Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. is pushing a new 1 percent sales tax in the capital city. It would produce about $50 million a year.
Given the fact that the city sales tax in Little Rock is lower than in many cities across Arkansas, I'm inclined to support Scott if the spending plan focuses on hiring additional police officers to walk old-fashioned beats downtown and in residential neighborhoods near downtown. There's simply no better way to attract the private investments the city's core so badly needs.
As I pointed out in Saturday's column, Little Rock will remain stagnant until there's significantly more private-sector investment. The city's sales-tax plan must be made up of initiatives that will encourage homeowners to renovate houses in the city's core while also encouraging business owners to invest in these neighborhoods.
So in addition to dozens of new police officers on the streets, here are suggestions for how best to spend the sales-tax revenue:
• Make downtown gleam. We're in an era of rapid urbanization in Arkansas. From the beautifully renovated Robinson Center to the ongoing renovation of the Arkansas Arts Center, there have been large investments designed to ensure that downtown remains a cultural and entertainment hub for the state. However, the unfortunate decision by the state of Arkansas to purchase a building at the former Alltel complex in the Riverdale neighborhood and move state agencies there has resulted in a glut of commercial space downtown. Meanwhile, the two tallest structures on Main Street--the Boyle and Donaghey buildings--remain empty.
Things the city can do to attract private capital aren't overly expensive--resurface downtown streets (parts of Capitol Avenue will rattle your teeth), replace sidewalks where needed, do extensive landscaping, put up more banners signifying areas such as the River Market District, the Creative Corridor and the Financial Quarter. Then, maintain the look year after year by doing things such as regularly powerwashing sidewalks. Frankly, parts of downtown feel dirty. In order to attract investment, that must change.
• Improve University Avenue from Cantrell Road to south of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus. For Little Rock to do well, UALR must do well. One component of UALR's resurrection has to be better connections to the rest of the city. This will necessitate improved bike lanes and sidewalks along with a walkway over University Avenue to connect the campus to businesses. As is the case downtown, there should be landscaping, banners and regular powerwashing. Such activity also could go a long way toward attracting investment to the aging commercial corridor at the intersection of Asher and University.
• Add amenities where the golf courses once were at War Memorial Park and Hindman Park. Connect new walking and biking trails with surrounding neighborhoods. Develop the former Western Hills Country Club property along those same lines. I agree with Scott that the city needs an indoor sports complex along with outdoor fields for soccer, baseball and softball. Youth sports tournaments are recession-proof. Even when they can't afford a regular vacation, parents and grandparents will travel to watch kids play in tournaments. They'll fill hotel rooms and eat in area restaurants. They'll shop and go to the movies when games aren't being played. They'll fill up their vehicles with gas and buy snacks.
• Make the Little Rock Zoo the nicest zoo of its size in the country. Like youth sports, it has the potential to attract thousands of visitors to Little Rock. While I'm not opposed to expanding the zoo, the focus must be on improving the existing footprint. Any expansion must keep this in mind: Park greenspace is used for parking when the University of Arkansas plays football games at War Memorial Stadium. The state has made significant investments in the stadium. It's important that the city not wipe out parking spots and in the process cost Little Rock games that are important not only economically but also to the city's image and psyche.
• Pick up the pace on replacing sidewalks and planting trees in neighborhoods near UALR and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. UAMS and UALR are economic engines, and the surrounding residential areas are ripe for redevelopment. There are plenty of young couples who would love to walk or bike to classes. In his recent State of the City address, Scott noted that the city constructed more than 74,000 square feet of sidewalks and curb ramps last year. That number needs to expand exponentially. The city also should plant native trees that eventually will add to the canopy. Once trees are planted, staff must be in place to make sure they thrive. Have police officers walking beats, build sidewalks, plant trees and make sure all of the streetlights are working. When those things are accomplished, step back and watch these neighborhoods come back to life.
• Expand what's known as Bridge to Work, a program in which homeless people are paid to pick up trash. Scott said: "They have cleaned nearly 130 miles of city streets. Innovative, effective and feel-good initiatives like Bridge to Work are exactly what we need to unite Little Rock and ensure we lift all residents so our city can reach its full potential."
Scott is calling the sales-tax campaign Lift Little Rock. If the city will do the things listed above, I can assure the mayor that the private sector will do the heavy lifting.
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 02/12/2020
Print Headline: REX NELSON: Lifting Little Rock