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Little Rock: Where the gold rules and just about everybody is connected 

A Little Rock Board decision took a little more space than normal. Plus, it’s a good time for full personal disclosure.

click to enlarge Little Rock Director Stacy Hurst image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Little Rock Director Stacy Hurst

Money talked at last week’s Little Rock Board of Directors meeting.

Asked to choose between the eloquent opposition of the city’s own professional planning staff and the people of Broadmoor, Fair Park, Point O’ Woods and the historic University Park neighborhood (developed for the city’s then-emerging black professional class), five of 10 directors and Mayor Mark Stodola (all white) voted for Murphy Oil. All three black directors were on the other side, with Joan Adcock and B.J. Wyrick.

Stodola, Stacy Hurst, Dean Kumpuris, Gene Fortson, Lance Hines and Brad Cazort approved a vast 20-pump Murphy Oil malt liquor and Slim Jim outlet (convenience store) at the foot of homes in University Park. This is on a site where Doug Brandon for years quietly sold high-end furniture.

The decision wrecks dreams of redevelopment of University Avenue south of I-630. Director Hurst never would have allowed it in her University protectorate north of I-630, home now to spiffy shopping centers thanks to a planning process she championed.

Murphy offered no case for a zoning variance except its profits. There are six such gas/store operations within roughly a mile radius. It brings no benefit, only harm, to the neighborhood. It will spur no future development.

Murphy’s Wayne Gibson, a school board member in El Dorado, got off on the wrong foot by insulting the public’s intelligence.

He claimed the store would spur economic development and city tax revenues. Out of the same mouth he claimed it would create no additional traffic because it would draw only from existing traffic. A new store doesn’t make cars in a city use more gas or their drivers buy more Honey Buns. Murphy will take business from competitors.

Then Gibson talked of Murphy’s corporate citizenship and its funding of the El Dorado Promise, a college scholarship for every graduate of El Dorado public schools. Bad idea.

Murphy, to the giant oil company’s credit, has kept its global home in El Dorado. It has invested heavily to preserve the public schools. It’s not just about education. It is also to stop white flight from El Dorado to suburban school districts.

Little Rock is another story.

Here, Murphy money developed Chenal Valley, the huge upscale residential development in western Little Rock. In the 1980s, the Murphy development company, Deltic Timber Corp., struck a deal with the devil in the form of city leaders to win a huge annexation without joining the Little Rock School District. The majority white Pulaski County District would provide its schools. Chenal Valley has been a business success and it’s a lovely place. The westward sprawl has also contributed to Little Rock school resegregation and core city decay.

Murphy got its annexation and more annexations. It also got huge city investments in a major arterial street and no fees for Chenal’s impact on city services, from police and fire to parks and sewers.

But that’s not all. The Murphy fortune is also being invested today in creating charter schools (a brand-new one will open this month amid Murphy property in Chenal Valley) that skim more fortunate kids from Little Rock public schools, to the detriment of those left behind.

One of the key backers of the charter school attack on Little Rock schools is Claiborne Deming, former Murphy CEO. He also was one of the first contributors, with a $2,000 check, to Stacy Hurst’s Republican campaign for state legislature. A couple of other Murphys have pitched in $2,000 more — so far. Dickson Flake, who packaged the real estate deal for Murphy Oil, is a $500 contributor to Hurst.

Hurst offered no public explanation for her vote to benefit campaign contributors. Later she said through a campaign spokesman, echoing Hines, that the corner is a commercial node. The gas pumps will be 300 feet from University Park houses, she said. That’s an argument — a poor one — for mitigation of damages to the neighborhood, but it still lacks positive reason for the project.

Stacy Hurst would be unhappy, undoubtedly, if a convenience store, rather than the Country Club of Little Rock, was 300 feet from her home.

The neighbors were well prepared and ignored. City Director Doris Wright and Joan Adcock were pointed and astute in defending the neighborhoods.

One of the most eloquent opponents was Pam Powell, who recently visited another convenience store once touted as economic development — a Kum & Go a few blocks down University at Colonel Glenn Road. Its presence helped spark creation of a 10-man police unit that now circles the area to put out crime brush fires. Powell visited at 11 p.m. and found three patrol cars on premises with another just departing.

Powell will soon be able to look down from her home on something similar (and if Dickson Flake continues to have his way) a “residence” motel next door. A “flophouse,” some neighbors fear.

Powell has a well-tended 2,000-square-foot house on property that the assessor values at $127,500. It carries a $1,787 tax bill, or about 20 cents per square foot of her 9,000-square foot lot.

Old real estate hands know where I’m going — to another bit of public favoritism for the Murphys.

The Murphy family acquired the Chenal land and much, much more as scrub timber acreage years ago for pennies.

That land is carried on the tax books as agricultural acreage — not at its much higher development value.

Example: The Murphy’s Deltic Timber arm recently sold 4.9 acres of vacant land in western Little Rock to a bank looking to build a new branch for $23.99 a square foot. Powell’s property is worth only $14, though it includes a house.

But the Murphy land is taxed at less than a penny a square foot, while Powell pays 20 cents on less valuable property.

Pam Powell, in other words, is effectively subsidizing city services for the Murphys, who’ve now been allowed to degrade her property value as well.

The big picture: A family that has profited enormously from Little Rock thanks to favorable annexation, tax and school treatment and which is contributing indirectly and directly to decay of the inner city and the Little Rock schools got still another favor last week — an anti-competitive favor at that. And not a single man or woman among the city directors had the guts to stand up and explain why.

Mayor Mark Stodola has not responded to my request for an explanation. He should be sheepish. He appointed the Planning Commission that has voted for developers over neighborhoods. Opponents to the gas station say commissioners have also been rude and condescending.

The gold rules in Little Rock.

And speaking of connections

I’ve been critical here of Director Stacy Hurst. She is running as a Republican for an open House seat also being sought by Democrat Clarke Tucker. Her supporters think it is unfair of me to write critically of her because I support Clarke Tucker.

It’s true that I’m likely to support Tucker. It’s also true that I went to college with his father, Rett, and that his mother, Becky, worked for my wife when she was a judge. My wife has given Clarke Tucker campaign contributions and volunteered in his campaign.

Is an opinion writer allowed to support one candidate and criticize another only so long as he doesn’t know the candidates personally or so long as no family members contribute tangible support?

I don’t see it that way. Readers may judge otherwise.

I’ve known Clarke since he was a child and then as a student body and organization leader at Central High, Harvard and the University of Arkansas Law School. He and I shared an admiration for and friendship with his law dean, Dick Atkinson. Tucker had no doubt he’d run as a Democrat, on philosophical grounds similar to my own.

Stacy Hurst, on the other hand, considered running as a Democrat until financier Warren Stephens counseled her against it. She has been a competent, studious and energetic city director, if rarely a leader. Her judgment on political parties was followed by another decision more clearly flawed — she allowed the disreputable Gilbert Baker to serve as a bundler for campaign money. It included fat checks from Michael Morton, the nursing home baron immersed in the Mike Maggio judicial scandal.

Hurst has declared she’ll be a moderate. It will be hard in a party with no demonstrated affection for moderation. She did forthrightly declare support for the private option Obamacare Medicaid expansion. But there’s no courage in that. Obamacare would easily win a referendum in a legislative district packed with health industry employees and where Barack Obama led the presidential ticket in 2012.

So, yes. Absent policy surprises before November I’ll likely support Tucker (who doesn’t represent my district.) My wife will continue, as ever, to do what she thinks is right for her.

In defense, I can say that I only seek progressive government in return — not a convenience store.

I’d add that personal knowledge can cut both ways. I have college friends and relatives with children I wouldn’t support for dogcatcher.

And while disclosures are on the table: Dean Kumpuris, also at Washington and Lee during my college years there, joined Hurst in the indefensible Murphy Oil vote. He’s not on the ballot this year. Good thing for him.

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