As I wait at our table, I watch the front door of Soul Fish Cafe on Main Street in Little Rock as Mayor Frank Scott talks on his cell phone. The Soul Fish manager praises Scott's multitasking abilities.
"He can do more things at once than anyone I've ever seen," he says of Scott. "He was in here the other day talking on the phone, signing his credit card receipt and taking notes all at the same time."
As he sits down, Scott tells me that he's in his 106th day as mayor. Mark Stodola had spent the previous dozen years in the mayor's office. We're on a formerly desolate block of Main Street that soon will have six restaurants.
The biggest accomplishment of the 12-year Stodola era was the revitalization of downtown. Scott knows that continued downtown development is important, but he also understands that there are pressing needs elsewhere around a city where job and population growth have been relatively stagnant for a decade.
As someone who travels the state regularly, I tell Scott what he already knows: Little Rock has an image problem. It's viewed as a place that's dangerous. Little Rock must get back to being seen just as I perceived it as a boy growing up an hour away. I thought of Little Rock as an exciting place where the good restaurants and stores were located. It was where the best concerts, sports events and lectures took place. We watched Little Rock television stations, listened to Little Rock radio stations and read Little Rock newspapers. I couldn't wait to move to Little Rock as soon as I graduated from college.
"I'm not sure how to phrase this succinctly, but Little Rock must get back to that," I tell the mayor.
"We have to get our swagger back," Scott says.
That's it. Those are the words I wanted to use. Leave it to the 35-year-old black mayor to condense things for the 59-year-old decidedly unhip white columnist.
Scott, who grew up on one side of town and later worked as a banker on the opposite side of the city, understands that public safety is tied to economic development. It's why he has proposed adding 100 officers to the Little Rock Police Department during the next five years despite a tight budget. That likely will require staff reductions in every other city department. The tradeoff will be worth it.
An increased police presence is needed not only to reduce crime but also to do things like adding foot patrols to make visitors feel safe downtown. The LRPD must also bring a sense of order back to major traffic corridors where speeding, tailgating and stoplight running are rampant due to a lack of enforcement. Little Rock needs to be seen as a city where things work.
Before those of us who live in Little Rock get too hard on ourselves, it's important to put things in perspective by comparing Little Rock to Southern cities of similar size. Little Rock has grown from 177,000 residents in 1990 to about 200,000 today. During that same period, Jackson, Miss., fell from 197,000 to 167,000; Birmingham, Ala., fell from 265,000 to 210,000; and Shreveport, La., fell from 198,000 to 192,000.
Scott, however, wants Little Rock to compare itself to what's happening in cities such as Nashville and Oklahoma City rather than Jackson, Birmingham and Shreveport.
"We need to be an innovative, tech-centric city," he says. "We have emerging companies that are going to help us get there. This is also a city filled with talented people. We have to do a better job of keeping that talent here while bringing those who have left back to Little Rock."
Perception can become reality. Having a young high-profile mayor with a solid background in business and government can fuel the impression that Little Rock has its swagger back. If Scott and Keith Humphrey, the city's new police chief, can reduce the crime rate while also giving people that sense that Little Rock is a city under control, economic development will follow. After all, we're in an era of rapid urbanization in a traditionally rural state.
Scott, who led the search for the chief, has told Humphrey that he needs to build trust and personal relationships across the city.
"We're all a part of Little Rock no matter what neighborhood we call home," Scott says. "The chief and I will work together to make this a more inclusive city. Everybody has to feel welcome here. They need to feel that they have a role in what we're doing. When businesses that are considering relocating to Little Rock see that everyone is pulling in the same direction, it will help drive their decisions."
As I devour my fried catfish and Scott eats his salmon salad (those millennials are all about healthy eating), the mayor talks about the first time his phone rang in the middle of the night. LRPD officials were calling to tell him that there had been a homicide (there would be yet another of those middle-of-the night homicide calls after our lunch meeting Tuesday).
"That's when I knew that this was the real deal, that being mayor is a heavy responsibility," Scott says. "I get a call every time there's a homicide regardless of what time it is. Then, on my 53rd day as mayor, we had an officer-involved shooting. I watched the video of that incident as quickly as I could and made the decision to address the public. I ran on a platform of being accountable, clear and transparent. Those kinds of incidents require me to speak out."
Scott has been a hands-on mayor in other ways. Six of the city's 14 departments, including the police and fire departments, report directly to Scott rather than to City Manager Bruce Moore.
"As my grandfather would say, the first job of the mayor is to catch robbers, put out fires and pick up the trash," Scott says.
He says city employees have reacted well to the organizational changes he has instituted since Jan. 1.
"You can either accept, reject or deny change," he says. "Fortunately, everyone seems to be accepting the changes we're trying to make. The search for a police chief was an example of the way we want to do business. We held public forums with the finalists and put those on Facebook Live. We consulted as many groups as possible to ask them what they wanted to see in a new chief. We communicated."
Scott wants to partner with communities such as Benton, Bryant, Conway and Cabot to move central Arkansas forward rather than viewing them as white-flight enclaves.
"If we can create a true regional mentality, Little Rock will be the main beneficiary as people return to the city," he says. "If they see Little Rock as a place where public safety is a way of life, there's no reason the population can't go from 200,000 to 250,000 in the next 10 years. If we can get it right, we'll be a model for cities of this size across the country."
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 04/21/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: Getting the swagger back