I'm taking part these days in a series of luncheons during which Little Rock residents discuss the future of the state's largest city. These are off-the-record events, so I won't list any of the participants or quote anyone directly. But there's an emerging consensus with which I wholeheartedly agree: Little Rock needs to become more of a college town.
The capital city has never fully taken advantage of its institutions of higher education--the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Pulaski Technical College (which has campuses in both North Little Rock and Little Rock), Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College. As historically black institutions, Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist will play a key role in building the black middle class in the city. They're too often left out of the conversation, and that must stop.
As research institutions, UALR and UAMS will have a lot to do with how well the central Arkansas economy performs in the years ahead. If there's significant job growth in Little Rock during the next several decades, it likely won't be because the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce convinced large companies to move their corporate headquarters here.
Don't get me wrong. I respect this state's economic developers. Take a look, though, at the state's top companies: Walmart, J.B. Hunt, Tyson Foods, Murphy Oil, Dillard's, etc. None of them came here from somewhere else because of tax incentives. They're all homegrown firms. If there's job growth in Little Rock, it will be because smart entrepreneurs have figured out how to monetize research being done at UAMS and UALR.
UALR sent out a news release a few months ago that began this way: "The University of Arkansas at Little Rock collaborates with many diverse partners, from NASA to the U.S. Navy to the National Park Service. However, two of its latest partners break the mold: a young alpaca and a rodeo cow, both of whom have a new lease on life thanks to technology developed by the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences at UA Little Rock and researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. This technology, the NuCress scaffold, is a nanomaterial-based bone regeneration device pioneered by UA Little Rock's Dr. Alexandru S. Biris, a systems engineering professor, the Roy and Christine Sturgis Charitable Trust Nanotechnology chair and director of the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences. . . . Supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, the NuCress scaffold is showing great promise in preliminary studies. But this year it has moved out of the lab and into the field, restoring two severely injured animals to full health."
I don't pretend to be smart enough to understand what it is that Biris is doing. I do know enough to realize that this is exactly the kind of research that could move the central Arkansas economy forward once it's monetized. As one UALR administrator told me: "Though the goal of the research is treatment for human injuries, the long Food & Drug Administration road to commercialization is shorter for animals than for human subjects. There's potentially a big market for animals such as thoroughbred horses, prize breeding stock and beloved pets. The scaffold has enabled better healing of broken bones in some experiments than in any previous therapies. It's exciting stuff. And it's happening right here in Little Rock."
UALR began as Little Rock Junior College in 1927 with classes held at Little Rock High School (now Little Rock Central). It became Little Rock University in 1957 and moved to its current location on South University Avenue. In 1927, former Gov. George Donaghey and his wife Louvenia Wallace Donaghey created a foundation to support the school. The former governor donated the Donaghey Building on Main Street to the foundation and gave additional properties to the foundation in 1937. Donaghey, who's consistently ranked by historians as one of the state's best governors, wrote: "I was convinced that no greater field for educational development exists anywhere than can be found right here in Little Rock."
The school joined the University of Arkansas System in 1969. In recent decades UALR has been hurt by its location. Little Rock's growth has been to the west rather than to the south. UALR officials took a leading role in creating what's known as the University District Partnership. Its goal is to improve the communities surrounding the school. Andrew Rogerson, the UALR chancellor, understands that the partnership must now take things to the next level. There must be a coordinated effort between UALR, UAMS, city government, state government and the business sector to improve neighborhoods surrounding the two institutions.
This should include the city making War Memorial Park more of an attraction and the state improving War Memorial Stadium. There also must be an extensive effort to rehabilitate the housing stock in those neighborhoods. Add to the wish list better utilization of commercial properties owned by UALR.
Rogerson dreams of a neighborhood filled with craft breweries, art galleries, bookstores and the like. He wants to see young couples buying houses near the campus and renovating them rather than living in apartments in west Little Rock. He's amazed that the pace of renovation in the University District hasn't already accelerated. Whenever I drive down Fair Park Boulevard, one of my favorite streets in the city with its canopy of trees, I wonder why I don't see more renovations taking place. It's time for the business sector to team up with UAMS and UALR to make Little Rock a college town. Those institutions own a lot of land, and public-private partnerships are a must to foster growth in the University District.
How do we incentivize the movement of people to neighborhoods that traditionally have been seen as less desirable parts of the city in which to live? I hope that's a subject of discussion at future luncheons.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 04/15/2018