When Joe Ford talks, people listen.
Ford, the chief executive of Alltel, recently shook the community up with a speech to the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce that detailed his vision for Little Rock.
A former legislator with plenty of political clout, Ford said Little Rock couldn’t prosper without reducing crime or getting the public schools out of federal court. He also said the city needed to cooperate with other cities in attracting industry. Furthermore, he complained that Little Rock lacks an adequate arena and proposed building one on the War Memorial golf course. Part of the land, he said, could be sold to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for expansion. And finally, Ford advocated giving the Governor’s Mansion to the Clintons in exchange for a commitment to establish a presidential library on the mansion grounds. The state would build a more modern mansion elsewhere for the current governor.
His speech got people talking, and some groups — including Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey, City Manager Charles Nickerson and the Donaghey Project for Urban Studies & Design — are scurrying to arrange meetings with Ford to delve deeper into his vision.
No one disagrees with the need to reduce crime and get the schools out of federal courts. In an interview this week, Ford didn’t have an answer to those monumental problems, although he does believe more jobs could lessen the deterioration of family, which contributes largely to rising crime.
“I applaud Joe and his ideas,” Dailey said. He’s happy a “major corporate player like Joe Ford and Alltel would begin to say we need to be a part of this.”
But the arena idea — more particularly, the demise of War Memorial Park and its rolling golf course — touched a nerve. And while there is strong support for an all-out effort to land the presidential library, there is hesitation about giving up the existing Governor’s Mansion, especially if that means shoving the state’s CEO out to the ‘burbs.
“An all-purpose arena for central Arkansas is a necessity,” Ford said, lamenting the fact that the city loses events because there are inadequate facilities for athletic and musical events.
“I rolled out the idea of utilizing part of War Memorial golf course purely as an illustration,” Ford said. “The important thing is that we have one, not where we have it.”
Bill Bunten, director of the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department, is a fierce defender of War Memorial Park, the city’s third oldest park, and says there has been a “tremendous outpouring of support” from park users and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. Bunten worries that encroachment on the park by an arena and UAMS expansion might harm plans for the Little Rock Zoo, a children’s discovery area, even the War Memorial Fitness Center.
Dailey can see some wisdom in developing War Memorial, especially as an important medical corridor, but he stopped short of embracing the idea.
There is a study underway by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Donaghey Project, which seeks to determine how each land-locked entity near War Memorial Park — St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, the state Health Department, the city, the stadium, the Veterans Administration Hospital, the Department of Correction, the State Hospital, Ray Winder Field and UAMS — envisions its future. George Wittenberg, Donaghey Project director, is the point man on the study.
Ford noted that strictly public financing methods by Little Rock voters have been turned down, so he thinks public and private payment means ought to be explored for an arena.
Jim Moses, president of the Downtown Partnership, thinks that idea is “right on the mark.” Like Ford, Moses is not hung up on where or how an arena gets built — he just wants one.
“What I like about what he said,” said Jim Lynch, a frequent player in municipal politics, “is Little Rock shouldn’t be using its tax money to build an arena.” An arena that serves Pulaski County and beyond ought to be paid for with a countywide effort, Lynch said.
In the meantime, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines, North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hayes, Dailey and others continue meetings over where makes the best sense for an arena. One emerging candidate looks like the North Little Rock riverbank. These leaders say they are happy about Ford’s remarks, regardless of specifics.
Ford said it “makes an awful lot of sense to make an all-out effort” to get a presidential library, well worth turning over the existing mansion to the first family for a permanent home. He strongly favors building a new mansion — a larger, more modern one — with state money, but he hasn’t given much thought to where.
Cheryl Nichols of the Quapaw Quarter Association says the idea of moving the governor’s mansion isn’t a new one. The legislature broached the subject previously, worrying that downtown was too dangerous a location. Moving the mansion for that reason sends a very negative message about downtown, she said.
Nichols agrees there are legitimate concerns about the size of mansion, but she wondered whether the state couldn’t add on.
At this point, the most interesting development is the realization of Ford’s main goal: “To get people thinking and talking about it.”
Initially, Bunten said, “Most people saw it as a pie-in-the-sky deal that would go away.” Maybe not.