Columns » Max Brantley

Behind the scenes

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Six degrees of Kevin Bacon? In Arkansas, I'd guess that most people can complete a two-step association with just about anybody else in the state.

I thought of this last week when a dandy little political scrap emerged over a Little Rock development. I thought I'd lift the curtain on the action back stage.

McKibbon Hotel Management, which has built two hotels in the River Market district, wants to build a third, a trendy Aloft Hotel, at Clinton and Commerce. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has had the jump on news about this because the hotel company would purchase the land from D-G publisher Walter Hussman. The real estate firm on the deal, Moses-Tucker, has been responsible for a great deal of River Market area development. It long ago learned its way around City Hall, where principal Jimmy Moses, my neighbor, once worked. The firm also manages the building where I work and in which I have a small interest.

The hotel would exceed the height limits for the River Market district. Moses-Tucker thought they had variances greased. But Central Arkansas Library System Director Bobby Roberts, another neighbor of mine, caught a whisper of the plans from a local contractor. He started raising heck. He'd like the land for future library use. But he also thinks the seven-story hotel will dwarf the charming old buildings the library has renovated nearby.

Roberts rounded up a potent ally, Stephens Inc., the financial colossus. They own the Capital Hotel, a nearby lodging competitor. So now you have Hussman, Moses-Tucker, a major hotel investor and the Downtown Partnership on one side. You have Warren Stephens and his lieutenants, the politically crafty Bobby Roberts and some neighborhood preservationists on the other. Moses-Tucker has worked for Stephens. The Downtown Partnership has great hopes that Stephens will some day redevelop property on moribund Main Street.

What's the Arkansas Times to do? Publisher Alan Leveritt strongly favors the hotel. More density. More action. It's an enticing argument, but, based on his record, I tend to be inclined toward Bobby Roberts on library matters.

I have personal conflicts aplenty (not to mention Times advertisers) on both sides. I went to college with Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker. Tucker's wife works for my wife. Roberts' wife once worked for my wife. Stephens' chief operating officer Curt Bradbury, who opposed the hotel at a library trustees meeting last week, once was a very small investor in the Arkansas Times. But he angrily returned that interest for $1 after taking umbrage at our politics. He also ended Stephens' advertising with us. Still later, he called a Times reporter an offensive female anatomical slur on account of something she'd written about the Arkansas Arts Center. More recently, Arkansas Blog readers coarsely criticized an op-ed Bradbury's patron, Warren Stephens, wrote about the tax burden on the ultra-wealthy. I gather Stephens was not amused.

Whatever our differences on the core hotel issue, the publisher and I can empathize with the Aloft hotel developer. He was warned by Bradbury last week that he had made an eternal enemy. Trust us. Curt has a long memory.

The Stephens crew didn't help its cause by arguing against the new hotel on the ground that owners of the Capital, Peabody and Doubletree hotels should get a little breathing room to recoup recent investments before a new competitor was approved. Protectionism is hardly what you'd expect from Warren Stephens, self-described in his anti-tax op-ed as an “ardent free market capitalist.”

 

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