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I can hear the excitement in Jane Rogers' voice as she shows me through the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden in downtown Little Rock. Rogers has been active for years in Sculpture at the River Market, a nonprofit organization that has placed almost 100 works of public art worth more than $4 million in the capital city. The sculpture garden on the banks of the Arkansas River, which is open to the public free of charge, features natural gardens and terraces.

A year ago, the city held a dedication ceremony for an expansion project that more than doubled the size of the sculpture garden. The design and landscaping, which were done by the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department, took about a year. A dozen sculptures were added. In addition to viewing those works of art, I'm here on this day to see the Margaret Clark Adventure Park, which was dedicated last month. It's adjacent to the sculpture garden and features areas for climbing, walking on balance beams and going through tunnels. There's even a stage on which children can put on shows.

Children visiting the park are greeted by Giuseppe Palumbo sculptures of twin sheep who go by the names of Bliss and Glee. The sheep are on stone pylons on either side of the entrance. There's also a sculpture of a hippopotamus by Tim Cherry. The play area was named in honor of Clark, who long has had an interest in the city's Riverfront Park. The wetlands park to the east was named for her late husband, Little Rock construction executive Bill Clark. The couple donated several sculptures through the years. Isabel and John Ed Anthony contributed funds for the Cherry sculpture. Members of the Junior League of Little Rock and Friends of Riverfest Inc. donated money for the Palumbo sculptures.

As I walk along what has become a beautiful, visitor-friendly riverfront, I think not only of these donors but also of heroes like Dr. Dean Kumpuris, the Little Rock city director who spends Saturdays working in Riverfront Park as if it were his own yard.

"We wanted kids to be able to use their imagination," Kumpuris says. "We didn't just want to have a park filled with equipment. We found kids loved Peabody Park, but it wasn't as fun for younger children because they were getting bowled over by older kids. Something like this would normally cost millions of dollars, but we aren't anywhere close to that. It's a pretty avant-garde park that nobody knows is there."

According to Scott Carter, a special projects administrator for the city, a fountain was replaced with a splash pad for small children, and a seldom-used stage known as Sunken Plaza was repurposed.

Carter says: "We started to ask, 'What can we do to maximize the land we have now?'"

A news story on the dedication of the adventure park ran on the same day last month as a story about how the Downtown Little Rock Partnership has expanded its ambassador program to the River Market District. That's as important as the things happening along the river. There are now four yellow-uniformed employees of the nonprofit partnership. They assist visitors and downtown workers. The first two ambassadors began work in 2017.

"We want people to know that this is probably the safest place in the entire city," Mayor Mark Stodola says of downtown.

In addition to assisting those walking the sidewalks, the ambassadors look for maintenance issues such as broken windows, streetlights that aren't working, and graffiti. There are positive things happening downtown, and it's due to the often unheralded efforts of dozens of people who donate money and time.

I think of the good things going on in downtown Little Rock while reading a column by David Brooks of The New York Times. Brooks recently was in Spartanburg, S.C., to visit the offices of an organization known as the Spartanburg Academic Movement.

Brooks writes: "Around the table was just about anybody in town who might touch a child's life. There were school superintendents and principals, but there were also heads of the chamber of commerce and the local United Way, the police chief, a former mayor and the newspaper editor. The people at SAM track everything they can measure about Spartanburg's young people from cradle to career. They gather everybody who might have any influence upon this data--parents, religious leaders, doctors, nutrition experts, etc. And then together, as a communitywide system, they ask questions. ... There are a lot of things I love about this approach."

Brooks goes on to write about the collective impact approach in which communities organize around common projects. He describes "an informal authority structure that transcends public-sector/private-sector lines, that rallies cops and churches, the grass roots and the grass tops. ... Such structures are now being used to address homelessness, hunger, river cleanup and many other social ills. Collective impact approaches have had their critics over the years, in part for putting too much emphasis on local elites and not enough on regular parents (which is fair). But a recent study led by Sarah Stachowiak and [Lauren Gase] of 25 collective impact initiatives found that these approaches do work, at least most of the time."

Little Rock is about to elect a new mayor. What if that mayor were to harness the energy downtown and expand it into a citywide collective impact structure? As Brooks notes, "Building working relationships across a community is an intrinsically good thing."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/27/2018

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Bliss and Glee downtown

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