Big ideas 

For Little Rock, North Little Rock and Central Arkansas

Make elected officials work and make the lottery work for art
By 607

1. The only time we see a lot of elected officials in our communities is when it's time to vote. We need more community interaction. The answer? Force city and state officials to do mandatory community service hours in the areas they represent. It would familiarize people with those who're speaking for them and expose the officials to ideas they might never hear otherwise.

2. Devote an allotted portion of lottery money to vouchers to artists who perform community service. Maybe make a stipulation that the volunteer work has to relate to education. It would enrich the quality of life for our creative class, which is key for growing population and tourism. And we can always use more community interaction. The more interaction we have in our communities, the less crime we'll have.

Adrian “607” Tillman is a rapper, community servant and world traveler. His latest album, as part of the group Ear Fear, is “Album of the Year.”


Rethink private schools

By Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough

We should develop a new private school system, funded by philanthropists and Little Rock businesses, mandatory only for students who are performing below grade level. The new system would recruit and hire the top administrators and teachers from around the nation, with starting teacher salaries in excess of $75,000, and bonuses based on student performance. As a part of this system, there would also be a free boarding school option for students from the most impoverished areas to give their parents an opportunity to stabilize their personal lives while the child can safely focus on education.

This new private district would provide resources (human and financial) comparable to our ever-expanding private schools in the area, except the students will be mostly poor, and mostly people of color. New facilities and campuses would be constructed throughout the area.

The three largest school districts would be consolidated into two districts — Little Rock and North Little Rock. For Little Rock (and potentially North Little Rock) the district would be led by a superintendent that is hired by and reports to the mayor. There would be no school board. After hearing Joel Klein and recently Michelle Rhee talk about how this facilitates real change, I am convinced boards and their bureaucracy can't do it. But this will require bold leadership by the superintendent and mayor; there will be no room for timidity.

Essentially, the students with the toughest challenges would migrate to the private school system with the strongest teachers and resources, while the public schools would be able to focus on already proficient students and focus on pushing them to become exceptionally performing students.

Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough is the president of Philander Smith College.


Grow food for the kids
By Ragan Sutterfield

Study after study has shown how basic cognitive and social function improves with better nutrition, but we still serve our children food that is highly processed and of low nutrient value. We need to provide our children with better nutrition and that would ideally come from locally produced, high nutrient value vegetables.

We also have a city that is filled with empty, abandoned and unused lots and large numbers of unemployed, at-risk youth, who need job skills. We also have young farmers who are well-trained through programs like those at Heifer Ranch. Why don't we offer to pay one of these farmers a salary to produce food for two or three schools and provide job skills to high school students through summer internships on the farm? Why don't we train at-risk youth how to work in a professional kitchen by having them cook and prepare fresh food for schools? Why don't we offer free water, compost, and mulch to a young farmer who wants to reclaim a weed lot for a garden and guarantee her a market through the schools?

Ragan Sutterfield is the co-founder of Felder Farm, a school-based farm at Felder Alternative Learning Academy.


Tie development to preservation
By Christopher Burks

Sure, Little Rock has a land bank, special development districts, a renewed central focus, a board and a purpose ad nauseam. But official words and deeds blend together into a blurred mess when you can't see beyond the empty lots, shuttered houses and the vacuum of urban decay on the one hand, and the blandness of another strip mall erected on formerly pristine woodlands, another walled subdivision and another undersized two-lane road on the other.

Little Rock can grow smart by utilizing transferable development rights (TDRs). Like cap and trade in carbon and emissions markets, TDRs work as an exchange where the right to build at a greater density, or intensity, than current zoning allows for is granted only after a section of another area of land is preserved.

For example, what if much of the remaining property in downtown could be developed as prime commercial real estate without certain restrictions only if a dedicated amount of undeveloped land was granted to a park or nature preserve in West Little Rock?

Instead of forcing one group that wants to develop a high-density area to also own land in an undeveloped area, TDRs create a secondary market where those who own land in either location buy and sell the rights to development. It'll incentivize development for the common good.

Chris Burks is a law student at the University of Arkansas who has worked in public policy and remains active in Democratic Party politics.


Tear down I-630
By Cary Tyson

Like all long-lasting revitalizations, Central Arkansas's traditional commercial core is amidst a slow renewal. But the process is disconnected. We have separate groups working in the South Main neighborhood and downtown and in the River Market. Because we're divided. I-630 separates our city.

So tear it up and start over. Expensive? Sure. But necessary for long-term holistic revitalization? Absolutely. It's not without precedent either. All over the country — in Oklahoma City, Portland and San Francisco — cities are in the process of destroying poorly planned highways. (Really, name another interstate that ends in a traffic light.)

Build a boulevard in place of 630. It could accommodate similar traffic flow, but at lower speeds; reconnect our neighborhoods, and spark new revitalization. Every once in a while, smart growth means starting over.

Cary Tyson is president of the Park Hill Neighborhood Association.


Bocce bar
By Graham Gordy

With alcohol as my only stimulation, I can't spend more than an hour in a bar. People who do are called “alcoholics.” For the rest of us, we need games. Darts? Sure. Pool? Okay. Shuffleboard tables? Ping-pong? Even air hockey? All great. But what about bocce ball? Dark wood-paneled walls, great beers on tap and vintage cocktails. Oh, and four or five bocce ball courts in the middle of the room with a sign-up sheet at each one. Put small tables around the perimeter and a bartender who knows the difference between a gimlet and a Gibson, and I'm not going home till they turn the lights on.

Graham Gordy is an award-winning screenwriter and producer living in Little Rock.


Urban agri tourism, and an energy park too
From John Gaudin

What this city needs is an urban farm, somewhat like a huge botanical garden, right downtown. Not only would this be a great source of food and a huge tourist attraction, it could be used for educational purposes as well. Local schools could use the grounds for field trips and the city could also hold classes there in an attempt to give kids and adults a better understanding of where food comes from. In order to fulfill its true potential, the farm should be located in the urban core. Downtown North Little Rock, near Verizon Arena, at the foot of the Junction Bridge, would be an ideal location for the tourist attraction.

Another thing that would encourage tourism and promote a greener lifestyle would be an energy park. Here, we could show off the best and the brightest the state has to offer in alternative energy including solar panels, windmills and green building techniques, all of which would also supply power back to the grid. This energy could be used by lower-income families near downtown North Little Rock. There has been over $150 million in new development in the downtown area over the past five years; these two things would only encourage more.

John Gaudin is an investment advisor and developer in downtown North Little Rock.


Bring the movies downtown
By Brent Renaud

There has never been a more exciting time for film in Central Arkansas than now. The Little Rock film festival last May, in just its third year, screened to more than 15,000 people in just five days. The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival continues to cultivate a national reputation and Christopher Crane at the Arkansas Film Office is working hard to bring big-budget Hollywood films and television shows to our state, which is great for jobs and tourism. Couple this proven enthusiasm for film with the continued development of the waterfront on both sides of the river, and the time is perfect for a flagship film center that would show the best in independent and foreign films and host film festival screenings and special events.

Maybe something hip like the Alamo Draft House in Austin, Texas, where you can order beer and chicken wings delivered to your seats as you watch an independent new release on a big screen; or something a bit more upscale like the Epicenter Theater in Charlotte, N.C., where there are four theaters with large plush seats and a lobby occupied by an upscale restaurant and bar.

Downtown development, on both sides of the river, has begun to attract a young and sophisticated group of people to either stay in Little Rock or move to the city. Many already understand that the success of this urban experiment is tied directly to the economic and cultural future of each city. A film center would go a long way toward helping to cement a permanent sense of community along the river.

Brent Renaud is a filmmaker and a founder of the Little Rock Film Festival. His latest film is “Warrior Champions.”


Encourage green homes
By J.D. Lowery

Many people are looking for ways to “green” their lives. We know that buildings and homes are the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. While some people fear that taking energy efficient measures in their homes will amount to a drastic change in lifestyle, that's typically not the case. Plus, it can put money in your pocket. We know the cost of energy will continue to rise. So what is with the holdup to going green? It is that certain shade of green known as upfront costs. So, how do we do it?

One New York town offers a model for Central Arkansas to follow. Located in Long Island, the town of Babylon introduced a residential retrofit program that requires little to no out-of-pocket costs for home owners.

This simple revolving loan fund is issued when residents obtain an energy audit by a town-approved contractor who prepares a detailed report on cost-saving opportunities. The city then pays up to $12,000 for any and all of the improvements the resident wants to pursue. After the work is complete, the homeowner makes monthly payments to the town. Payments are structured to be less than the energy savings projected by the audit, ensuring immediate savings for the consumer.

The pool of money for a program like this could come from many sources: city, county, or state governments, stimulus funds or even from a portion of the millions of dollars that go to utility bill assistance in Arkansas each year. It seems far better to treat the sickness and not just the symptoms.

Furthermore, there are many partnership opportunities with any of the above entities and non-profit groups, churches or a number of other local organizations dedicated to empowering individuals and families. We know that increasing one's disposable income is a sure-fire way to support the local economy. We have the ideas and the resources right here. So what's the holdup?

J.D. Lowery is the project manager for Viridian USA.


Churches without barriers
By Taido Chino

Closed-minded. Hypocritical. Segregated. Judgmental. Self-absorbed. Irrelevant. These are all words that the students with which I work once used to describe the church. Not just our church, but the church in general.

I wish that I could have disagreed, but the reality is that all too often, these words are exactly what the church in America has become. Without really realizing it, these students were expressing their desire to see the church wake up and embrace the ideals presented in the pages of the New Testament.

But if that is going to happen, then barriers of all kinds that have unknowingly been erected over the centuries will need to come down, like the barrier of race.

Why is it that Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week? Why does every race worship with people who look just like them? Jesus didn't come to establish a bunch of different ethnic enclaves. He came to call people from every tribe, tongue and nation.

Another huge barrier the church needs to recognize and overcome is this idea that it is a place for the morally pure to come and hang out on Sundays, patting each other on the back for how well they have done in avoiding sin that week. No. What Jesus and his followers taught us is that the church was meant to be a place for everyone. The hurting, the broken, the addict, the skeptic are all welcome to come and find answers, freedom, healing and help.

But maybe the biggest barrier is the belief that “church” is what happens inside the walls of the building, rather than who we are when we drive away from the parking lot. What the Bible describes is pretty straightforward, namely that the church would be so motivated by the love of God that it would reach out and care for the “least” among us, that the poor, the orphan, the widow, the prisoner would all find a friend in the church and that the church wouldn't just be an institution for charity, but people who are charitable.

Taido Chino is the pastor to students at Fellowship North church in North Little Rock.


Intergenerational date night
By Joyce Elliott

Old, older, young and younger people need to have fun together, engage in healthy folly. We don't know how to relate to one another because we fail to have fun together — by design.

We need a healthy dose of togetherness across the lines of age. Unlike many, dare I say most, other countries, Americans define their fun by the lines, or lack thereof, in their faces, rather than the mirth in their hearts, though deeply buried it may be. So here is my unapologetic, immodest proposal: Every other month, let's hold a citywide date night at some large venue. Only mixed-generation couples will be allowed. Gender doesn't matter. There are lots of available dates in retirement homes and in schools/colleges, for example. There could be dancing, singing, skating, stand-up comedy, sports, poetic smack-downs, etc. Whatever the activity, it must be kinetic, joyous and/or interactive! Nothing passive, nothing cerebral.

Results: We could reconnect ties that we have unwisely, artificially severed and move miles toward rebuilding community. We could help young people understand what it means to grow old, that it doesn't have to be a stage of dread. We could help older folks retain and recapture their “groove.” It doesn't have to be just Stella who got it back! We could become less suspicious and more nurturing of one another. Most important of all we could renew our duty of humanity to accept responsibility for each other.

Okay, I admit it: I am advocating public displays of love and happiness.

Shall we dance?

Joyce Elliott is a state senator from Little Rock.


Create a vibrant start-up community
By Matt Price

How do we create high-tech jobs in Central Arkansas? The first answer is easy, education. Everything gets easier the more educated people become. But what do we do in the meantime? My big idea is to create a vibrant tech start-up community in Central Arkansas.

I believe tech start-ups, more specifically Internet start-ups, could represent the biggest shift in our economy as a whole since the Industrial Revolution. Changes in technology allow start-ups to compete against much larger competitors. Start-ups are more nimble, not capital-intensive and they scale very quickly, making them very disruptive in the marketplace.

Governor Beebe and our state government have taken several steps to promote start-ups, including providing resources like Innovate Arkansas and the Seed Capital Program through the Science and Technology Authority. Although these are great programs and have already helped many start-ups (Capsearch.com included!), they are not the whole solution.

One model that has promise is Y Combinator. Y Combinator is a new kind of venture firm that helps start-ups through what many consider to be the hardest step, the one from idea to company. This model provides very small investments ($25,000 to $50,000) and then introduces start-ups to larger investors.

This is a good start, but if an investor in Silicon Valley offers them a larger investment they would most likely relocate. So then what?

What if we paid start-ups to relocate to Little Rock? Let's assume it would cost a million dollars per business. If we could get start-ups to stay in Little Rock for a million apiece, then for $100 million we could bring in 100 new businesses. For the price of a football stadium, Little Rock could turn itself into one of the biggest start-up cities in the country. That would probably help us keep our best and brightest, and might even produce a lot of revenue for the city and the state.

Matt Price is the CEO and co-founder of Capsearch, an on-line-based legislative research company.

Teach kitchen skills
By Jack Sundell

Whatever the economic environment, we love to eat out. The average American spends more than 50 percent of his or her food dollar dining out. As long as we need restaurants, restaurants need reliable and well-trained kitchen staff. Why not create a pool of qualified applicants by reaching out to economically disadvantaged young adults through a not-for-profit kitchen skills training course?

Here's how it would work: Chefs from the Little Rock area would create a 10-week curriculum to teach desirable kitchen skills to students with little or no restaurant experience. Classes would include ServSafe Certification (a comprehensive, accredited food safety course), knife skills, sauce making, baking and pastry making and wet and dry cooking techniques — all the practical know-how a chef likes to see in a new hire, wrapped into an intensive hands-on culinary course. Students would learn usable job skills; chefs would train their own future employees.

At the course's conclusion, a placement program would match graduates with participating restaurants. The student then would begin a 10-week paid internship at a member restaurant; if the trial period went well, the intern would stay as a full-time employee.

Course participants could include at-risk youth, young adults seeking a new career or an alternative to college, or anyone else the traditional education system has failed to provide an opportunity for. The program would fund itself partially through grants, but would also solicit paid restaurant memberships for its intern placement program. Restaurants could also sponsor an individual student for the 10-week course by paying his or her tuition.

Everyone benefits in this scenario: Restaurants by not wasting time and money for on-the-clock training of inexperienced personnel; course participants (and their families) by entering the job market; the city from more stable jobs and fewer jobless; and the people of Little Rock, who all like to go out for a good meal once in awhile.

Jack Sundell is co-owner of the Root Cafe.

 

LiTRAIL — train transit for Central Arkansas.
By Daniel Lilly

9/11 changed everything.

That awful day found me working as a reservations agent at the now-shuttered Southwest Airlines call center in Little Rock. Soon after the attacks, we would learn that 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, a country that supplies 45 percent of the oil that we import, and that we import 65 percent of the oil we use.

Then and there, I vowed not to fund the oil war. I parked my car, sold it for scrap months later and haven't driven in the ensuing eight years.

Inspired by what I experienced in other cities across the world, I began studying the possibility of a light rail system that would link places in Central Arkansas. LiTRAIL was the result.

The LiTRAIL name is a play on the three-letter code for the state's largest airport (LIT), which would be the first destination of the first half of the first phase of a light-rail network. Ultimately, LiTRAIL would reach a third of the state's population, with a system using existing trolley tracks, some new tracking and the medians of existing interstate and U.S. highways — land already publicly owned — on routes linking Conway, Cabot, Benton and Pine Bluff to Little Rock's core. In its first phase, LiTRAIL would offer transportation to the airport from downtown Little Rock, making use of existing trolley tracks and a new route. The rail line would run from downtown west along Interstate 630 to Shackelford Road, where a new transportation center would be built to accommodate commuter cars. Later phases would add routes along interstates to connect to other cities in Central Arkansas.

LiTRAIL is not simply about laying track and running trains. The design calls for developing a uniform set of thousands of pre-cast concrete forms, similar to a huge culvert, with trackbed laid atop the form and space for utility lines below. Their uniformity would substantially reduce construction time and cost while providing a platform for fiber optic cable, natural gas lines, electric lines, high speed imaging lines and telecom, among others. Access charges to those utilities would provide stable, long-term revenue.

Sound like pie in the sky? It's not just my pie. Metroplan's Metro 2030 long-range transportation plan adopted in 2005 calls for an investment of about $1.5 billion in light rail to connect Little Rock to Conway, Benton and Jacksonville.

Is there the political will to make light rail real? We'll see. I'm going to just keep throwing mud against the wall until something sticks.

Daniel Lilly is the former Cpl. K-9 in the Arkansas Times and the first professional full-time dog walker in Little Rock.

 

Dedicate a revenue source for parks
By Jordan Johnson

Contrary to comparable cities, Little Rock has made great strides in the last decade to enhance its public parks, adding new park land and making major improvements to existing facilities. Not only do parks enhance neighborhoods and the areas around them, they also help promote tourism and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

It can even be argued that parks play an important role in economic development and recruitment to the region. For examples look no further than Riverfront Park, the Clinton Presidential Park, War Memorial Park, Murray Park and MacArthur Park.

With a declining sales tax base, the city of Little Rock faces some tough challenges in regard to future funding of our parks. Currently, parks are funded through the city's general fund. As a result, whenever there is a budget shortfall, the parks budget is one of the first items on the chopping block. This system means Little Rock may see an overall decline in quality of city parks as projected city revenues continue to lag. When the quality of city parks diminishes, so does quality of life. Crime can go up and economic investment can go down. Just ask other cities that have learned valuable lessons on what happens when parks are no longer among a city's top priorities.

What the parks need is a dedicated funding source — such as dedicated revenue bonds or a short-term sales tax. North Little Rock dedicates a penny of its advertising and promotion tax to its parks, and the result can be seen in its amenities, like the new baseball complex going up in Burns Park. Until such a source is identified and secured, the quality of our parks could erode to a point of no return, taking with it unrealized economic development opportunities, tourism attractions, healthy lifestyle options, and overall quality of life for residents in Little Rock.

Jordan Johnson is a community advocate and a vice president at CJRW. He also serves as a Little Rock Parks commissioner.

 Note: To read the entire Native's Guide issue, go here.

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