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ROGERS -- Given the weather--it's raining hard and it's chilly--I'm pleasantly surprised at the size of the crowd. It's a Friday at lunch, and I'm speaking to the Rogers Chamber of Commerce.

Two members of the Arkansas Highway Commission are in attendance. So are several of the lobbyists I see regularly at the state Capitol back in Little Rock. I've been asked to speak on the coming elections in a year when there are no interesting statewide races outside of the ballot issues concerning minimum wage, voter ID and casinos. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is on cruise control along with the other Republicans running for statewide office. The results of the congressional races also appear to be a foregone conclusion.

I say this to a room filled with northwest Arkansas movers and shakers: "The most important race in Arkansas right now is the race for mayor of Little Rock. I never thought I would see the day when a mayor's race would receive more media attention than a governor's race."

I can see heads nodding in agreement. These folks understand that the booming northwest Arkansas economy can't carry Arkansas by itself at a time when almost two-thirds of the state is losing population. For this state to succeed, its largest city must be strong economically. After the speech, several people tell me that they have contributed funds to the Little Rock race even though they live in northwest Arkansas. They get it.

One of three candidates--Baker Kurrus, Warwick Sabin, or Frank Scott--will be the next mayor of Little Rock. They're all smart, articulate and committed to the city's future. Little Rock voters are fortunate. Here's what I would like to see each of the three leading candidates say: "If I'm elected mayor, I'll ask the other two to serve as advisers. We need their ideas and energy."

Another thing that's needed for Little Rock to achieve its potential is for the mayor to study cities in the region that have thrived--Austin, Nashville, Chattanooga and Oklahoma City immediately come to mind--and see what ideas can be borrowed from those places.

I was sitting in my hotel room on a recent Sunday morning after having broadcast a college football game in Oklahoma the previous day. A public affairs show on KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City was playing in the background when I heard the voice of Mick Cornett, a former mayor of Oklahoma City. I began paying attention.

I've used quotes before from Cornett's book The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros, which he wrote with the assistance of Jayson White of the University of Virginia. It should be required reading for Kurrus, Sabin and Scott.

"We need federal and state policies that encourage local leadership," Cornett writes. "We need more investors like J.D. Vance and Steve Case to take a real look at the technology and talent that our nation's smaller cities are producing. Cities like mine can't reach their full potential without ideas and investment from the outside. But the biggest changes have to come from within.

"During my decade and a half as mayor, I visited dozens of mayors and cities. On those trips, I started noticing these changes in their earliest stages. The most ambitious projects, the most innovative companies, the most exciting changes and the most inspiring leaders were showing up in the 'middles' in our country more often than at the tops. At the local level, the way to accelerate these positive changes in our dynamic mid-sized cities is to invest in what I call the four hidden middles of American life."

According to Cornett, those middles are:

• Smaller cities of outsized accomplishment.

• Midsize companies that are growing "at an incredible clip in an age when teams of 20 can build a company that takes on the world."

• The country's middle class. Cornett writes: "While they are often out of the spotlight, they still form the backbone of our economy and the foundation of our future. Millions of families have already made their move, but millions more can now find the life and work they seek in smaller, more affordable places."

• Pragmatic, productive middle-of-the-aisle politics "that is getting things done in smaller cities like my own and raising standards for millions of public servants at the local level."

The reason I feel good about this election is because the three leading candidates have the ability to build coalitions that cross racial and party lines. Cornett sees the glass as half full for cities the size of Little Rock.

"The ability of smaller cities to compete on a global stage is stronger now than ever," he says. "The point is this: What unites these cities . . . is that they have generated the power to create an energetic urban lifestyle at a price that New York and San Francisco just can't compete with. It is entirely possible to create a truly innovative company with a truly global reach that attracts world-class talent in a place far away from the country's cultural and economic capitals. Walkable, bikable communities are springing up in the most surprising places. And talented professionals in their 20s and 30s are investing in urban-minded communities where they know they can get in on the ground floor.

"For many companies, there is a distinct advantage in working away from the spotlight. In these emerging mid-market dynamos like Chattanooga, Provo or Boise, you are in a place where your ideas can truly take flight, and yet you have the time and space to allow your personal life to soar. These cities are plenty big for ambitious ideas to scale, yet small enough to embrace change and act fast when the moment is right. This increase in the number of epicenters of American innovation is a vital step toward recovering our country's international greatness and reigniting the American Dream. While the federal government seems increasingly incapable of addressing these existential concerns, our mid-sized metros that put progress above party and engage citizens from all walks of life still can."

Putting progress above party and engaging folks from all walks of life are the keys to the capital city achieving its potential. Regardless of where you live in Arkansas, pay close attention to the mayor's race in Little Rock. As those folks in Rogers understand, it's important for all of us.


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

Editorial on 10/28/2018

Print Headline: Little Rock matters

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  • Architect
    October 28, 2018 at 12:20 p.m.

    Excellent article, and right on point, as always Rex! Little Rock truly can be one of the next great American cities.

  • GeneralMac
    October 28, 2018 at 3:16 p.m.

    If they get their sky high embarrassing crime rate lowered.

  • MaxCady
    October 28, 2018 at 4:56 p.m.

    Not in this lifetime!

  • RBear
    October 29, 2018 at 6:40 a.m.

    Great column, Rex. It shows how important this mayoral race is. There are many positive opportunities for Little Rock once leadership changes. One thing that bothers me is that only one of the serious candidates, Baker Kurrus, believes the current board structure is acceptable AND believes in keeping the city manager. In other words, it's more of the same instead of bold leadership of change. Some voters in Little Rock don't understand that. Kurrus is doing so to garner support from current board members, several of which have signed on in support of him.
    Only Sabin and Scott are focused on the type of innovative change necessary for Little Rock to thrive. Both have promoted new ideas for the city, starting with the elimination of the city manager who has been all but ineffective the past decade. It also means removing the at-large directors who have taken their "final resting place" in politics on the Little Rock board, with tenures over 20 years.
    For all Kurrus' "knowledge" of running a company, he doesn't really understand municipal government that well and would do well to study a few thriving cities like Austin, San Antonio, or Oklahoma City. Instead, Kurrus wants to run things like the auto dealerships or his farm. However, a city has much deeper dynamics than that. His short tenure as head of the LRSD was great from a volunteer perspective, but it didn't give him the experience he needs for mayor even though he'll be sure to pound that in your head.