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Building a greater Little Rock 

Despite North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith's earlier optimism, there won't be a special sales tax election this year, maybe ever, to see if his city's voters would dedicate a penny to providing a new home for the Arkansas Arts Center in downtown Argenta.

The Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, the nonprofit that provides charitable support for the Arts Center, has polled voters in both Little Rock and North Little Rock about taxes to support a new arts center. In a brief statement, Smith said results in his city were "favorable." I've been told two polls actually found scant support among taxpayers.

Smith emphasized that a public-private "partnership" could be successful. But, to date, no specific commitment on the private side has been publicly made, only a one-sided potentially $100 million taxpayer investment in a Little Rock institution that some regrettably view as an elitist preserve.

Also, a consultant helping the Arts Center study options for a new building apparently wasn't impressed by the North Little Rock location. Little Rock has mentioned several potential sites, including a different patch of ground near its current home in MacArthur Park, but hasn't been nearly so forceful as Joe Smith.

What now? The answer, I fear, is that the Arts Center will shuffle along, patching as necessary a less-than-perfect facility. What was once the state's pre-eminent arts institution until the Walton-financed Crystal Bridges came along would be well served by a new home.

What's needed — and it's easy for me to say — is a major philanthropic commitment. No great museum lacks it.

I don't doubt the desire of people like Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and Downtown Mayor Dean Kumpuris to meet the perceived needs of the Arts Center. I do doubt the city's ability to contribute any significant sum to the project. I cheered Smith's idea if for no other reason than it had an element of vision too often lacking in our civic endeavors.

We'll turn over tax money to keep an existing business from fleeing Little Rock for Texas. We'll tax poor people's groceries to provide office space to which technology industries will supposedly flock. We ignore the clear lesson of Silicon Valley. A garage is good enough for great thinkers, particularly when propelled — not by cheap rent in a city building, but by millions in private venture capital.

Public money can build great infrastructure. Renovation of Robinson Auditorium is one worthy example, thanks to our elastic hamburger tax that grows on visitors' and commuters' hotel and meal purchases despite our meager population growth. Too bad we missed a chance to do something brave and bold with the adjacent Broadway Bridge.

But there is a way to support visionaries. Voting now underway will be completed July 14 on a proposal by the Central Arkansas Library System to REDUCE the library property tax by a tenth of a mill. But the tax would be extended to pay for refinanced bond issues. Net effect: some $10 million for building and technology improvements for a system that continues to illustrate the value of infrastructure investment.

Library Director Bobby Roberts, retiring this year, has built a system of architecturally interesting, people-thronged community gathering places. They have been built to last, like government buildings once were always built. They are concrete symbols of a vibrant community.

If we are not yet ready to strike a blow for a better arts center, at least we can continue to support our library. Vote yes.

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