Many years ago, the Times produced a special magazine on downtown development, “Turning the Corner.”
The River Market neighborhood was bustling. The hope was that the growth would turn the corner and spread along the Main Street corridor. Oh well.
Public outcry did stop the demolition of the historic Donaghey Building. But it stands derelict. Financier Warren Stephens has cleared several blocks of historic, but crumbling property. Block 2, the pioneering loft conversion at the foot of Main, has struggled. The Arkansas Repertory Theatre had to scale back its refurbishment. One private developer did create new residences just off Main, but the market hasn't been robust.
What does Main Street need? To help answer that question, Mayor Mark Stodola invited national experts to town last week for a grandly named Institute on City Design. It was a three-day program of walking tours and meetings. It was also a re-run.
Consultants should be hired as well as yet another city bureaucrat to work on development. Master plans should be drawn. Parking lots should be transformed to commercial and entertainment venues. Streetscapes should be improved with trees and lights. Access to the river should be improved. More parking is needed (but not more parking decks on Main Street). Wouldn't artists and their galleries — provided free space in the empty buildings — be a traffic lure?
Yadda yadda. Oh, and don't forget more “public support.” In other words, more bribes from taxpayers might encourage investors to ante a few private coins. Look around, experts. We already have a concrete testament to the insufficiency of public spending as development catalyst. See three parking decks, a convention center, a market complex, a ballpark, an arena, a vast riverfront park and more.
In the end, Main Street needs two things: 1) private investors and 2) people who'd like to buy, rent, lease or at least temporarily occupy the private investors' facilities.
People are harder to find than investors with spare cash. The Stephens family, for one, could scrape together venture capital if demand existed.
But Little Rock isn't growing in population. Our major growth is in the far west, removed from decaying neighborhoods and a troubled core school district. That growth was nourished by policies that encouraged sprawl.
Investors will revive Main Street and other neighborhoods if people come. They'll come if they see Little Rock as a city with good jobs, good schools, abundant parks, a lively arts scene and safe streets. Meanwhile, common sense wouldn't hurt.
For example: Businessmen might at least try some of the Little Rock district's better schools before reinforcing the uninformed prejudice against all of them. They might think before setting off a damaging revolution by trying to control election of “safe” school board members to govern a district they don't patronize. City officials might think twice about building ever broader and faster escape routes to remote suburbs. They might question the damage in tradeoffs (escape from city schools) to owners of annexed territories. When an investor does emerge downtown (W Hotel), perhaps city fathers' first inclination shouldn't be a protectionist kneejerk in behalf of existing businesses. I could go on.
The mayor's tour had one unintended bright spot — a visiting expert's praise of the “Heffner Project.” He was thinking of something else, of course, hunger-fighting Heifer International. But, hey. Bikini-clad models cavorting in downtown hot tubs? I can dream, can't I?