Frank Scott Jr., who was elected Little Rock's mayor earlier this month, has a lot going for him.
He's young (35), which should inspire other young people to become involved in efforts to advance the city. He's the first popularly elected black mayor, which should help increase trust in Little Rock City Hall among the residents of predominantly black neighborhoods. He's a banker and has built strong relationships in recent years with some of the city's business leaders. There are tremendous opportunities for Scott. There also are daunting challenges.
I became impressed with Scott when he was on the staff of Gov. Mike Beebe. When Beebe, whose judgment I usually trusted, felt confident enough to appoint Scott to the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission, that told me all I needed to know. I was president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges & Universities (the organization that represents the state's 11 private four-year institutions of higher education), and I asked Scott to serve on the AICU board. To his credit, he wanted to learn more about our organization before he accepted my offer.
Scott approached his campaign the same way--constantly asking questions, always learning. Now it's time to put what he has learned to good use. The 58 percent of the vote Scott attracted against Baker Kurrus can be considered a mandate. In other words, Scott has political capital. Decades of being involved in politics have taught me that the best time to put such capital to work is during the first year in office. The longer a person serves, the more people he or she makes mad. One must act quickly.
It's the morning after the Dec. 4 runoff election, and I'm having coffee at Blue Sail on Main Street in downtown Little Rock with real estate developer David Robinson. Blue Sail is the sort of hip spot in which you would expect to see a young professional like Scott (though I've always had more luck finding him having dinner down the street at Copper Grill). Robinson and I are talking about the doughnut hole in Little Rock, the neighborhoods in the center of the city with empty homes and lots. Scott and his opponents discussed ways to spur infill development--both residential and commercial--while on the campaign trail.
Following a series of columns about the future of Little Rock, I've heard from a number of people who are deeply concerned about this issue.
"The ever-expanding westward push will result in a breaking point for delivering services such as water, sewer, fire and police protection," wrote one developer whose expertise I've long relied on when writing about Little Rock. "I'm glad we're looking into this as a city. We need density. We're sitting on thousands of empty lots in the city's core. Most of these lots already have services, unlike new communities out west. But the response of those at City Hall to these issues has too often been to simply sit and wait for further instructions. The city must start using the tools it has at its disposal to prod property owners to do more than warehouse properties and wait for better offers. You have cases in environmental court that drag on for 12 or more years. Owners of these lots never respond, and the city figures it's easier to just let it go."
Robinson estimates that there are almost 9,000 of what he refers to as "weed lots" inside the city limits. Most are in neighborhoods with utilities and services already in place.
"We have to figure out a way to develop these neighborhoods," Robinson says. "We're also bleeding talent as smart people go elsewhere. These should be the people revitalizing the neighborhoods in the city's core. Frank is savvy enough to capitalize on these people's talents and put them to work so they won't leave."
One idea I've heard discussed is for the city to use its power of foreclosure more often on properties that have liens on them. Robinson calls foreclosure "a purifying act. It clears the title. You now know who owns the property. The city owns it. You're talking about protecting the property tax base. When codes aren't enforced and negligent property owners take advantage of that, the property tax base erodes. That's what we've seen happen in Little Rock."
Another idea being discussed is a revolving loan fund that would help homeowners improve houses. Such a fund would be means-tested and geared toward the neighborhoods that need it most.
Scott and other city leaders also must be at the state Capitol in January to lobby legislators to lower the threshold for state rehabilitation tax credits for those restoring old homes. The minimum investment to claim credits should drop from $25,000 to $5,000.
Next, Scott can lead the way in reinvigorating the Little Rock Land Bank Commission. According to the city's website, the commission's mission is "to reverse blight, increase home ownership and stability of property values, provide affordable housing, improve the health and safety of neighborhoods within the city of Little Rock and maintain the architectural fabric of the community through the study, acquisition and disposition of vacant, abandoned, tax delinquent and city lien property while collaborating with citizens, neighborhoods, developers, nonprofit organizations and other governmental agencies."
One former member of the commission told me: "It all sounds really good on paper, but not much has happened since it was formed. We shouldn't give up, however. We should push aggressively for redevelopment so we will have pockets of new housing. This will require hard decisions such as increased police patrols."
One final piece of advice for Scott: Solicit the assistance of Dr. Andrew Rogerson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Both understand the need to revitalize neighborhoods that surround their campuses.
In other cities across the country, the category known as "eds and meds" has led to explosive growth and the retention of talented young people. Little Rock has never fully capitalized on UALR and UAMS as engines of growth. Little Rock's leaders have never made the case to the governor and legislators that these institutions must be better funded. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, Little Rock will only be as strong as UALR, UAMS and the surrounding neighborhoods in the years ahead.
"Go west" can no longer be the motto in the capital city. It's time to fill the doughnut hole.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 12/16/2018
Print Headline: REX NELSON: The doughnut hole