There was a lot of whining going on last week when the North Little Rock mayor and seven of the eight aldermen decided to ask citizens to vote Aug. 9 to raise the sales tax for 1 cent for two years to pay for building a new baseball stadium for the Arkansas Travelers on the northside’s river front.
Some citizens (and one alderman) are complaining that they want the stadium but don’t want to add another penny to the sales tax, which is already 8 percent when you include county and state sales taxes. Some merchants say that if the tax is raised their customers might scamper to Little Rock to shop since its sales tax will be a penny less than North Little Rock’s. Restaurateurs moaned that the North Little Rock taxes were already “the highest tax rates in the nation for food and beverages.”
Of course, this is all our fault. Arkansans have a habit of electing politicians who think that the sales tax is the only way to finance the people’s needs. They don’t dare to raise the property tax or the income tax because that would irritate the wealthy people who would immediately stop giving money to them for their re-election campaigns.
There was also a lot of complaining by Little Rock people — those who have always thought that North Little Rock was just a bit below them. They thought that since the Ray Winder Field had been in Fair Park in Little Rock for 73 years that it ought to stay there. Undoubtedly, these were the people Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was talking about when he said that there were “tremendous numbers who wanted to keep the stadium in Little Rock.” One of them was Stacy Hurst, a member of the Little Rock Board of Directors, who said she would “love it to stay in Little Rock.”
That’s funny. Five years ago major league leaders told minor league baseball teams in antique stadiums like the Travelers’ that they had either to modernize their stadium and field or lose their franchise. Several cities refused and their teams are now playing elsewhere.
Attendance at Ray Winder Field has dropped; fans these day are not attracted to stadiums three-quarters of a century old. Today’s stadiums have air-conditioned boxes, elevators, restaurants and places for kids to play while the parents watch ball games. So some of the bright young businessmen in Little Rock — those who are doing their very best to make downtown Little Rock come alive — started looking at ways to modernize the field in Fair Park or possibly build a new one somewhere in midtown Little Rock. But the mayor, the city manager and the city board paid little attention to the problem.
Last fall, Warren Stephens, head of Stephens Inc., the investment bankers, bought 11 acres on the North Little Rock riverfront and said he would give it to the city if it built a new baseball stadium on it. A committee went to see new stadiums and had experts come up with plans for a modern facility. The study showed that it was going to cost something like $28 million, and though it was a high price, the mayor and aldermen decided to ask the citizens to raise the tax to pay for it.
Well, some Little Rock people suddenly got interested in baseball, saying that if the people in North Little Rock voted against the new tax, they will build a new stadium somewhere and somehow in Little Rock. Of course, the right thing Little Rock should have done was to ask its citizens to join North Little Rock and raise the sales tax in both cities to build the stadium on this ideal free land. Had that happened, the money could have easily been raised with only a one-half percent increase in the sales tax.
But, no, Little Rock made no such offering. Its position is that if the North Little Rock voters refuse to pay for the baseball stadium, Little Rock would find a way to pay for it and build it somewhere in Little Rock.
You see, some of its citizens are still angry that while people in Little Rock, Pulaski County and North Little Rock voted to pay for the Alltel Arena, it was built in North Little Rock.
One of these days, the people in Little Rock and North Little Rock are going to think of this as being one city rather than two and that the attractions on the two riverfronts are what are bringing more people here than anything else.
Witt Stephens, the man who created Stephens Inc., once lived and raised a family in North Little Rock. I got to know him and was lucky enough to eat lunch with him occasionally before he died. He often said that Little Rock and North Little Rock were simply one town and that all of us ought to be proud of it.
If Witt were alive today, he would be very proud of his nephew, Warren Stephens, who is trying to build something in the right place that will bring the two cities closer.