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OPINION | BLAKE RUTHERFORD: Modernity is key to state's success

by BLAKE RUTHERFORD SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | February 14, 2021 at 8:38 a.m.

I woke up recently to a thought-provoking column from Rex Nelson in which he noted a conversation he had with Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster where the general take-away was that Arkansas has a long history of misses.

As a lifelong Arkansawyer who moved away in 2013, it was immediately relatable; whether living in Little Rock or elsewhere, as I do now, this has been a long and repetitive tale.

We all know the story of Federal Express' founder and current CEO Fred Smith's attempt to build a world-class enterprise in Little Rock, only to be told that expanding the runway at the airport was too expensive (there were other issues, I realize).

Or when Gov. Bill Clinton announced for and became president of the United States, only to have members of Arkansas' conservative business and legal class support perpetual investigations into the work of his wife, a distinguished attorney at a highly reputable firm, and later opposed the development of the Clinton Presidential Center in what was otherwise a dilapidated warehouse park.

Missing a big opportunity is the rule, not the exception. The current climate in Arkansas bears this out. It's not merely that the Arkansas General Assembly is preoccupied with controversial and ineffective stand-your-ground legislation or opposing a hate crimes measure that would move Arkansas out of the legal extreme; it is that these attitudes harm Arkansas' future. They turn off Gen Z and millennials who are most likely to be the engines powering that next big thing.

Not long ago, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission took a victory lap for being a leading hub for ammunition manufacturing in the country. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, appearing recently on ABC's "This Week," could not bring himself to condemn Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon believer and promoter of violence against Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who admitted under oath to lying to the American people on former President Donald Trump's behalf, is running for governor.

Seventy-eight percent of young people believe it is too easy to purchase a gun. They rejected Trumpism by a wide margin in 2020; he performed worse this cycle among young voters than he did in 2016.

QAnon, like neo-Nazis, anti-vaxxers, and anti-5G groups, is not the company Arkansas leaders should keep.

Recently on Twitter, former House Speaker Davy Carter opined that the path forward for Arkansas involved making the state a more viable place for culinary tourism, growth manufacturing in east Arkansas, products distribution in the northwest, and investment in agriculture and education in the south and Delta regions. It was a sweet sentiment. And, as Nelson observed, "People will come to Arkansas as tourists and spend their money."

Many years ago, the Arkansas Legislature afforded a healthy stream of revenue to the Department of Parks and Tourism to promote these aspects. It may be that new bicycle trails bring new tourists, but that's not the singular answer to Arkansas' future; neither is food.

It is time for a fresh and productive path forward.

It is fine for Arkansas to acknowledge its histriocity, but not at the expense of modernity. This begins with a significant investment in technology education from elementary school through high school. A laptop or

iPad in the hands of every student will encourage interest in coding, design, software, e-commerce, gaming development, and much more.

Broadband accessibility must exist in every city, school, public library, community center, and government building. This will support childhood development and encourage new opportunities for commerce. By 2030, every community, regardless of size, should be a vibrant technological ecosystem.

What's the holdup?

Let's go one step further. Imagine if all of the candidates running for governor in 2022 committed to the same pledge: If you want to start a technology-centric small business in the first term, Arkansas will provide you with money and support to do it.

Years ago, northwest Arkansas smartly acknowledged its regional similarities, and thrives from it today even when hyper-local issues do not align. The region has also benefited from the presence, ingenuity, and extraordinary philanthropy of major enterprise and its beneficiaries.

The Walton Family Foundation has spent $1.34 billion on Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. In Little Rock, taxpayers had to shoulder $31.2 million in construction costs (through hotel tax-backed public bonds) before private fundraising would begin for the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. This came after a Little Rock hotel tax footed the bill for $37.5 million in improvements to the museum in 2015.

The point is that Little Rock will never benefit from Alice Walton-level generosity; taxpayers will get stuck with a tab more times than they should. But there are still many positive lessons from northwest Arkansas' success.

Regionalism is an overused economic development term, but I believe Little Rock and North Little Rock should develop a formal alignment that focuses on dramatically accelerating economic and population growth.

There is no better time for the metro cities, in concert with Pulaski County government, to formulate a new technologically focused economic development paradigm that pursues innovation and aspirational growth on par with Birmingham and Raleigh-Durham, among other prospering mid-size southern cities. It could be the closest thing to bringing the two cities together since Little Rock annexed Argenta in 1890.

Rather than a Metro Little Rock Alliance, imagine a robust economic alliance along I-40 that begins in Little Rock-North Little Rock with sights set to the west involving Conway, which has undergone transformative change in three decades and is home to the state's most prominent liberal arts college, the recreation and commercial development potential of Lake Dardanelle in Russellville, accessibility to the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in Clarksville along with its world-renowned peaches, the untapped economic potential of wine country in Altus, a plethora of marketing opportunities in Alma, the Spinach Capital of the World, and the gateway to northwest Arkansas.

This is not easy. As Nelson observes, the overall quality of the Arkansas Legislature is low. Right-wing partisans spend too much time demonizing moderates as radicals, flaunting the state tax code while excoriating public education and critical centers of commerce like Little Rock in favor of pro-gun, anti-equality, and forever-Trump rhetoric. That may win Republican primaries, but it also sets Arkansas back.

Arkansas' economic future will be won first by abandoning laissez-faire attitudes and embracing aspirational growth at the local, regional, and state level. There are plenty of people that understand this. Those most capable of missing it are in power or intend to seek it.

Blake Rutherford, a Little Rock native, is co-founder and executive editor of SourceStream, the first bipartisan interactive live streaming network in the United States. He lives in Washington, D.C., and can be reached at Rutherford.blake@gmail.com.

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