's history.
My favorite piece of correspondence came from a recent graduate of the MBA program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. This person grew up in a town of about 10,000 people an hour from Little Rock. Here's part of what he had to say: "I never saw myself living in Little Rock in any version of my future. ... I fell into the 'Northwest Arkansas is superior to the 501' trap in my formative, early college days. I wanted nothing more than to live in Fayetteville for the rest of my life. However, as I began spending more time in the capital city because of my significant other, I began to see things differently. As it never fails to do, traveling to a place and spending time with its people have a way of sharpening perspectives.
"The drives I took showed me that Little Rock has slices of prestige and wealth with staying power. My time spent at restaurants in Riverdale and downtown showed me Little Rock's food scene is second to none in the state (although Bentonville is encroaching). Having coffee and drinks in the Heights and Hillcrest showed me there are bright young people who crave millennial amenities."
So what's needed? This 25-year-old wrote: "More restaurants, more coffee shops, more breweries, more juice shops, more bike trails, more urban domiciles, more farmers markets. And above all else a feeling of safety so we can enjoy these places. There aren't many people my age who believe that Little Rock has much of this. That perception desperately needs to change. I love this state with all my heart. I crave an improved national perception because I've seen the bright minds this state produces."
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.
Editorial on 05/09/2018
Print Headline: The stagnant city