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‘Free’ enterprise

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Bruce Burrow's proposed Dark Hollow shopping center continues to receive special handling in North Little Rock. Without public notice, approval of tree clearing was placed on the Planning Commission's agenda Tuesday night. Commissioners voted on a rough diagram for an unspecified number of acres. Commissioner Steve White cast the sole negative vote. The Democrat-Gazette quoted him as saying, “My concern is they'll cut down all those trees, clear the land and then nothing will happen for two or three years.”

Since the plan is now four years old, there's reason for concern. There's also still hope that public outrage, or a lawsuit, could disrupt the public subsidies Mayor Pat Hays is intent on lavishing on Burrow.

Mayor Hays pushed creation of a Tax Increment Finance District for this $150 million development, with Bass Pro Shops as the anchor. This means, to the extent authorized by law, developer Burrow will be able to pay some 15 mills in property tax on his shopping center to himself, rather than to the normal recipients — North Little Rock public schools, North Little Rock and county governments and the Arkansas Children's Hospital.

It's a considerable subsidy, worth as much as $450,000 a year for 25 years if the project is fully realized. Think how many children that could educate. Or how many guards it could hire for the county jail. Or how much it could reduce the burden of North Little Rock's skyrocketing electric rates.

Burrow bought this wetland at a song precisely because it is a wetland. The subsidy will allow him to drain it, an environmental foul to which the Corps of Engineers gave a wink and a nudge. Mayor Hays has also promised — he hasn't made clear how — to come up with the money to build an expensive freeway entrance on a devilishly difficult stretch of busy freeway.

And for what? The city will become a passive investor in doing competitive damage to existing sporting good stores, movie theaters and restaurants. None of these enterprises is entitled to government protection from competition, but they shouldn't have to compete with the public treasury to stay in business either.

The North Little Rock School District, which needs every dollar it can get, opposes TIF subsidies here and at other places the mayor has proposed. The Constitution seems clear to us that money voted for schools should be spent only on schools, not sporting good stores.

If this development makes sense, let it proceed the old-fashioned way. Let the investors take the risk, not taxpayers. And please, Mr. Mayor, no more unannounced votes on the public's business.

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