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REX NELSON: Those ridiculous rankings

by Rex Nelson | July 22, 2018 at 1:49 a.m.

Another one of those silly lists came out recently, placing Arkansas' two largest cities among the 50 worst cities in America. These types of subjective rankings are designed to drive traffic to websites. The best thing business and civic leaders in Arkansas can do is to ignore them--both the positive and negative lists.

In Fort Smith, where folks have become used to Washington and Benton counties hogging the positive economic development headlines, the city's leaders remained sanguine. If anyone publicly took umbrage at being ranked as one of the 50 worst cities in the country, I missed it.

Little Rock, where residents still have a hard time getting used to the fact that the state's leading economic engine is in the northwest corner, is a different story. People from the mayor on down took the bait and attempted to defend the capital city's honor. Little Rock seems to be experiencing a bad case of existential angst these days, one that hopefully will be solved this fall by a heated mayor's race that will lead to a robust discussion of the city's future.

I can point to plenty of good things that are happening in Fort Smith and Little Rock. Both cities, for example, have historic downtowns that are ripe for redevelopment and are seeing new restaurants, entertainment venues and housing options. I expect downtown Fort Smith and downtown Little Rock to do well during the next decade.

As noted in this column on multiple occasions in recent weeks, Washington and Benton counties simply can't carry the state by themselves at a time when two-thirds of Arkansas is losing population. For Arkansas to do well overall, we must not only have northwest Arkansas continue to thrive. We also must have a healthy economy in Little Rock and Fort Smith (which, as the natives are quick to tell you, shouldn't be lumped in with northwest Arkansas; it's instead the capital of west Arkansas and parts of east Oklahoma).

I would heartily recommend that those interested in the future of Little Rock and Fort Smith take on the following reading assignment: Read a piece in the May issue of The Atlantic by James Fallows with the headline "Reinventing America." And then find the Thomas Friedman article that ran earlier this month in the New York Times. It's headlined "Where American Politics Can Still Work: From the Bottom Up."

We'll start with Fallows, the magazine's longtime national correspondent. He joined forces with his wife Deborah Fallows to write a book titled Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. They spent several years traveling the country and came back encouraged by what they saw.

"What we learned from traveling was not that the hardest American challenges of this era are illusory," James Fallows wrote. "They're very real, and divisions about national politics are intense. So we made a point of never asking, early on, 'How's Obama doing?' or later, 'Do you trust Hillary?' The answers to questions like those won't take you beyond what you've already heard ad nauseam on TV. Instead we asked people about their own lives and their own communities. Reporting is the process of learning what you didn't know before you showed up.

"And by showing up in Mississippi and Kansas and South Dakota and inland California and Rust Belt Pennsylvania, we saw repeated examples of what's happening in America's here and now that have important and under-appreciated implications for America's future. Serious as the era's problems are, more people, in more places, told us they felt hopeful about their ability to move circumstances the right way than you would ever guess from national news coverage of most political discourse."

The couple found that those places that are moving forward have a strong culture of civic engagement, take advantage of a sort of reverse brain drain in which talented young people are moving home from larger cities, have top-notch schools and quality library systems, attract manufacturing startups, focus on their downtowns, and believe in conservation.

Friedman focused on the revitalization of Lancaster, Pa., a town in the Amish country that I enjoyed visiting during the 1980s when I lived in Washington, D.C. Friedman was invited to Lancaster to give a book talk and "was so blown away by the societal innovation the town's leaders had employed to rebuild their once-struggling city and county that I decided to return with my reporter's notebook and interview them."

He discovered that a group of Lancaster residents had formed an organization known as Hourglass--as in "time is running out"--because they realized that "no cavalry was coming to save them, not from the state's capital or the nation's capital. They realized that the only way they could . . . re-energize the downtown was not with another dominant company, but by throwing partisan politics out the window and forming a complex adaptive coalition in which business leaders, educators, philanthropists, social innovators and the local government would work together to unleash entrepreneurship and forge whatever compromises were necessary to fix the city. Pretty much the exact opposite of what's happening in Washington, D.C., today."

Hourglass defined its mission as being a "trusted source for information, innovative ideas and insights that will help stakeholders, elected officials and voters make more informed and enlightened decisions."

Friedman wrote: "In these dark days of our national politics, these emerging coalitions are a real source of optimism for me." They consist of people who, according to Friedman, are "unwilling to let their hometown die a slow death" and are "fed up with weak municipal politicians." As one Lancaster resident told him: "Our first insight was that leadership matters."

"If it wasn't going to come from the politicians, then it would come from them--and it would be devoid of party politics," Friedman wrote.

There are powerful lessons in these stories for those who want to see Fort Smith and Little Rock reach their potential. People would be wise to read them and digest those lessons rather than responding to the next ridiculous ranking that comes down the pike.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 07/22/2018

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