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What's now Metroplan was known as the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission of Pulaski County when it was formed in 1955. The association of local governments has members in five counties in central Arkansas (Pulaski, Faulkner, Lonoke, Saline and Grant) and is the designated metropolitan planning organization for the area.

If that dry government information turns you off, don't stop reading just yet. Tab Townsell wants you to know that there's more to Metroplan than transportation planning these days--much more.

Townsell served for 18 years as mayor of Conway. It was a period of rapid growth. He was chosen in late 2016 to head Metroplan. He had been on the Metroplan board since becoming Conway's mayor in January 1999.

Those years on the board convinced Townsell that Metroplan could, to a certain extent, play the role for central Arkansas that the Northwest Arkansas Council has played in that corner of the state. Rather than just talking about roads, Metroplan could become involved in economic development and quality-of-life issues.

During lunch at the Little Rock Club high atop Regions Bank Building in downtown Little Rock, Townsell told me: "The individual city and county jurisdictions are a bit isolated in central Arkansas. As mayor, I never really thought about how disconnected and disjointed we are. It's the nature of the beast. But we have to recognize that we're one region. That requires a collective approach to solving problems."

Like me, Townsell believes that both northwest Arkansas and central Arkansas must have strong economic growth if the state is to prosper at a time when most of its rural counties are losing population.

"I'm an optimist about the future of central Arkansas or I wouldn't be here," he said. "We just have to understand that we're in this together. That goes for state legislators, mayors, county judges, the folks at the Arkansas Department of Transportation and others."

Townsell graduated from Conway High School in 1979 and from the University of Central Arkansas in 1984 with a major in political science and a minor in economics. He earned a master's of business administration from Texas Christian University in 1986. Having served as president of the Student Government Association at UCA, he thought he would run for Congress one day. He never made that congressional race. After earning his MBA at TCU, Townsell moved to Germantown, Tenn., to work with his father in the construction business.

According to a feature article on Townsell in UCA's campus magazine: "He took notice of the architecture and the growth planning. He returned to Conway and became a member of the Conway Planning Commission because he wanted to employ some of the ideas he had seen."

"Build a good place to live and the rest will fall in succession," he told the magazine. "If you make it a good place to live, population growth will drive commercial growth. They'll come here to sell to the rooftops and serve food to the rooftops. We have a canvas in front of us, and it's called the future. We can choose to paint on that canvas anything we want."

Conway's population has soared from 28,767 in 1990 to about 66,000 residents these days. Townsell said the growth had as much to do with quality-of-life enhancements such as parks, trails and downtown development as it did old-line industrial development mainstays such as roads and water and sewer lines.

"Parks have been a key component of providing that quality of place," Townsell said. "The quality of life made an impression the first time Hewlett-Packard rolled into town. They remarked how vital our downtown was."

Now that he heads a regional organization, Townsell preaches the gospel of getting away from the idea of Little Rock vs. its white flight-fueled surrounding counties.

"Little Rock is all of us, and we have to recognize that," he said. "And it goes both ways."

Townsell realizes that the state's largest city must be vibrant for central Arkansas to prosper. Twice a year, Metroplan puts out a publication known as Metrotrends. The most recent edition estimates that Little Rock and Pulaski County have lost population since last year.

"Metroplan's 2019 population estimates come with the warning that any estimates nine years past the latest census are subject to a larger error factor than those made early in the decade," the publication states. "In a never-ending effort to get it right, we adjusted the population of Little Rock downward based on the latest information coming from the U.S. Census Bureau. Little Rock is now shown below 200,000, and this adjustment also pulls down the Pulaski County total from almost 399,000 in last year's estimate to the vicinity of 396,000 today."

Frank Scott Jr., Little Rock's new mayor, talks about the capital city "getting its swagger back." Scott could learn a lot by listening to Townsell.

"As they tell you when you're canoeing, you can't control where you go in the rapids unless your canoe is traveling faster than the water," Townsell said. "In municipal policy, controlling your destiny means investing in your city. A city has to be creating and re-creating itself faster than the events transpiring in and around that city. Public investment, its corresponding public-investment-induced private investment and spontaneous private investment must be winding up a city's image faster than time and events are unwinding the previous perception."

The current edition of Metrotrends reflects Townsell's focus on quality-of-life issues.

In an article titled "The logic of trail-oriented development," the publication states: "Small, strategic public investments can sometimes yield profound results. Building trails and sidewalks is a form of public expenditure that enhances the local sense of place at relatively low cost. Far more expensive highway investments rarely do. For example, when the Arkansas Department of Transportation proposed the Interstate 30 widening in mid-decade, it estimated the cost at $630.7 million.

"By comparison, the biggest pedestrian project yet done in central Arkansas, the Big Dam Bridge, cost about $12.5 million. The Big Dam Bridge connected the western loop of the Arkansas River Trail, brought national media attention and gave the region claim to the longest purpose-built, dedicated pedestrian bridge in the world.

"The idea behind trail-oriented development is that well-connected pedestrian and bike-friendly places are popular and draw tourists, as well as businesses and residential development. Trail-oriented developments are often located in and near city centers, universities and older inner-suburban neighborhoods.

"Pedestrian infrastructure investments in cities as different as Dallas, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City and San Francisco have all shown a correlation with climbing property values. Several U.S. metro areas have seen a revolution in trail-oriented development in recent years, boosted by new demographics and changing consumer tastes. Such developments are often advanced via public-private partnerships.

"The Atlanta Beltline and the Razorback Greenway in northwest Arkansas are examples where trails are leveraging major private investments in housing and businesses. It's a nice idea, but what's all this got to do with the Little Rock region? More than you think has gone on already, and the opportunities for future trail- development are almost limitless."

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

Editorial on 09/15/2019

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