Little Rock has a mountain of potential thanks to the very strategic positioning of the city, potential access to technology, being a capital city, and the quality of regional centers for higher learning. Yet Little Rock faces a huge issue of a long period of being generally stagnant as a city.
So much so that it is often brought up as a primary concern when I spend time talking with developers and investors. They are starting to pull out of Little Rock in droves and look elsewhere in the region for growth opportunities. That means our stagnation is going to quickly turn into decline with fewer high paying jobs, lower quality of life, and overall urban decline.
Overcoming the circumstance takes careful strategic planning. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with various cities and businesses in my time and had a public administration focus for my undergrad degree. Here are four areas I think Little Rock needs to focus on to move the city forward.
Growth from the Bottom
The mistake I see often when an area stops growing is to double down resources on the things already doing well. The problem is this almost never works and typically makes the problem worse.
We see this a lot in Little Rock, spending and development happen mostly through the Rivermarket and downtown districts where competition is heavy and the cost of development is high. Bottom-up planning has a much larger impact on the city and the people with a higher chance at success and a bigger return. We have great areas ripe for this type of investment and development, we just have to make better decisions.
Focusing development from the bottom by going into lower income and underdeveloped areas, utilizing small projects that are highly targeted works better to grow both the quality of the area and the overall economic status of the people living in the area. Low-income areas are more likely to have people without reliable transportation, so developing employment opportunities through incremental development means the residents of the area are more likely to keep and maintain a job, increasing their own economic standing.
Finally producing programs and collaborations that directly help the unsheltered find stable employment through these areas and establishing safe places to live will help raise the bottom income areas and increase the city’s overall economic status.
A Shared Private-Public Vision
Working with other cities it is clear when the city and private developers have a shared vision. To expand on the bottom up development above, the city needs to work with private developers to create a cohesive plan to invest time and resources into the right areas for growth. We have everything we need to do this in a development and investor base that has a huge desire to work with the city. We just need to act on it.
This may mean zoning variances when they make sense, infrastructure planning, and calculated city investments along with a master plan and a shared vision for the future. It also means the city needs to be wiser about how money is spent to ensure it is being spent where it has the highest return. Replacing all the trees for something that has prettier leaves in the fall may not be the best use of money that could be spent elsewhere for example.
Invest in Tech
The cities that do well invest in tech. Cities like Chattanooga, TN have become a clear example of what happens when the city plans for the future. They developed their own city-wide highspeed broadband network, owned and maintained by the city. The result was a huge tech boom that took Chattanooga from being a sleepy railroad town to a huge regional tech player. It is over 200 times faster than the average internet speed in the use and cost about half of the typical cost for similar services.
Even better, Little Rock is perfectly positioned to do the same thing and we have everything we need. A main branch of the national internet backbone runs right through Little Rock. Implementing a similar system is completely feasible and would put Little Rock on par with a number of high tech cities that are doing the same thing.
Take Control of Education
The lack of local control of the Little Rock School board is quite possibly the biggest issue for Little Rock’s future. If citizens showed half the outrage related to this that they have shown toward 30 Crossing some real progress could be made in taking back control. This is not a city issue, but state government interference. However, city leaders need to make this a priority to inform and empower local citizens to fight on this issue.
By having local control of the education system we can improve our schools and make decisions based on what is good for Little Rock like creating a higher education collaboration similar to what eStem is currently doing. Enhancing education and growing brighter minds regardless of their economic status is the most important thing we can do to advance the city. We have people in this city more than capable of setting a vision for the educational future, we just have to collectively fight back to gain control.
Little Rock can be a world-class city, we have everything we need here to make it that way. We just need the vision to make it happen.
Full disclosure, I am running for City Director in Ward 1 and this is part of my overall vision for the city.