Most Arkansans will join me in saying good riddance to 2020. Our fondest hope for 2021 is that the vaccines are a success. Let's pray that they're widely distributed by spring and that life is getting back to something that resembles normal by late summer.
Here are other things I would like to see happen in Arkansas in 2021:
• I would like to see Gov. Asa Hutchinson go big when it comes to providing leadership during the legislative session. Hutchinson has been a good governor. This final regular session of his eight-year tenure will determine if he's a transformational governor or merely a transactional governor.
He can be transformational by finally focusing on higher education. We've starved higher education for years, and the effects are now being felt in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. We must have a larger percentage of our population with either associate's degrees from the state's 22 two-year schools or bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and even doctorates from Arkansas' four-year colleges and universities.
Per capita income isn't going to increase dramatically until that happens. The Legislature won't do this on its own. It will take the leadership of a popular governor. Are you up to the task, Gov. Hutchinson?
• I would like to see the Legislature put a focus on keeping this state's streams--one of our greatest selling points when it comes to attracting highly educated residents--clean. We've ignored these natural treasures for too long. It's time for a permanent moratorium on commercial hog operations in the Buffalo River watershed.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission has a program called Stream Teams that can create an army of volunteers who will adopt creeks, rivers and bayous across the state. In a place that refers to itself as the Natural State, this program should be the strongest of its type in the country. Legislators should make a special appropriation above and beyond AGFC's regular budget for that purpose.
• I would like to see those who are running for governor in 2022 make clear that they'll govern the state in the moderate, pragmatic style to which we've become accustomed. From 1940-60, Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population than any other state. Since the late 1960s, Arkansas has been gaining population. What happened?
Starting with the election of Winthrop Rockefeller as governor in November 1966, we've had a string of nine pragmatists in the governor's office. Five have been Democrats and four have been Republicans. Chances are the next governor will be a Republican since Arkansas has turned solidly red. Let's hope that person governs in the style of these predecessors and doesn't bring toxic Washington-style politics to the state Capitol.
• I would like to see Mayor Frank Scott and the city of Little Rock restore Capitol Avenue. This should be Arkansas' grandest boulevard, a beautiful, vibrant street leading to the steps of the state Capitol. Instead, it's a route filled with tacky surface parking lots and empty buildings.
In addition to marketing property for new construction and renovating empty buildings, a beautification project is needed with extensive landscaping, better lighting, banners and the like. Capitol Avenue should be a street that all Arkansans can take pride in.
• I would like to see the revitalization efforts move to the next level in downtown Hot Springs. Those efforts appear to have stalled.
Hot Springs remains Arkansas' most popular tourist attraction despite the sad state of many downtown buildings. It's high time that the city of Hot Springs finalize the negotiations with a private developer and make something happen on the site of the former Majestic Hotel. That property has been empty for too long.
Let's also hope the long-awaited renovation of the Arlington Hotel, the flagship of downtown, will move forward after the pandemic. And that reports actor Kevin Costner will build a downtown museum come to fruition.
• I would like to see an intense, coordinated marketing campaign to find uses for the huge empty buildings in downtown Hot Springs: the former Army and Navy General Hospital, the DeSoto-Howe Building, the Medical Arts Tower, the Dugan-Stuart Building and the former Velda Rose Hotel.
In the post-pandemic era, more people are going to choose vacation spots that don't require airline flights. Hot Springs is an easy drive for those living in the booming Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. It's important that the Spa City not miss this moment to thrive. That door might not open again.
• I would like to see the continued revitalization of Pine Bluff, which should be the kind of regional center for southeast Arkansas that Jonesboro has become for northeast Arkansas. This will require the Quapaw Nation to move forward with plans to build a hotel next to the Saracen Casino.
The Quapaw should also transform the nearby Pines Mall, now empty, into an outlet mall. Pine Bluff needs a new hotel adjacent to its convention center along with the renovation of the historic Pines Hotel and Saenger Theatre downtown.
• I would like to see the growing number of people with great wealth in Benton and Washington counties look to the east to Eureka Springs in Carroll County and invest capital in that unique Arkansas attraction. Eureka Springs has an authenticity that a place like Branson, Mo., can't touch. It just needs some tender loving care--capital investments--to polish the jewel and attract a higher-spending clientele.
• I would like to see Johnny Morris of Bass Pro fame turn the old Dogpatch property in Newton County into a nationally known attraction. Based on past performance, I expect he will do just that.
• I would like to see the Walton Family Foundation, which does so much for this state, put an emphasis on hardwood restoration in east Arkansas. I know, I know. It's easy to tell someone else how to spend money. But this quality-of-life effort could truly help move the needle in the Delta.
There are tens of thousands of acres of marginal farmland that were cleared for crop production back when soybean prices were high. Restoring those lands to bottomland hardwoods would provide both ecological and economic benefits for the region.
• Speaking of the Delta, I would like to see the string of developing attractions in northeast Arkansas move forward in order to get more of the tourists who visit Memphis each year on this side of the river. From south to north, these proposed attractions include the 20-story Southland hotel at West Memphis, an expanded museum at Marion that focuses on the Sultana disaster at the end of the Civil War, and the U.S. Cold War Museum at the former Eaker Air Force Base near Blytheville.
• Also in northeast Arkansas, I would like to see Arkansas State University continue to expand the offerings at the former Dyess Colony, where Johnny Cash came of age, and see billionaire investor Gaylon Lawrence Jr. continue his project to make Wilson a model Delta town. And continued good luck to the young investors who are trying to bring restaurants, boutiques and live music to downtown Blytheville.
• I would like to see more landowners become partners in quail restoration efforts being undertaken by Quail Forever and the AGFC. Quail hunting was once an integral part of our state's culture. The current efforts not only will result in the return of the bobwhite, but also will aid songbirds and pollinators.
As is the case with keeping our streams clean, it comes down to this: We're either serious about this being the Natural State, or it's simply an advertising slogan. God has blessed us with tremendous natural resources. It's time we become more serious about protecting and restoring them.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.