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Big Ideas for Arkansas 2017

Readers and experts suggest ways to change Arkansas for the better.

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In what’s become a near-annual tradition, the Arkansas Times recently solicited suggestions from readers and a variety of experts on how to improve life in Arkansas. We present those ideas here, along with others on a variety of topics. We hope you find them as inspirational as we do. If any especially strike a chord with you, help make them happen. Many are works in progress; those that aren't could be with the right collection of advocates.

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Let the children play: extend recess requirements for public schools
By Michelle Davis

The first week of kindergarten, I met my oldest daughter for lunch at her Little Rock School District elementary — a well recommended, beloved school that I had researched extensively before settling into the neighborhood. After a very brief and regulated lunch period, my daughter asked that I bring her little sister down to the playground for recess. I watched the children who had so quietly eaten their lunch and shuffled through the halls in ordered lines bring the playground to life with running, jumping, imaginary games, negotiation and compromise. But just as the rules of a sport were sorted out and the roles in an imaginary game were divvied up, the bell rang loudly. The kids were corralled back into lines, slowed down and shushed, returned to their desks.

I was shocked to discover not only the brevity of this recess time, but also to learn that this was the children's only recess in the entire school day. Intuitively, it did not feel right. Perhaps this lack of recess was why the little girl who returned to me at the end of the school day felt like leftovers of my daughter. A child who during her preschool years would sit for hours listening to stories now came home barely able to sit still, reverting at times to baby talk, already worn down by the school career she only just began. Many of my entrepreneur friends talk about their utilization of frequent breaks to stimulate creativity. Progressive work environments advertise their gyms and gardens as key elements in a thriving performance culture. Why, I wondered, would children doing the critical work of their young lives require anything less to reach their full potential?

It only took a quick Google search to realize that my distress was more than mother instinct. Decades of international research argues that limiting recess is not the best for our children physically, academically or socially. It is during recess that children learn life-long lessons about peer interaction, that they reignite their focus and energy for intensive work, that they get physical exercise and developmentally necessary unstructured play.

Schools willing to take the risk and try a research-based approach are seeing excellent outcomes. Eagle Mountain Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas, made a decision to switch from one recess a day for kindergartners and first-graders to four 15-minute recess periods. The teachers, who were initially concerned about losing classroom time necessary to cover required material, realized quickly that their students were actually learning more. The children were less fidgety, discipline issues decreased, and students engaged in a more focused, creative manner.

In our globalized world, American public schools are under pressure to produce students competitive on the international stage. Rather than requiring more instructional time, increasing recess could be a key component in boosting our nation's mediocre ranking in academic performance. Finnish students, who scored highest overall in a recent comparison of academic performance in 57 countries, receive 15-minute breaks every hour. American teachers working under the Finnish model saw measurable improvements in focus and performance. Japan, also ranked as a top-10 performer, gives students 10- to 15-minute breaks every 40 to 50 minutes, taking into account that attention span diminishes after 40 to 50 minutes of intense instruction.

The support for more recess is beyond anecdote. Anthony Pellegrini of the University of Minnesota and his peers conducted four field experiments in American elementary schools that demonstrated the educational value of frequent recess. In each experiment, increasing recess time raised attentiveness and improved academic performance. Pellegrini's research also highlights the importance of recess in social development and peer relations. The American Academy of Pediatrics clearly advocates that recess is essential for the emotional, physical and social well being of our children. In a policy statement put out by the Council on School Health following a comprehensive literature review, the AAP stated that, "A growing body of evidence suggests that recess promotes not only physical health and social development but also cognitive performance." Though no exact formula is given, the policy statement recommends frequent recess at regularly scheduled intervals for maximum whole-child benefits.

After reviewing the research, I figured that my daughter's minimal recess time was a well meaning, but misguided, decision made by the administrators of my daughter's school. I knew that occasionally when the weather was beautiful, the kindergarten teachers would slip in an extra recess. I planned to print out articles I read and take them to the principle. I brought up the issue to other parents on the playground and discovered that everyone I talked with shared my distress over the lack of recess. Only when I joined the PTA board did I learn that recess guidelines are controlled by the state Department of Education, which requires a minimum average of six hours of instruction time per day. Meanwhile, the Department of Education requires at least 40 minutes of physical education and 90 minutes of physical activity per week. The latter could include additional P.E. time or recess. My child's school in the LRSD only follows this minimum requirement, which means my daughter gets about 15 minutes of recess every day and P.E. once a week. Other districts, including the Searcy School District, allow for 30 minutes of daily free play. Such strict guidelines about instructional time make it impossible to further increase recess without compromising on mandatory classroom hours. In order for our schools to freely explore the benefits of increased recess, laws need to change.

I believe that Arkansas public schools can be great. I trust that our district leaders and decision-makers want our children to thrive. They want the young minds coming out of our state to be powerful forces in our community and competitive voices in the global conversation. If we truly want to give our children the best, why would we base our decisions about their education on anything other than the most convincing research? We are not going to see our test scores go up or our children reach further when the quality of instructional time is compromised by exhaustion and restlessness. Instead, let us look to the success stories of those who have gone before us and strive to be an example of thriving education in America.

It is time for us to let our children play and see what happens.

Michelle Davis is a nurse at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary, the mother of two girls and a PTA board member in the LRSD.

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Develop sharing economies
By Jessica McClard

Arkansans can make their hometowns better places by developing sharing economies.

I am founder of one such economy, the Little Free Pantry. It applies the Little Free Library concept to address food insecurity, which is a fancy way of saying I put a box on a post and stocked it with food instead of books. Grassroots and open source, the concept continues its spread across the country and internationally. Each iteration creates space for neighbors helping neighbors. Accessibility increases both supply-side and demand-side productivity. Recirculation of goods is "green."

Sharing economies are not new to Arkansas. My dad and his brother shared a lawnmower for six years; by pooling their resources, they were able to afford a higher quality machine. The Ozarkansas Tool Library program, a joint effort between Feed Communities and the Fayetteville Public Library, lends implements. A good friend of mine sometimes trades professional services for other professional services, and that same friend pointed me to Northwest Arkansas's Local Trade Partners, a small business trade exchange.

Sharing economies are not without challenges: Logistics require problem-solving and people are complicated. Arkansans who embrace these challenges anticipating more joy, productivity, community, equity and sustainability need only look around for ideas. Swap vegetables ... or anything. Take turns watching one another's kids. Put those kids on a school bus and carpool to work. Use the local library or Little Free Library. Then, post about initiatives on social media to widen impact.

The single Little Free Pantry (or swap) is "little." Lots might be big.

Jessica McClard is a financial associate with Thrivent Financial and founder of the Little Free Pantry initiative.

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Create a political action committee for candidates who support policies that help kids
By Rich Huddleston

If we want better policies for children, we must elect candidates who are champions for kids.

Our goal as child advocates is to improve public policy so all children have the resources and opportunities to develop, thrive and realize their full potential. However, we cannot succeed as advocates unless state policymakers support the public policies that will improve the lives of children. While this depends on our ability to be persuasive advocates, it depends even more on the natural inclination of lawmakers to support our issues and to be champions for kids.

If a policymaker is dead set against the policies we support, even after our best advocacy efforts, we need to hold him or her accountable for their votes. How do we do that?

Many powerful special interest groups do this through political action committees that can endorse and financially support the campaigns of candidates at election time. Unfortunately, children and their advocates rarely have a powerful PAC to help them.

So, our big idea is a simple one. Let's create a powerful children's PAC in Arkansas to help elect better candidates who will support better public policies for children.

The challenge will be creating a PAC that is independent and has support on both sides of the political aisle, but that can still raise enough money to be effective and whose endorsement is valued by candidates. To accomplish this, our children's PAC would be set up in the following way:

It should be multi-issue — just as the needs of children are. It should take positions on policy issues that appeal to reasonable people of all political persuasions. The PAC's leadership and grassroots support must be broad-based (think parents) so candidates and voters don't perceive it as being the tool of any one group or individual. The PAC should target smaller donors for its financial support. If we learned anything from Bernie Sanders' campaign for president, it's the power of small donors. Finally, our children's PAC must focus on the long run. It will take several election cycles to get our champions for kids elected. It will be a district-by-district fight, and we must target the battles we can win.

It's time to take steps to get candidates elected who will be champions for kids. We can take the first step by making sure that children have their own voice at election time.

Rich Huddleston is executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

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Create a statewide coalition to reach the unbanked and underbanked
By Darrin Williams

According to the Corporation for Enterprise Development, there are an estimated 9 million American households that are "unbanked," meaning they do not have a checking or savings account. Another 21 million households are "underbanked," which means that while they may have a bank account, they are still relying on alternative financial services.

So why is this a problem? For those who have always had a bank account, it may seem like a small thing, but for those living outside of the financial mainstream, even everyday transactions take on new meanings and new costs.

Simply cashing a check means going to a check casher who may charge high fees. Getting a loan might mean going to a payday lender or pawn shop. And don't even think about building your credit. (Hint: You won't be). All of this means that you're spending more to move and save your money — a tough prospect for those already struggling financially.

The national "Bank On" movement is an attempt to address the problem by encouraging financial institutions to join together and encourage one another to create "safe" accounts, low-cost bank accounts that provide households with a safe place to save, conduct basic financial business and build a credit history.

So now you're saying, "Darrin, you're the CEO of a bank; why don't you just do it?" Well that's where we come to the big problem in need of a big idea. Southern Bancorp is actively working to address the problem of the financially underserved in some of Arkansas's most economically distressed communities. However, the only way we're going to make a dent in those statewide numbers is by working together through a statewide coalition. From Bentonville to Eudora and all points between, by joining forces, we can make a real difference.

Darrin Williams is CEO is of Southern Bancorp Inc.

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Artists-in-residence everywhere
By Tara Stickley

Artists should be put where they don't belong. They are unruly thinkers, and as such are gifted at seeing beyond rigid social stratification and bureaucratic obstacles. At a time when political speech feels more and more divisive and bipartisan agreement impossible, it'll be up to our most creative thinkers to forge a space for dialogue and compromise. There should be artists-in-residence in every administrative or legislative body. At every hospital, on every school board, every mega-corporation, there should be an artist weighing in with human-scale insights to counter things like metadata, standardized testing and the delocalization of labor.

Art is immeasurable and purposeless, and that is why it is beautiful. It's an irrational pursuit that engages the brain to work outside of binary relationships and even language itself. What if the answer to a gridlocked negotiation took the form of an arabesque, a kinetic sculpture or a color-field painting?

Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome is the only structure strong enough to withstand 180-mile-per-hour Arctic winds and now shelters critical radar equipment. The interdisciplinary model of faculty at Black Mountain College (where poet William Carlos Williams and Albert Einstein both served on the board of directors) changed American pedagogy. More recently, artist Simone Leigh's Free People's Medical Clinic provided a temporary space in Brooklyn where anyone in need could freely access gynecological services, health screenings, yoga, counseling, dance classes and herbalists. It's the improbable admixture of aesthetics and hard science that often yields true ingenuity.

Tara Stickley is a teacher and writer from Arkansas.

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Give high-interest books to classrooms in Little Rock's academically distressed schools
By Ginny Blankenship

I've spent my career as an advocate for students and policy wonk for schools, but I've spent a lifetime as a book nerd — with an unhealthy obsession with school supplies.

My obsession rose to a new level when the state took over the Little Rock School District based on test scores of six schools that have long been neglected by our community. I remember reading in the paper that an English as a Second Language teacher at one of those schools, Hall High, said she didn't have enough books or supplies to help her students learn to read. When nearly a quarter of students have limited English proficiency, and 100 percent are low-income, the very least our community and policymakers can do is to make sure that this teacher — all teachers — have the resources they need to improve their school's test scores, but more importantly, to help students develop a lifelong love of reading and learning.

As a former English teacher, I have seen firsthand that when you give students easy access to high-interest books right in their classrooms, most of them will read. They'll even fight over who gets the first copy of "The Color Purple" or "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" just as much as vampire fan fiction. For middle- and high-school teachers, building a good classroom library can cost thousands of dollars, but unlike elementary school teachers, they receive no money from the district or state to do so. And while most community school supply and book drives target elementary schools, our teenagers have an urgent need for books, school supplies and engaging literacy programs, too.

Last May, I had a big idea to launch the Open Book Project to make it easy for people to give books that students want to read. In just six months, we stocked classroom libraries at Hall High and Henderson Middle School with over 6,000 new or like-new books, from authors Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Star Wars, and C.S. Lewis to J.K. Rowling. I'm now applying for 501(c)(3) status to qualify for hundreds of grants available for books and school supplies at schools in need.

After finishing classroom libraries in LRSD's academically distressed schools, I envision bringing the community together to turn outdated media centers into collegiate, coffeehouse-style reading spaces; help students start their own home libraries; and create supply closets or warehouse "stores" where teachers can find whatever resources they or their students need without having to dip into their own pockets over and over.

Please visit our website at www.openbookproject.org, like and share our Facebook page, and sign up to donate books or cash. It's a simple solution that can have a life-changing impact on one student and, just maybe, help create a culture of reading and excellence throughout our whole school system.

Ginny Blankenship, EdD, is founder of the Open Book Project and education policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

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Arkansas Sings Day
By Glen Hooks

At the risk of being even more sappy than usual, I genuinely believe that music has a lot of power. Music can inspire anger pt joy, action, healing, love, and even community. I'm an activist by trade, and I'll tell you that no movement has ever succeeded without a good soundtrack.  

So here's what I'd like to see: Once a year, we, the vast and lovely community of Arkansans, all pledge to learn one original song (written, chosen and voted on by Arkansas musicians). On a specific day — let's call it something like Arkansas Sings Day — we'll gather together in our respective communities, with our own instruments and our own voices, and learn/sing the song loudly and lustily together.  

For a day or even for just a few moments, we'll put down the things that divide us and create something that brings us together.  It won't solve all of our problems, but it can help.

Glen Hooks is the chapter director of the Sierra Club of Arkansas.

Make it easier to vote
By Chris Burks

Unfortunately, Arkansas is behind when it comes to the fundamental right to vote and a sound election process. Fundamental rights won't mean more than the paper they are printed on if we do not uphold them through our laws and resources.

A key to ensuring voting rights for all Arkansans and cleaning up elections is to fix the mechanics of voting. In this day and age of a Starbucks on every corner and shopping just a click away online, voting should be secure, quick and accessible in multiple locations.

There is no reason voters should have to drive many miles to a county courthouse, or only vote in their precinct on Election Day. The good news is that the legislature agrees with this sentiment in theory. Arkansas law allows for vote centers. Vote centers allow anyone, regardless of their precinct, to vote securely in a location with a real-time voter roll.

Speaking from experience as the attorney for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, early voting is difficult to access in many counties. Local election commissioners are incentivized to have fewer early voting locations because opening more locations costs more and is more work.

Think how many more people would vote if Pulaski County voters had the choice of voting at a large, safe venue with easy parking, say Alltel Arena, or at their local precinct.

A 2015 appropriation included up to $30 million to update voting equipment statewide so that vote centers could be in every county. But that appropriation was not fully funded. As a result, vote centers were not funded in Pulaski County and other counties.

Oregon, Washington and Colorado hold all elections entirely by mail. California will begin holding all-mail elections in 2018. Arkansans probably won't want to give up their right to vote in person, but we can pass automatic voter registration and a longer absentee vote-by-mail process, too.

The ultimate idea is that when everyone can and does vote, then everyone will benefit. Fixing the mechanics of voting and cleaning up election administration will get us much closer.

Chris Burks is a lawyer with the Sanford Law firm and the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

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Establish the Fourche Creek Preserve and Water Trail
By Dan Scheiman

Anyone traveling Interstate 30 downtown can see the obvious and impressive investment we have made as a city in the River Market district and the Arkansas River Trail. The heart of downtown Little Rock features fine dining, art and culture. The entire area is connected, on both sides of the river, by trails and parks that encourage people to get outside.

What few people realize, though, is that a few miles along I-30, past the downtown area, an entirely different outdoor experience awaits. At more than 1,800 acres, Fourche Bottoms stands as the largest urban wetland in the South. It is home to more than 120 species of birds, 140 species of native plants, 50 species of fish and stands of 300-year-old bald cypress trees. Sadly, it is also home to polluted water and riddled with trash, tires and other contaminants that wash into Fourche Creek from more than 70 percent of the surface area of Little Rock. Unlike the healthy, well-maintained riverfront area on the north side of downtown, this wetland area so rich in habitat and natural phenomena sits overgrown, polluted and neglected.

Restoring forest health, developing a watershed management plan, and limiting litter that flows through our storm drains will open the door to rehabilitation of this damaged area. We envision a natural wonderland where anyone can float, fish, hike and escape urban life without ever having to leave the city. By cleaning up this imperiled waterway and its surrounding forest, Little Rock can turn Fourche Creek into the crown jewel of Arkansas ecotourism. And by opening up this area to everyone, we can knock down another barrier that unnecessarily separates many of our neighborhoods.

Let's turn Fourche Bottoms into Fourche Creek Preserve and Water Trail, a thriving, resilient natural asset that allows us to provide citizens and visitors alike with robust, diverse outdoor experiences. From a 4.5-mile float, to trail linkages with other city parks, to hours of exploration of native Arkansas plants and wildlife, this wetland presents us with an opportunity to create something unique to Little Rock.

Dr. Dan Scheiman is the Bird conservation director at Audubon Arkansas and serves as the chairperson for Friends of Fourche Creek.

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Issue every first grader a library card
By Garbo Hearne

Public libraries are an underused resource for our children. By learning how to use the many benefits our libraries offer, children will develop critical thinking skills, and literacy and educational standards would be increased.

To get our children into libraries, schools should make sure that, starting in first grade, every student has a public library card and opportunities to go to a library. Schools and libraries should partner to make this happen; the result would be to even the playing field between underserved schools, private and charter schools and home-schoolers.

This collaboration would also introduce many parents to underutilized resources available for children and families through the library system. Libraries would respond by strengthening their programs, perhaps by working with higher education in offering degrees in library studies and education.

There are more than books at libraries. For example, the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library and Learning Center has a greenhouse, a theater, a computer lab, classes and offers free snacks. It has a walking trail. A place to exhibit art. And, 21,000 volumes.

Instituting self-learning makes for a smart and economically sound Arkansas.

No books ... no learning. No learning ... no knowledge. No knowledge ... no wisdom. No wisdom ... no ethics. No ethics ... no conscience. No conscience ... no community. No community ... no bread.

Garbo Hearne is the co-owner of Pyramid Art, Books & Custom Framing and Hearne Fine Art.

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Implement restorative justice in our schools to create positive learning environments
By Rachel Norris

Typically, public education systems use punishments or zero-tolerance policies to deter negative behavior. However, a unique communication methodology called restorative justice shows that by focusing on the relationship of teachers, students and parents, schools can lower student suspension rates and increase positive learning environments in Arkansas.

Students navigate life the best way they know how, but many students simply don't have the proper tools to express and work through their emotions on their journey. As a result, this navigation can take negative turns, leading to poor outcomes. Many schools today are designed to punish this negative behavior. Restorative justice suggests schools should offer students a space to discuss their hardships, anxieties and roadblocks with their peers and teachers.

Restorative justice has been implemented in many school districts throughout the U.S. in the form of small meeting spaces, called circles. During an advisory period, these circles help to build community among students, teachers and parents and give students a designated safe space to discuss different topics. They have also been used as a space for teachers and students to communicate with one another when things in the classroom aren't proceeding in a positive way. Restorative justice circles can also be used to mediate conversations between students who have disagreements. In all circumstances, restorative justice circles have shown great success. 

According to "Restorative Justice in U.S. Schools: A Research Review" conducted in 2016 by WestEd, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research agency, restorative justice circles have shown to cause improvement in student grades, a reduction in out-of-school suspensions and positive student-teacher relations. By implementing this practice here in Arkansas, it has the potential to make a huge impact on students and their community. 

Rachel Norris is a science teacher at Central High School.

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Patio homes, neighborhood kindergartens, leaf removal, a city lottery, gig markets, urban homesteading
By Matilda Buchanan

I can name a number of things that Little Rock would be better for having. Here's a list:

Patio homes as infill in older neighborhoods. Many of us are aging but don't want to leave our neighborhoods or live in high-rises. We want one-level spaces that allow us to engage in minimal gardening and have a place for our little dogs to romp.

Universal early childhood education in neighborhood centers with free extended daycare for working parents. These centers, for children in pre-K and kindergarten, could be attached to a local elementary school, but that would not be required. They could also be attached to a middle school or high school if the schools fulfill the "neighborhood" requirement. Centers could be in shopping malls or vacant stand-alone buildings. These centers would be the first line defense for families and would include referrals for health, social services, legal aid, etc. If Little Rock or a deep-pocket private sponsor invested 15 years in these centers, school achievement would soar, the dropout rate would plummet and crime would drop; we would be healthier and a more stable city.

Once-a-week street sweeping in all zones on the day after garbage pick-up, including blown leaf removal in the fall. This is so obvious that it really doesn't require explanation, but one of the main benefits is the immediate improvement of Fourche Creek. This could be funded by the Little Rock Lottery (see below).

A city lottery: The city of Little Rock can raise money for special projects like street sweeping and leaf removal by creating a lottery. The lottery "prizes" would be specialized city services easily provided by the city at little to no extra cost. Examples are as follows: Raffle off three months of free dumpsters for a renovation project, buy chances to have city workers remove trees and other landscape debris, win a free water meter for a sprinkler system, win a new sewer line from your house to the street, win three hours of free city backhoe work, have the city repave your driveway, get two hours of off-duty police protection for a party, etc.

Gig bazaar, to match workers with services to sell with customers wanting services. A gig bazaar would work like a farmers market or flea market. It would open up twice a month in the Hall of Industry at the State Fairgrounds or some other similar space with bathrooms and heating/air. This is better than Craigslist or Angie's List because workers and customers meet face-to-face in a neutral space. Workers/ customers can negotiate price and even barter. This should not be limited to babysitting, household cleaning and handyman needs. Letter-writing services, contract poetry, song writing for special occasions, musical entertainment, shoe repair, quick haircuts, color consultation for a room you need to paint, organizing the attic — are all stuff folks need help with. The gig workers just need to bring card tables and their imaginations. A central notice board would list services for sale and services wanted. The trick is to keep it low-tech and informal. Food trucks outside would be good. There could be mobile pet grooming stations. I foresee the feel of a renaissance marketplace or Middle Eastern bazaar.

Urban homesteading. The city of Little Rock has gotten better at condemning buildings that are being destroyed by neglect and holding trashy and absent owners responsible for the upkeep of their properties. The end result is a growing inventory of vacant lots with liens held by the city. This program would allow city residents to homestead these properties. There would be several categories in this program:

a) If a structure is salvageable, a citizen presents a plan of rehabilitation to be completed within five years. If the work is completed on time, the applicant gets clear title.

b) If the property is a vacant lot, the applicant presents building plans. If the plan meets all city requirements (building, historic and zoning), the applicant has five years to complete and occupy the site and then gets clear title to the property.

c) If the property is vacant and adjacent to the applicant's own property, the applicant can submit plans for a garden or pocket park. If approved, the applicant would have one year to complete the plans and would be required to maintain the property for 10 years to get clear title. This is the most attractive of the options because it would result in immediate, low-cost improvement to our neighborhoods.

Matilda Buchanan is retired from teaching English at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts and is now a private investigator.

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Street performers national championship
By David Rose

You've all seen them. Perhaps you encountered one while waiting for the ferry to Staten Island or Sausalito. You might have watched one while walking on Venice Beach in Los Angeles or sitting under a tree in Jackson Square down in New Orleans. In England they are called buskers, but here, in the United States, we refer to them as street performers.

For the most part, they work with a limited palette, are one-trick ponies, but some of them are terribly clever. They enthrall the audience for 3 to 5 minutes, garner some coins and then, as each audience is replaced by the next, they start their act all over again. I've seen jugglers, contortionists, tap dancers and soloists on almost every instrument imaginable and, of course, the inevitable mimes.

Once, while hanging out at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, I got to see the Human Jukebox. This gentleman had taken a refrigerator carton and, with nothing more than a paring knife and a large permanent marker, fashioned it into an over-sized, stylized jukebox. He waited inside with his trumpet until a pedestrian, overcome with curiosity, slipped a dollar into the slot and pushed one of the cardboard buttons. The Human Jukebox then pulled a string that opened a flap in the box and stuck his trumpet out. There were only half a dozen buttons on the jukebox and perhaps the trumpeter only knew six songs but he played them well. The man never spoke or, for that matter, had any interaction with his audience other than the trumpet solos. I had the feeling that he tipped the box over at night and slept in it, but he was fun to watch and a steady stream of tourists put money in the slot.

Arkansas has no buskers that I know of. To have street performers, you have to have a town with enough street life to support them. However, it might be fun to bring a bunch of them here for a week or so. If we could come up with some healthy prize money I'm sure the buskers would show up; after all, they are out on the street now playing for quarters.

We could line them up on South Main in Little Rock, Central Avenue in Hot Springs or Dickson Street in Fayetteville and let them do their stuff. There would have to be some kind of voting system that was predicated on audience approval. There would also be a closing ceremony during which one of them would be crowned National Champion.

We may only get a half dozen the first year, but one of them will walk off with the title of National Champion. The other buskers around the country might not agree with Arkansas's choice but, to prove us wrong, they will have to show up the next year and take the crown in open competition. This could build from year to year, drawing more and more tourists and national attention. Hosting the Buskers National Championship could build into something quite profitable and a whole lot of fun. Unlike most of the big ideas in previous issues of the Times, the Street Performers National Championship, like the Cold War Memorial [Big Ideas 2014, online], could actually be done.

David Rose is an artist, father and creative thinker who lives in Hot Springs.

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Neighborhood gardens
By Danna Schneider

I am a pie-eyed optimist, and I would like to expand in Clarksville something I think would be ideal for the entire state of Arkansas. We have started a community garden in cooperation with the University of the Ozarks. The university is already providing produce from their own garden to the public school's backpack program and teaching children how to prepare and eat fresh vegetables.

My idea is to have community gardens in all neighborhoods and teach residents how to grow fresh produce; harvest; prepare; and preserve what they grow. All of the gardens would be maintained by the neighbors, who could be taught, if needed, by their own neighbors or by master gardeners in the UA Cooperative Extension Service's Arkansas Master Gardeners Program. Civic organizations could provide the tools and the residents would be responsible for the garden. This would eventually create a healthier society and also teach responsibility, cooperation and bring people together again, which in turn would reduce crime and all kinds of societal ills in addition to closing the gaps between generations of neighbors.

Danna Schneider is a resident of Clarksville and a member of the City Council.

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Year-round school, more summer programs
By Erin Finzer

With two elementary-school-aged children, summer care is a huge concern for me, both financially and from the practical standpoint of finding and managing different "camps" each week for my children that are both safe and affordable. I know middle-class families that had to leave their elementary-aged kids home alone last summer because they could not afford summer programming and did not have family or friends who could take care of their children. What about families that have even fewer financial and social resources?

Also, although my own children are not "tweens" yet, I understand that summer camp options for sixth- to eighth-graders are almost impossible to find, and few parents want to leave their children at this age home alone. As more and more households have two working parents who cannot afford quality summer care, and as social and legal mores become less tolerant toward parents whose children are unsupervised, I believe this issue requires public attention.

One solution that would benefit children would be year-round school, though that would also involve smaller breaks throughout the year. Still, according to an article in the New York Times on how American schools' summer breaks hearken back to a time when more families were headed with one parent breadwinner and one parent at home, long summer breaks can put low-income children two months behind in their reading skills, and they don't catch up.

The Times also noted that in 2014, families estimated their summer daycare expenses at $958 per child, a sum that for many families equaled nearly a fourth of their income. It is higher now. So another solution would be state tax breaks, modeled after the federal Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, for working parents. Incentives to create more affordable summer programs would also be a boon to Arkansas children.

Erin Finzer is a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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Reject sprawl, support Little Rock
By Tom Fennell

We need a Chamber of Commerce and elected officials who understand that the interstate system has done wonders for bedroom communities but little for Little Rock, and that the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's plan to vastly widen Interstate 30 through our reawakened urban core is not in Little Rock's best interest. 

If our leaders would reject urban sprawl and work for the interests of the residents who elected them, Little Rock could be a first-rate city. When AHTD projects hurt Little Rock, we need leaders who will stand up to the department. That may require reconstituting our chamber to represent Little Rock first rather than Benton, Bryant, Cabot and Conway.

For Little Rock to be a greater city, we need to elect people who support sustainable urban values and planning. Who understand that commuter traffic could be routed away from downtown. That a boulevard, rather than a concrete river of fumes-generating automobiles, would be an economic boon for Little Rock. That unsafe automobiles will one day be a thing of the past, and the need for concrete swaths will be gone.

The best, most livable cities are moving away from a car-centric society to a more sensible people-moving, multimodal outlook. For Little Rock to be competitive from a business and economic development perspective, we will fall way behind if we aren't proactive about transit, pedestrians, cyclists and complete streets. Many cities — like Vancouver, Portland and Indianapolis — understand this and are moving commuter traffic away from the urban core and replacing interstate nightmares with people-friendly roads and parks. Even Reno, Nev., is building a new arterial to avoid expanding its freeway.

The Imagine Central Arkansas plan would work extremely well as an alternative to the freeway expansion by adding additional river crossings to connect arterials at Pike Avenue and East Broadway. This is a better long-term solution to congestion.

Tom Fennell is an architect with Fennell Purifoy and the designer of a boulevard alternative for a widened Interstate 30.

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Make charter schools accountable
By Marion Humphrey Jr.

The Walton Family Foundation has pledged to devote an additional $250 million toward charter school expansion in cities throughout the country, including Little Rock. I wish they would do more to support traditional public schools throughout Arkansas. Because of this trend, I am practical enough to realize that charters and school privatization are here to stay. Yet, as a product of the traditional public school system (the Little Rock School District, to be exact), I hope to see charters be held accountable when it comes to educating students from marginalized and under-resourced communities, such as parts of Little Rock and rural areas throughout our state. This is not being done by the state Board of Education, which approves almost any charter application that comes its way.

Public charter schools were originally intended to be experimental educational environments that could develop innovative practices that could then be taken back into traditional public schools. But in the last decade, we have seen charters utilized as direct competitors to traditional school districts. Both charters and traditional public schools receive federal, state and local funding on a per-pupil basis. The more charter seats within a given area, the less funding that goes to the traditional school system (because students exit the district). Little Rock and other areas have seen funding declines that have contributed to the closing of neighborhood schools, which falls upon those students with the most challenges.

If charters were held to greater standards of accountability and transparency by the state Board of Education, they would not be as problematic as they are today, and could even work in concert with local school districts. So what can be done?

Reduce the selective recruitment and retention of students. Charters usually operate on a lottery basis that requires parents to submit an application. In addition, these schools often do not have a school bus system. That means interested students usually must have (1) committed parents or guardians to assist them with the application process and (2) a mode of transportation to attend the school. Last year, when the state board reviewed expansion plans of two charter operators in Little Rock, eStem Public Charter Schools and LISA Academy, it was clear they served far fewer students eligible for free or reduced lunch than the LRSD. The provision of only Rock Region Metro bus transit for their students (which very few of their students use) is one of several factors that keep these schools recruiting more children from high-need families.

Stop charters from pushing out students. Nationally, students at charter schools are more likely to be expelled, suspended or pushed out, after which they typically land back in the traditional public schools. In Little Rock, teachers and parents talk frequently about LRSD schools receiving students from charters (both high- and low-performing ones) after the date that their student population counts for per-pupil funding is made. If a student leaves after that date, those taxpayer dollars stay behind for the charter's use. In the 2014-15 school year, data provided by the Arkansas Department of Education showed that the only students returned to the LRSD from eStem and LISA were students of color. Charters should be fully discouraged from pushing out students during the school year. If they do so, we must make sure that per-pupil funding follows the returned students back to traditional public school districts.

Reduce the competition for resources between charters and traditional public schools. Charter schools are operated by private management organizations whose boards of directors often do not reside in the areas the schools serve. Therefore, they should not be privy to the same level of per-pupil funding — much of which comes from local taxpayers — that traditional public schools receive. Public charters and traditional public schools must work fluidly together or else the latter of the two will fail to exist in urban and rural areas.

Marion Andrew Humphrey Jr. is an organizer and a resident of Little Rock.

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LGBT center
By V.L. Cox

I was recently invited to exhibit my artwork at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York, and I was blown away by the amount of support it had from major corporations, the city and the state. The Center, which just underwent a $9 million renovation and has 300,000 visitors a year, offers endless resources not only to the LGBT community, but to the community as a whole. It offers programs in the arts and culture, recovery and wellness, family and youth, a resource center and is available for rentals for events.

I have never felt so welcomed, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged.

Arkansas definitely needs a community center like this. The Center gets funding from New York state as well as the city, as well as corporate support from such entities as Barneys New York, Bloomberg News, Citibank, HBO, JetBlue Airlines, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Prudential Insurance and Time Warner. There are companies in Arkansas whose policies reflect their support for LGBT rights, most notably Walmart, which as early as 2013 offered health benefits to same-sex partners, and Tyson Foods. Other national companies located in Arkansas known for their supportive position on LGBT rights that could be asked to contribute, including Alcoa (which still maintains a presence in Arkansas in Arkadelphia), Starbucks, Men's Wearhouse, McDonald's and Marriott International. There is, of course, the Arkansas Times as well.

V.L. Cox is an artist; her installation at The Center, "A Murder of Crows: The End Hate Collection," targeted discrimination and hate crimes against all minorities.

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Turn Arkansas into a vote-by-mail state
By Sarah Scanlon

Let go of elections being a one-day affair and do away with all barriers to the electoral process by instituting "vote-by-mail" in Arkansas.

Turnout in Arkansas for the 2016 general election was 64.5 percent, which was above the national average of 58.2 percent. But turnout in Colorado was 71.3 percent, turnout in Oregon was 78.6 percent and turnout in Washington state was 78.8 percent. The difference is that Washington, Oregon and Colorado all have permanent vote-by-mail systems.

In vote-by-mail states, ballots are mailed between 21 and 30 days before the election and are mailed back or dropped off at the election center by the voter by Election Day. Studies have shown that most of the ballots are returned in three stages — right after they are received (by those people who are nerds, like me), right after the first of the month in which they are mailed (presumably when people are sitting down and paying their bills), and right before Election Day. This is a secure system that has multiple safeguards in place to ensure the fidelity of the process.

Oregon and Washington also mail every voter a free booklet containing detailed information about the candidates and issues that are going to be on the ballot. In Oregon, for every positive statement for an issue or a candidate, opponents can pay a fee to place their own page with a rebuttal. These states also have an online portal where candidates for office can upload a video of their stump speech. Voters can see their candidates and get an idea of whom and what they are voting for.

With the evolution of early voting, we are starting to respond to the idea that Election Day doesn't have to be only a single day. I would prefer that we instituted mandatory voting (like Australia does), but in the absence of that, my big idea is turning Arkansas into a vote-by-mail state. Perhaps this is something that could be done community by community, eventually forcing the state to do the same.

Sarah Scanlon was the former state director for Bernie Sanders' primary effort in Arkansas and was national LGBTQ outreach director for Sanders' presidential campaign.

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Build a 21st century tax system around electronic transfers
By Andy Howington

Suspend your doubts about implementation and imagine a tax that is inherently progressive, impractical to avoid, and would relieve individuals, small businesses and large corporations alike from paperwork and filings.

The transaction tax would collect a fraction of a percentage from all electronic financial transactions, without exception. Anytime money moves from one account to another, a third of 1 percent of the transaction would be taken from the receiving account and put into state coffers by the financial institution. By the nature of the tax, those people and businesses moving large amounts of money would pay more into the government account. The small amounts raised would be overshadowed by the sheer volume of receipts.

Avoidance (by cash transfers) would be impractical. In this way, the state could raise money in such a way that would eliminate the need for sales, property, income and payroll taxes. The biggest winners would be lower- and middle-income households, while the biggest losers would be large corporations and financial institutions (who would still benefit from a reduction in paperwork).

Andy Howington is a small business owner.

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Expand broadband access
By Elizabeth Bowles

Arkansas ranks 48th out of 50 states for broadband connectivity. Although over 58 percent of Arkansans have access to broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second, 40 percent of Arkansans do not have broadband available in their area at all. The vast majority of these Arkansans live in rural areas. This leaves nearly half the state, 1.3 million Arkansans, without access to a fixed broadband connection capable of 25 Mbps download speeds; 148,000 Arkansans have NO fixed internet providers available where they live.

Interestingly, Arkansas ranks near the top for mobile phone penetration. However, although over 98 percent of Arkansans have access to mobile broadband of varying speeds, that alone is insufficient. While some mobile connections may be capable of 25 Mbps or higher, the data and usage caps that accompany most mobile connections make them unaffordable for many of the types of activities (such as Netflix or Hulu) that urban residents take for granted. Businesses and first responders who must rely on a mobile service for their broadband access cannot compete with urban businesses with access to fixed broadband, and economic developers will bypass communities where mobile broadband is the only available way to reach the internet. Access to fixed broadband is critical for rural communities to compete economically.

Where adequate broadband is available, students have access to global information and cultural resources previously unavailable; farmers gain real-time access to vital information such as crop prices, weather forecasts and marketing opportunities; doctors and medical professionals can consult with colleagues from larger hospitals not only within Arkansas but worldwide; small businesses can expand their reach to a global market; and communities overlooked because of lack of broadband can become viable for economic development.

Fiber has often been referred to as the "gold standard" for internet access, and it may be. But the cost of fiber can be prohibitive. My company, Aristotle, uses fixed wireless solutions to provide affordable, high-speed internet for rural and suburban communities in Arkansas. Aristotle recently installed networks in England and Keo and has expansion plans that call for coverage of a six-county area of the Arkansas Delta. Residents of these counties have been searching for a broadband solution that will allow them to become competitive in markets for crops, handmade goods and other economic development initiatives.

Although fiber remains an important part of Arkansas's broadband solution, fixed wireless is key to an overall broadband strategy. A hybrid network that includes fixed wireless broadband provides a more rapidly deployable and cost-effective option for connecting Arkansas citizens: Fixed wireless is less expensive to install than fiber and less expensive to maintain; it can be deployed in a fraction of the time that it takes to deploy fiber; it is capable of the same speeds and reliability as fiber; and for consumers who stream, fixed wireless costs 20 to 50 times less than mobile broadband and has no data caps. Satellite providers impose strict data caps while delivering weather dependent service.

Broadband networks, like fast-food chains, do better with competition. Structures that prevent competition by favoring a particular technology ultimately hurt the very communities those structures are attempting to help. In communities where only one provider is available, broadband take rates (the adoption of broadband by consumers) caps at 35 to 40 percent. It is only in communities where more than one provider is available that 68 to 75 percent adoption rates occur.

Broadband internet is essential to the future of education, businesses and communities in Arkansas, and fixed wireless broadband provides the ideal connectivity solution for many rural Arkansas communities. Often, due to topographical challenges — such as mountains, granite beds, forests and rivers — deployment of wireline solutions like fiber can be cost-prohibitive. Mobile solutions allow connectivity, but data caps and data overage charges make it unaffordable as a streaming broadband option and unattractive to economic developers.

Fixed wireless broadband offers comparable speeds and reliability to fiber at a fraction of the cost of deployment of a fiber network and at a fraction of the cost to the consumer of a mobile service. A hybrid solution that includes both fixed wireless and fiber is the best option to ensure all of Arkansas has comparable access to affordable broadband.

Elizabeth Bowles is president and chair of the board of Aristotle.

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Extend the Arkansas coding initiative to foreign languages
By Will Watson

Governor Hutchinson has led Arkansas computer science education into the future with his coding initiatives that have sparked unprecedented innovations in state curriculum. Arkansas kids can code, and they finally have the outlets to develop these vital skills to take part in a 21st century workforce.

We should extend this forward-thinking approach to promote the teaching of foreign languages — critical skills in the globalized market. Hutchinson has staked his legacy on Arkansas becoming an economic powerhouse, and investments in education are certainly the best way to make that happen. As we seek direct foreign investment from China and greater opportunity in other markets, let's make sure the next generation of Arkansans is prepared to negotiate those deals, navigate other cultures and import jobs and knowledge back to the state.

There's no better way to do this than investing in critical languages at the primary and secondary level. Exposing Arkansas students to Chinese, Japanese, German, Arabic, Korean and other languages vital to the global marketplace will produce immeasurable dividends in the future. Look at Arkansas-based companies like Slim Chickens, which is expanding into the Middle East. Imagine the application of having more Arabic speakers with educational and economic ties to Arkansas. If we're going to turn Arkansas rice into sake, as brewer Ben Bell is doing, let's have more Japanese speakers to learn the trade. The examples are countless.

Speaking a foreign language makes sense on a cultural, economic and security level. Arkansas can advance its competitiveness with global firms by being a leader not only in coding languages, but the written and spoken languages of the fastest-growing markets in the world. Foreign languages are vital to America's security, with plentiful opportunities in the armed services, intelligence and diplomatic communities. Making them a priority for our future in Arkansas just makes sense.

I challenge our legislature and governor to require and enable every Arkansas high school to offer access to at least one critical language by 2020. By doing so we can give Arkansans a marketable asset that will only grow our state's economic competitiveness and the strength of our schools.

Will Watson is a development officer at Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville.

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Increase processing options for local livestock producers
By Katie Short

Arkansas needs an alternative to U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected processing for direct-market livestock products. Regulations on meat processing have not caught up to the new, thriving market for locally sourced, humanely produced meat from smaller-scale farms. The USDA has relatively effective meat processing regulations designed to be minimally invasive for large-scale producers. But, in the same way that we don't have the physical and service infrastructure to meet the demands of the local food economy, we also lack the regulatory infrastructure.

It is almost impossible for would-be meat processors to enter the abattoir business because of the high costs of opening and operating a large industrial operation. For example, USDA regulations require an on-site inspector paid for by the facility. Despite real interest from chefs, butchers and restaurateurs in Central Arkansas, the cost of running a fully licensed USDA abattoir is so prohibitive as to even daydream about the potential of such a venture.

For farmers, this means abattoirs are a bottleneck. We have to work with the limitations of the two or three USDA-approved processors in the state or else drive our animals and products hundreds of miles to reach facilities in neighboring states. The logistics and expense of travel keep us on the highway instead of the farm and cause us to spend huge portions of our operating budgets on services outside the state, further adding to the long hours, stress and heavy operating costs that sink so many small farms before their third year of operation. And still, we can't meet the demands of the growing local foodie culture in the Little Rock area.

Meanwhile, almost every county in Arkansas has a "custom processor" — a mom-and-pop shop where local hunters have their deer cut up and where everything is tagged with a "not for sale" label. Custom plants are only for end users, unfortunately. If our farm could use a local custom processing plant to produce cuts that would be sold to consumers, we would be able to lower our prices, offer a wider variety of products and spend more time perfecting our farming as opposed to our driving.

Congress has proposed federal legislation to allow a means of regulating smaller-scale processors, but it has stalled. However, some states have created their own rules that meet federal standards for safety and cleanliness. Texas, for example, has set up a parallel system to USDA inspection that creates a license somewhere between a USDA facility and a custom-type plant. The state assigns an agent to supervise the handling of meat and ensure facilities meet basic requirements regarding contamination avoidance, basic humane care standards and so on.

Regulation is a good thing, in general. We need parameters to help us define the niche that we work within. But in this case, the regulation needs an update. Our meat production system has swung so far toward large-scale farming in the last 70 years that now we are left only with the tiny remnants of a bygone production system, and not a lot of resources to meet the demand generated by contemporary food culture.

For consumers, such reform would mean more choice. Not only would more farmers be able to more easily bring their products directly to market, there would be a huge opportunity for aspiring craft meat processors. Imagine if, like the blossoming of the gourmet food truck scene, we had a thriving community of creative artisan butchers suddenly able to manage the start-up costs of building or taking over a local custom processing plant. Today's foodies are embracing high-minded, highly crafted animal products, and Arkansas's livestock producers are eager to "meat" the need, but we have a dearth of specialists to convey our raw products into artisan food.

Katie Short and her husband, Travis, own and operate Farm Girl Meats, a family farm in Perry County.

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Create a statewide Next Gen Digital Economy Readiness Commission
By Rick Webb

A new digital economy that will have more impact than the industrial age is upon us. Heartland communities like those across Arkansas can compete for the demands of this new economy if we prepare. First, we need to decide what we want Arkansas to become over the next five, 10 and 15 years: A leader in data analytics/machine learning? A focus on health care and wellness? Global supply chain systems? Sustainability? Education? Smart cities? Or should we remain just another flyover state with average-paying jobs? We must quit competing among ourselves for resources and align on a master plan for the state. Then we can discuss specific roles for various communities and how we as a state should provide them with resources. We must insist on more impact from our business and institutions — enterprise businesses, universities, public and charter schools, state and city government, chambers and our evolving entrepreneur community. And we must change the perception of Arkansas from "the land of Walmart" to one that is leading the U.S. and having impact globally on how people live their lives with rapidly emerging technology and the changing needs of our citizens.

Rick Webb is director of Grit Studios, a business incubator in Bentonville focused on helping start-up founders grow their businesses to enhance the Northwest Arkansas entrepreneurial ecosystem.

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Be proud
By June Freeman

We should take pride in who we are and what we have. Little Rockers, like other Arkansans, are inclined to feel apologetic for not measuring up to life as it appears to be it in major cities. We have a lot going for us here, and there is always the opportunity to improve what we have if we work together toward that end. 

Many who live here think of Little Rock as being somewhere in the hinterland. But Little Rock is an international port city. One can travel to any part of the world by setting off from the shore of the Arkansas River. The reverse is true, too!

June Freeman is a retired journalist and advocate for the arts.

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More hiking and backpacking events in Arkansas
By Reggie Koch

In a time when we are encouraging people to be more active and spend more time outdoors, Arkansas has the space, the terrain and the beauty to be a hiking and backpacking hotspot. If we had more organized hiking and backpacking events, like the states along the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, our tourism and outdoor industry could thrive.

There is no shortage of places to head out on your Arkansas walkabout, and if solitude is what you want, then we've got ideal trails for you. The Arkansas state website boasts 31 backpacking trails (more than 200 if you include all the short day-hiking trails, most of which are only a couple of miles long), and some of them require multiday trips if you want to see the whole trail. These include two nationally recognized trails of over 200 miles each: The Ouachita National Recreation Trail and the Ozark Highlands Trail.

These trails are well maintained but sparsely used. Why?

In other popular activities, Arkansas has taken the initiative to organize events to attract attention to our great outdoors. For example, the Little Rock Marathon and the Big Dam Bridge cycling event both attract large crowds each year. But Arkansas is even more ideally suited for hiking and backpacking than it is for running and bicycling.

Other states enjoy hiking and backpacking crowds that support a large outdoor supply industry.

The Appalachian Trail, for example, begins in Georgia and extends through 14 states to Maine, and has millions of visitors every year. There are kickoff events each year, and there is a whole industry of outfitter stores, hostels and recreation areas supported financially by the trail visitors.

Let's organize some Arkansas hiking and backpacking events and encourage people from all over to see our state's abundant outdoor beauty.

Reggie Koch is a North Little Rock lawyer.

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A new park
By George Wittenberg

Create a park that is a bridge over the already sunken Interstate 630 from from 17th Street to the pedestrian bridge at MacArthur Park. It would be wonderful and historically correct. It is no great feat to cover the road by adding trusses over it, like they have already done in Seattle, Atlanta and Dallas. The trench of I-630 exists and so does the technology and even the financing possibilities. This park would knit the neighborhoods together again and, of course, by its very existence, positively affect property values.

This park was in a 2008 report, "Urban Design Vision Plan for the Southside Main Street Neighborhood," done when I was head of the UALR Urban Studies and Design Department. It also included bringing the streetcar down Main Street to 17th, turning it eastward one block to Scott, and then heading north. The route could be included in the construction of the park concurrently.

George Wittenberg is an architect and artist.


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