Columns » Max Brantley

Downtown: half-full

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I was in my normal grumpy mood following North Little Rock voters’ approval of a sales tax to pay for a new ballpark. I supported the regressive tax, grudgingly. The metro area seemed at risk of losing its minor league baseball team without a new stadium or a renovated Ray Winder Field, the team’s current home in Little Rock. But a fix of Ray Winder would have done little for attendance or the surrounding neighborhood. The North Little Rock ballpark might spur sympathetic neighborhood redevelopment. But I complained to a friend that such development could come only by dint of private capital and I was skeptical. The public has poured money into downtown — for Alltel Arena, for the River Market, for parking decks, for streetscape, for a streetcar line, for pedestrian bridges, for a Statehouse Convention Center expansion — but when, I asked, would the private interests ante up? Where are the big wallets like those that have supplied tens of millions for such smaller cities as Chattanooga, Tenn.? My friend shut me up. He compiled a list of private investments here. The projects and costs he supplied: Capital Commerce Center, $14 million; First Security Center, $25 million; Acxiom building, $38 million; Block 2 Lofts, $21 million; Peabody Hotel renovation, $35 million; Comfort Inn, $8 million; Holiday Inn Presidential Center, $10 million; Museum Center, $12 million; Rock Street Lofts, $4 million; Tuf-Nut Lofts, $2 million; Pour House renovation, $2 million; Melton Building, $1 million; Market Row, $2 million; Rainwater Flats, $4 million; Heifer International, $38 million for its headquarters and welcome center, with $60 million envisioned in the future for its Global Village; Lions World Services for the Blind, $4 million for property, with another $20 million projected to relocate its campus there; CareLink, $2 million worth of property and $8 million in the future for a building; 300 Third Tower, $36 million. Some of these are nonprofits, but they depend on the kindness of private citizens. A few have benefited from tax incentives or public assistance — such as a property tax break for Acxiom, tax credits for historic renovations, a convention center upgrade for the Peabody. But even with such asterisks, it’s hard to carp about a quarter-billion in new investments and $66 million to come. And this is only a tally of Little Rock projects. There’s also a $200 million omission — the Clinton Library. Without it, most of the projects my friend listed wouldn’t exist. (Can we agree that Little Rock taxpayers have gotten a handsome return on the $16 million they invested in land?) For all this, many gaps remain to be filled — vacant lots, derelict buildings, a seedy Main Street and the large warehouse and residential district within sight of the Clinton Library. Still, I’m willing to say downtown’s glass is half-full now, rather than half-empty. But we’re still near the limit of what the public can do to top off the glass. The private sector’s continued willingness to invest will define the fullness of downtown’s promise. n CORRECTION: There’s a limited availability of vending machines, including soft drinks, for secondary students at Pulaski Academy, contrary to what I wrote last week.

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