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Neighborliness, in Little Rock and beyond 

I had a parochial topic in mind this week — a surprise plan by Mayor Mark Stodola to address the Arkansas Arts Center's many needs.

He sprung the plan this week — a 2-cent hotel room tax to support a $35 million bond issue to repair, expand and redesign the arts center, while making some other improvements to surrounding MacArthur Park and the military museum. If voters approve, it would cement the museum in Little Rock and in the historic park. A poll indicates residents are supportive of a tax to be paid almost wholly by visitors. The Arts Center's leadership is on board, even though some remain unenthusiastic about the downtown location.

Obstacles exist: Hotels might prefer a convention bureau idea to build a sports facility to attract youth sports events that fill hotel rooms. Using up existing tax authority for a single recipient will disgruntle some other worthy organizations.

Those concerned about the neighborhood might be more enthusiastic if the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department could be deterred from its $600 million plan to widen Interstate 30 through the center of town, thus more deeply dividing the neighborhood. Other cities are tearing up freeways. Little Rock should, too. Then there'd be no barriers between downtown and the Quapaw Quarter on the west and the east side, where once-derelict industrial property now has homes, businesses and restaurants joining the presidential library and Heifer International in what could be the city's next great new neighborhood.

Opposition is rising to the disruptive highway scheme. Credit the mayor on this, too, as well as City Directors Kathy Webb and Ken Richardson and state Reps. Warwick Sabin and Clarke Tucker, along with the new urbanists who are rapidly reshaping attitudes about how a city should look and function. No thanks are in order for the hidebound chamber of commerce and its supporters from the west side who think wider freeways and bigger parking lots are how you measure city progress.

But I have digressed. Back to neighbors. And back to Sunday School.

I'm no Mike Huckabee nor Asa Hutchinson. I wasn't schooled at a Bible college and so I don't always share the "values" they tout. But I do remember the Great Commandment from First UMC Lake Charles, about loving your neighbor. I can still hum the junior choir hymn about the Samaritan who "loved his God and his neighbors, too, because that's what Jesus wants us to do."

Jesus apparently has other plans if the person in need is Syrian, at least according to Arkansas "values Republicans." In the face of impossible hardship and suffering, they want to close the doors on all Syrian refugees. No vetting could be strict enough, they insist, to guarantee 100 percent security.

Huckabee suggested closing borders to any country with a demonstrated presence of ISIS. Does he mean France and Belgium and England, too? Hutchinson said flatly Monday morning that he opposed Syrian refugees in Arkansas. The wretched masses of a war-torn land are other continents' problem, not ours (is this American exceptionalism at work?). Republicans have identified neighborliness as a weakness, though Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz said they could see admitting Syrian Christians.

Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) took the argument to its logical conclusion — he called for the banning of all Muslims' entry into the United States. He hasn't called for expulsion of the 12 million living here now — yet.

The next election may be determined by this issue. Democrats have generally supported a limited, carefully controlled refugee policy. Shouts from the other side are deafening. If the shouters prevail, I wish for a minute they'd at least shut up about this being a Christian nation.

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Chuck Haralson and Ken Smith were inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame during the 43rd annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism

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