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DOGin' the VA 

VA 2nd and Ringo
  • The existing VA drop-in center at 2nd and Ringo

With the Republican primary occupying most of the national news cycle and the state fiscal session, despite Minority Leader John Burris' best efforts, a bore, maybe Paul Greenberg and co. grew restless and simply couldn't hold the bile inside anymore. How else to explain the Democrat-Gazette editorial page's hysterical opposition to the Department of Veteran Affairs plans to open an expanded veterans service center on Main Street? That the D-G opposes the VA's plan to serve veterans, including homeless veterans, at a former auto shop on 10th and Main streets isn't especially surprising; the paper's editorial page is usually on the wrong side of an issue. That it's directed a level of vitriol at the VA once reserved for the Clintons strikes me as worth noting.

Critics of the VA's plan, including Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, argue that the VA didn't consult with the city or neighborhood groups before signing a lease on the Main Street property. As the Times has reported, the VA advertised its interest in a new location for eight days in July and the property owner's realtor said he advised the city prior to the November sale. No matter, the D-G has sussed out the real insult — insidious federal overreach. "Naturally the plan to plunk down this clinic where it could do the most harm was undertaken without the informed consent of local people or full consultation with local government," a Feb. 7 editorial argued. "The VA just published a notice informing its subjects what was coming. Now we're all supposed to fall in and follow orders. Jawohl!" In case it's been a while since you watched the History Channel ("all Nazis, all the time!"), the allusion in that last word is meant to suggest that the Department of Veteran Affairs is behaving like fascist Germany. Better yet, the editorial also praised city hall for a proposed ordinance that would put the zoning of a wide range of businesses and organizations, including the VA, under city purview. Because bureaucracy is OK when it does what we want it to.

The notion of the "harm" the clinic would inflict on the neighborhood in the above quote reflects the D-G's most risible charge: that the VA center would "help kill Main Street." That line also comes from the Feb. 7 editorial, which additionally argues that the VA's plans were coming "just as Main Street was getting its groove back." The D-G expands along that line in a Feb. 17 editorial: "It hasn't been too long since Main Street was something of a disaster zone, one boarded-up building after another, a picture of slowly spreading neglect ... But old Main has made great strides since those not-so-long-ago years. There are signs of hope, enterprise and investment up and down the street now. Because good people put their money and energy where their hopes were."

A picture of a vibrant Main Street from 1958 accompanied the Feb. 17 editorial.

Evidently, the D-G editorialists haven't walked down Main Street since then. Aside from the state Department of Human Services office, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, the two hardware stores that provide an antidote to big-box land, Bennett's military supply, a combination wig shop/two-suits-for-the-price-of-one store and a video rental store that specializes in porn, ain't much happening on Main Street. The jazz cafe that was supposed to be at the vanguard of reviving the street has apparently closed after being served an eviction notice from its landlord and not paying taxes. Maybe a new cigar bar can fill its place.

It's true; good people are at work at reviving Main Street. But north of the interstate, they don't have much to show for it. On the south side, Main Street's revival is well underway. Perhaps so as not to confuse it with the north stretch of the street, area leaders have branded it SoMa. Last Saturday, I stopped by an open house at the Oxford American's new home in the former Juanita's location. If the OA can secure funding for its vision of turning the space into a restaurant/venue that regularly hosts nationally known artists, it could be the driver of Main Street revitalization. So it was heartening to hear OA publisher Warwick Sabin say that in a recent grant proposal he'd included a special section about how the magazine wants to exist within the neighborhood, not see it gentrified. That, to me, sounds like a prescription for Main Street to get its groove back.

A previous version of this column incorrectly said the VA gave notice to the Little Rock Homeless Commission in April. That commission, officially known as the Mayor's Commission on Homeless Services, has not functioned in some time, but a variety of city officials have been aware of the VA's search for a new location as far back as 2007.
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