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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

Editorial on 05/09/2018

Print Headline: The stagnant city

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  • BigA
    May 9, 2018 at 8:55 a.m.

    My grandchildren aren't in school today... they told their parents, their teachers said "nothing is going on at school today". So, their Mom and Dad aren't making them go to school today... There are no Bibles in the rooms in the Holiday Inn West hotel; the hotel located near Arkansas Baptist Hospital, the Arkansas Heart Hospital, a Behavioral Health Clinic, an Abortion Clinic, and the Little Rock Funeral Home. Remove the expectation of personal growth, learning and hope from a city. What do you expect to happen now and the future? The reason for stagnation and apathy is us.

  • condoleezza
    May 9, 2018 at 9:25 a.m.

    Big A. What do bibles in a hotel have to do with personal growth or the state of Little Rock? Also, many of us who live in the city are not stagnant or apathetic at all! We are working on ways to help LR thrive and to help outsiders see the city for what it is now, not 20 years ago. Check out SOMA, River Market, Hillcrest, etc. There is a LOT going on. I hope we can save the REP and finally finish up the endless construction on Main Street because good things are coming. One more thing: no offence, but I do not believe your grandkids' teachers said any such thing. I know far too many actual teachers to believe such nonsense. And if they are not in school, there is something profoundly wrong with the parents.

  • HenryP
    May 9, 2018 at 9:45 a.m.

    What's needed? New leadership will help.....

  • MaxCady
    May 9, 2018 at 9:52 a.m.

    Being the fourth most dangerous city in the nation doesn't help.

  • Dontsufferfools
    May 9, 2018 at 10:03 a.m.

    I thought Rex was the traveling barbecue joint reviewer for the state, why is he raging at Little Rock with this city is too violent, the schools can't teach, and the good folks are scared and moving to Cabot screed. Heard it before, Rex, you're late to the party. You want to break the poverty cycle that that's feeding the gangs, petty crime and sapping the schools, it's going to take an effort that Rex and his GOP cronies aren't really interested in. The governor, which the newspaper just endorsed, is more interested in $100 million tax cuts than starting a difference-making policy revolution.

  • GeneralMac
    May 9, 2018 at 10:04 a.m.

    Many people, young and old, will want to learn a little about a city they are considering moving to.

    Many will type in.........Little Rock Arkansas..detailed profile.
    Here is what they will discover....

    median household income. LR..........$45,605
    median household income ar.....$44,334

    median price of home LR.........$161,000
    median price of home AR.........$123,000

    % of Blacks.........42%

    crime rate.........United States ..281
    crime rate........Little Rock......748

    If young people can choose anywhere to move to, will those statistics impress them or disappoint them ?

  • GeneralMac
    May 9, 2018 at 10:09 a.m.

    Little Rock has a lot of similarity to Birmingham Alabama and Jackson MS.

    All 3 are in the south, similar in population have lots of crime, and a DEMOCRAT as mayor.

  • PopMom
    May 9, 2018 at 11:25 a.m.

    Young single people may care more about bike paths and cool looking bars and restaurants. Once they get married and have kids, they are looking at crime levels and quality of schools. Bloomberg knew that those were the two most important factors in fixing New York. Improve the schools and crack down on crime. Make the kids go to school and stop and frisk them and throw them into jail if they don't.

  • BigA
    May 9, 2018 at 11:49 a.m.

    Doggod. For a self-proclaimed poet, I can’t believe you can’t read between the lines… You asked, “What do bibles in a hotel have to do with personal growth or the state of Little Rock?” My answer: The Bible is all about personal growth; it is the instructions for living well… a gift from God. Removing them from rooms are the acts of people whose goal is to remove hope and the ideas that promote working for something bigger and more important than ourselves.
    You want to save the REP; start in the lobby. The last time I was there I found “art” so vulgar and offensive I never went back and never took my children there… although they have visited many other theaters, some, unfortunately, just as bad. If the REP thinks it’s audience is impressed by vulgar and offensive language, then that is the audience they should expect their support from… The REP is located in a large city in the BIBLE belt… my experience and education is all about business and leadership. If I were lining up shows, the shows would cater to the folks, with money, that live here. They would be shows that these same people could unapologetically tell their friends about; especially in church.
    There is no offence taken… I know how my kids were raised and I know the teachers did not say anything like what was reported to me… I have a wife that is a teacher… some of my kids are public school teachers. The problem isn’t with the kids. It is the expectation the kids have about school. The expectation that “what they can learn EACH DAY is important” is broken. It is the responsibility of the parents and the teachers to change our school policies and attitudes that do not enhance the expectation of learning each day, in every grade and every classroom for every child. Hence the problem is us.

  • drs01
    May 9, 2018 at 12:20 p.m.

    Now you want young folks to choose Little Rock as their place to live. You cite our revitalized downtown as the magnet to attract them. But you ignore the major reason we ARE a stagnant city. Our school system has done more to drive people OUT of this city and will keep them from coming back. Our school system is the reason we have no private industry growth. There has to be more to a city than bars, bike trails, restaurants. For over twenty years our so-called city leadership of retread politicians have ignored the problems at the LRSD and watched them waste away over $1 billion.
    Fix the schools and you fix crime, attract private businesses and remove that stagnant label we have so richly earned over the years.