Let's put a forward spin on the runoff election for Little Rock mayor that's coming Dec. 4. We know that the capital city operates under a board of directors/city manager form of government, a combination of elected officials and an appointed manager (that would be Bruce Moore, who's held the position since 2002) along with an elected mayor whose power is mostly dependent on the approval of a majority of those city directors.
To hear the candidates touting their attributes over the last few months, you'd think the office was the sole engine of progress around here. Not true. Our mayor is more like the front man--positioned to be the face and the voice of the city. And his support of proposals to improve Little Rock can go a long way toward making things happen.
To that end, everybody politicked on the idea of making Little Rock more appealing to visitors and prospective residents. A recent visit to Savannah, Ga., to attend the Savannah Film Festival and snoop around one of the South's most attractive and resourceful cities generated some ideas to achieve that goal.
Let's start with the 15-gate Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, where many visitors get their first impressions. New arrivals walk into a broad concourse, bright with natural light from long stretches of skylights. Colorful digital kiosks tout area attractions. Comfortable seating at countertops loaded with electrical outlets and USB ports are located at regular intervals. There are lots of restaurants, from Starbucks to PGA Grill to local specialties like Leopold's Ice Cream. A lively little flip-flop shop sells beachy wares in service of nearby Tybee Island and other oceanfront property.
Volunteers greet everybody walking toward the exits while handing them maps to the city. The route out of the airport leads into the attractive suburb of Pooler (a shopping mecca with a huge Tanger Outlet complex and about a million other stores and restaurants). Signage guides visitors to where they want to go.
Although the Savannah airport is close in size to Little Rock's Clinton National Airport, you won't confuse the two. There are no posters in Savannah picturing stolid airport commissioners. No weary years-old displays touting politicians from the past. No furniture-store advertising that has been hanging, unchanged, on the concourse wall for no telling how many years. No construction of a fast-food restaurant known for its insistence on being closed on Sundays, when many people travel.
If you are a traveler, where would you rather be?
Then there's downtown Savannah, a glamorous array of 18th- and 19th-century squares with magnificent historic houses everywhere (where people actually live), trees dripping with Spanish moss, one-way streets with stop signs at every corner, walking-tour guides, trolley tours, Broughton Street shopping with national stores like Gap, Banana Republic, H&M, L'Occitane, Urban Outfitters, and J. Crew, along with unique local boutiques, jewelry sellers, pet supply shops (Woof Gang bakeries have multiple locations) and gift and souvenir purveyors.
Brunches are big, with diners lined up at the doors on weekend mornings. Bars? Plenty, aided by the fact that alcohol is permitted in open drinks as long as those concoctions are held in plastic 16-ounce cups within the parameters of the city's Historic District. And liquor stores can be open on Sundays.
A free shuttle rambles around the Historic District seven days a week. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop down the streets. Bike rental stations are scattered around locations where people congregate.
Along with its historic significance, much of the city's energy and appeal comes from the presence of 10,000 smart, talented, energetic, creative, and ambitious students at prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design. Instead of being squirreled away in a dull corner of the city, SCAD's academic buildings, residence halls, professional buildings, venues, and eateries sprawl across the city. That means the energizing presence of SCAD students is everywhere, bringing youthful exuberance--and accessibility to reasonable prices at restaurants and retail--to visitors and residents.
The school interacts with the community through the likes of its annual film festival (which recently featured guest artists/master class participants such as John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Armie Hammer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Wes Anderson, John David Washington, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Julian Schnabel), art exhibits and sales, a writers' series, an improv workshop, a food truck festival, live theater, arts panel discussions, career fairs, and much more.
Everybody in Savannah knows about SCAD, which brags about how 99 percent of its students find employment or continue their education after graduating.
Where's the community outreach at UALR and other central Arkansas institutes of higher learning? Occasional concerts at Pulaski Tech, and on-campus art shows aside, our local colleges feel insulated from larger civic life.
This is not to say Savannah doesn't have problems. What city doesn't? But problems don't have to be front and center 24/7. Why not concentrate on celebrating our hometown by making it more appealing to visitors?
Why can't we have nice things? Outside of a few shops in the River Market, where's the retail? Why don't we have a grocery store downtown? How about a drugstore? Better signage? Free trolleys that take visitors where they want to go? Organized visits to gorgeous old neighborhoods and sites? Hobnobbing with artists and musicians and performers in public places?
Where's the sense of culture, of what makes us unique? Sure, we have the Clinton Presidential Center, Heifer Village, the Arkansas Arts Center, Robinson Center, Historic Arkansas Museum, Verizon Arena, and other attractions and venues. The River Market hosts an annual literary festival, and the Arkansas Cinema Society is off to a solid start. But between mainstream concerts and annual festivals, Little Rock mopes along, grumping about education, jobs, infrastructure, crime and public safety, and economic development. And sure, these gray issues are important, but how about prioritizing fun?
We ought to encourage our new mayor--whether it turns out to be Frank Scott Jr. or Baker Kurrus--to pay closer attention to quality of life. If we amplify our sense of place, if we capitalize on what makes Little Rock fun and fascinating, others will notice. And they'll want to be here. We'd love the company.
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.
Editorial on 11/25/2018
Print Headline: KAREN MARTIN: Lessons to learn from Savannah