Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola has learned the downside of enhanced powers. With power comes blame when things don't get done.
Stodola has drawn criticism recently in a couple of high profile issues.
He's been accused of dawdling on working out a deal for use of the vacant Ray Winder Field in War Memorial Park. By contrast, he drew some criticism for having moved too swiftly on using a former motel and Job Corps center on Interstate 30 for a day center for homeless people.
I don't think Stodola necessarily should take the fall for the prolonged city dithering over War Memorial Park. There are many parties to satisfy. The Zoo wants the former baseball field. But it apparently is willing to settle for some additional land now under control of the state War Memorial Stadium Commission for parking. The commission is willing to give up this prime parking land to the zoo, but it wants more than just land compensation at a more remote site. It would like to nail down commitments for other park easements almost 15 years into the future. City Director Stacy Hurst, who has adopted War Memorial Park as her signature project, doesn't want the city to over-commit to the stadium commission. The long-term future of Razorback football games in Little Rock – the main reason for the stadium's existence – is by no means certain. Looming over it all is UAMS, the medical giant that is the city's biggest economic engine. It wants to grab all the land it can close to its existing buildings. It's happy to see the Zoo or park grow south of the Mills Freeway, but it prefers not to make that roadway leap (even though it already has in taking the former KARN building at the freeway and Cedar).
In all, this is ticklish stuff. Even the strongest mayor couldn't necessarily twist all these arms in the desired direction.
The homeless day center, still under study, is different. It pits the manifest needs of a desperately needy population against a neighborhood that doesn't want them around. No neighborhood does. Here, however, the alternative is an empty hulk of a building. That's not a good neighbor either. And there are expansive ideas for use of the building beyond a day shelter for homeless. The growing Arkansas Baptist College might be able to use some of the building for dorm space. Medical clinics and training programs are other uses for which the building is already prepared. A capable mayor could build a coalition and sell the bigger picture, still knowing the closest neighbors might remain grumpy. This will be a good test of Stodola's leadership skills.
The mayor could do worse than take up the invitation of Robert Johnston, a former state legislator and energetic advocate for the homeless, who insists crime fears related to the homeless are overstated. Johnston invites all to join him and the city's street people for breakfast or lunch at First Presbyterian's Stewpot, the Salvation Army or the River City Ministries in North Little Rock, temporarily providing day services. He writes:
“You will see 50-200 needy, well behaved citizens of Little Rock, very much like the folks who live across the street or down the block. You can get a free meal and sit down at a table, perhaps learn a little something about the difficulties of life on the street, dealing with one of the most pervasive prejudices in our society.”
Sounds like a photo opp, Mr. Mayor.