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ACORN - just a bunch of nuts?

Little Rock 2000's Outspoken Opponent Still Making Noise After Two Decades

It is a week before the Little Rock 2000 vote, the highly publicized attempt to raise more than $100 million for a downtown multipurpose arena and other capital projects.

Sammy Mills, a 56-year-old retired barber, drives his 1978 Oldsmobile Royale through the intersection of 23rd and Arch streets, pointing to the decay.

"You see what this area looks like and smells like," says Mills, a member of Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now, the most prominent group fighting the proposed sales-tax increases.

Mills looks to his left to a piece of land that is covered with trash. On the next lot is a rotting house.

"Areas like this need to be cleaned up," Mills says.

In Sammy Mills' view of the world, they should be cleaned up:

* Before the citizens of Little Rock pay for a 18,000-seat arena.

* Before they pay for an IMAX theater.

* Before they expand War Memorial Stadium.

"We all agree an arena would be nice after all the things we have been asking for," says Gloria Wilson, a national association board delegate for ACORN.

But many Little Rock business leaders believe ACORN has an automatic reflex that says "no" to anything that doesn't fit its agenda.

"They're a curious cult, that's what ACORN is," says Bob Bland, a solar architect and peace activist who has worked with ACORN on past projects. "ACORN carefully selects issues in order to build its name. It won't coalesce with other groups."

Not everyone who disagrees with ACORN objects to the organization's presence in Little Rock.

"It represents a voice that ought to always be there," says Joe Hill, one of five co-chairmen of Little Rock 2000 and executive director of Community Organization for Poverty Elimination of Pulaski and Lonoke Counties Inc.

There is no question ACORN has a voice in Little Rock.

A loud one.

The 80,000-member national organization, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, was founded in Little Rock in 1970.

And ACORN is still making news.

But does what the group is saying make sense?

Is Grass Roots Enough?

Blue-and-white signs touting Little Rock 2000 have become a staple of the Little Rock landscape in recent weeks.

They form symmetrical lines in neighborhood yards and down almost every major thoroughfare in town.

At the intersection of Kavanaugh Boulevard and Cantrell Road, there's an uneven cardboard cutout tacked to a telephone pole. It urges those driving by to vote "no" Tuesday.

It is ACORN's almost pitiful attempt to overcome the hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent by proponents of Little Rock 2000.

"We are a grass roots effort, and if we can't beat it with that, we never will," Mills says.

ACORN knows it can't out-slick Little Rock 2000, but it may still win Tuesday through word-of-mouth contacts and earned -- as opposed to paid -- media.

For instance, the group recently created a human billboard on the corner of Asher and University avenues to attract media attention.

But Joe Hill isn't worried.

He doesn't believe ACORN will have a negative impact on the Little Rock 2000 campaign.

If Little Rock 2000 does fail, however, Hill says ACORN's solution of rolling up its sleeves and working with the city the next day is naive.

"I don't think it's that simple," says Hill, who thinks two to three years will be needed to heal fractured relationships.

Meanwhile, Hill says, the city's problems will continue to grow.

Little Rock Mayor Sharon Priest says ACORN had a head start simply because it is difficult to convince people to tax themselves.

Priest says, "I'm really not sure why they're opposed to it because their constituency stands to gain a great deal."

ACORN no longer trusts the city, though.

Members say the city unfairly tricked them into supporting a 1987 bond issue by adding $6 million for neighborhood improvements they've yet to see.

Priest says it was a 10-year bond proposal and things are moving as scheduled.

That's not good enough for ACORN.

The group points to feasibility studies the city has performed through the years concerning Main Street. First, parts of the street were closed. Then, they were reopened. Downtown has yet to be revitalized.

"Why should we believe this feasibility study?" Mills says of the $120,000 study the city paid the national accounting firm Deloitte & Touche to perform earlier this year.

Nellie Leonard, the Pulaski County chairwoman of ACORN, says the signs that read "Your Bond Money At Work" along Main Street should read "Your Bond Money At Waste."

Foster Strong, a co-chairman of ACORN's Pulaski County political action committee, says to the city, "You're doing all these things for us, the Little Rock community. Come to the community and see what we want."

"What is an IMAX theater?" Mills asks. "What's educational about a big screen?"

ACORN members simply don't believe the Little Rock Board of Directors is capable of handling the money that would be raised by the sales-tax increases.

It Doesn't End There

ACORN has received attention for more than its stance against Little Rock 2000.

The group is involved in an ongoing battle with grocery chains such as Harvest Foods Inc. for pricing discrepancies. ACORN was successful in obtaining discounts in stores in certain sections of Little Rock.

"They are still costing Arkansas' real consumers -- you and me -- millions of dollars in higher product costs because of their inane and inept charges against businesses across the state," wrote Dan McMillan in a recent letter to the Arkansas Gazette. "The fiasco with Harvest Foods is just the latest example of this bull-in-the-china-closet technique."

McMillan says, "I thought they were getting a little bit show-boaty" with the Harvest Food protests. "All they ever do is get publicity."

There also is criticism that ACORN attacked Little Rock's First Commercial Corp. simply because it was a high-profile target.

When First Commercial announced it would acquire the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Rogers, ACORN was quick to use the Community Reinvestment Act as a weapon. The federal legislation says a community organization can object to a bank application if it feels the bank is not meeting CRA requirements.

ACORN knew enough to follow the initial procedure, but the group may have been in over its head against the giant bank holding company.

"Many of the points we disagreed on were perceptual," says Charles Stewart, senior vice president of public affairs at First Commercial. "They may not have had all the necessary information. Lack of information led to a misperception."

Regulators didn't have to rule because First Commercial and ACORN reached a compromise.

First Commercial holds regular meetings with community groups, most of which include ACORN. That's why those in the Little Rock business community say ACORN was merely looking for more newspaper stories and more television sound bites.

Fight To The Finish

Bob Bland wonders what ACORN is up to nationally.

In 1987, Bland worked with the organization to renovate houses in Little Rock that were to be sold to low-income families at reduced rates. He went to the city to help raise money for the project.

When Bland discovered one renovated house had become dilapidated again, he checked on the status of the other houses. Bland found that none of them were privately owned.

Bland says the houses were owned by a land trust within ACORN's national organization. He calls that a betrayal of the public trust.

"It's a real example of the duplicity and cynical hypocrisy of these people," Bland says.

Bland wants the Little Rock Board of Directors to investigate the public housing situation.

Wilson says private families indeed own the houses but not the land on which they sit.

"It's like keeping property in the family," she says.

Bland counters, "They have a concept of where city money should go, and I would like people to know where it really goes sometimes."

Bland says it is hypocritical for ACORN to claim it is against wasting taxes when the organization also wastes the taxpayers' money.

Still, there are those who feel ACORN is an integral part of the system of checks and balances.

ACORN members aren't always articulate, but they usually sound sincere.

When Sammy Mills talks to you, he looks straight into your eyes. He is convincing.

And ACORN members are confident.

Strong says, "If we can defeat |Little Rock 2000~, you will see a different city management, that's for sure. They will be more willing to come to the people and see what they want."

Strong says that even after Tuesday, ACORN will have plenty to do in Little Rock.

"City Hall will give us something to do," he says. "They'll think of something."

The Birth Of ACORN

An Arkansas Agenda Gave Birth To A National Organization

After serving as the organizer for a Massachusetts welfare rights organization, Wade Rathke came to Arkansas in 1970.

Once he arrived down South, he began an organization designed to give low- and moderate-income people a voice within "the system."

"It turned out to be the right decision," Rathke says of the formation of Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now.

The group now has 6,000 members in Arkansas.

In fact, it has grown into a nationwide organization, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, with 80,000 members in 26 states and the District of Columbia.

Rathke directs ACORN from headquarters in New Orleans, but he says Little Rock is still considered the "home office."

The group initially addressed issues such as the expansion of school lunch programs, but it soon was taking on bigger battles such as the construction of Interstate 630, the Wilbur Mills Freeway.

"It wasn't popular," Rathke says of the fight against the freeway bisecting Little Rock.

That is putting it mildly.

"They recklessly cost taxpayers in Little Rock, Pulaski County and probably the state millions of dollars in higher construction bills because of the delays they were directly responsible for," Dan McMillan of Little Rock wrote in a recent letter to the Arkansas Gazette.

McMillan is a retired employee of Southwestern Bell Telephone Co.

He now criticizes ACORN rather than supporting the organization as he once did.

When ACORN was established, McMillan says he called Rathke and told him, "If you're going to be a consumer organization, we want to work with you any way we can."

But that willingness turned to disgust when McMillan saw ACORN hold up construction of I-630.

"We held it up for three to four years," Rathke says. "It did cost them more money. They broke the law and were incompetent. That's their problem."

After negotiations broke down, ACORN sued to force an environmental impact statement to be rewritten.

"They had to do right," Rathke says. "Our position over time has been confirmed."

ACORN gained power quickly.

In 1972, it backed a candidate for the Little Rock School Board, Doug Stevens, who eventually was elected without the support of Pleasant Valley and the Heights.

By 1975, ACORN was organizing in other cities.

McMillan and others say that even though ACORN's goals are admirable, the group makes too many false judgments and rash decisions.

"Every time we filed a rate case, they would come in and intervene," McMillan says of his dealings with ACORN while at Southwestern Bell. "Usually, it came to nothing."

Rathke thinks the community begrudgingly respects ACORN.

"It usually comes down to whose ox is being gored," he says.

Rathke says his "upstart, wild-eyed organization has matured."

An ACORN Who's Who

Name: Sammy Mills Age: 56 Title: Chairman of ACORN's NEW Chapter (Neighborhood Elm to Woodrow)

Although Sammy Mills has been active with ACORN only since February, he already has become the group's spokesman.

And that's the way he wants it.

"I love it," Mills says. "I would like to unite the community and get some things done. I would like to get groups together, show strength and demand things from the city that have never been demanded before."

Mills was invited to an ACORN meeting and realized "some things were being said that I had been thinking about."

Mills says ACORN "allowed me to say some things I had been wanting to say for years."

He's speaking up, most recently on the Little Rock news station KPAL-AM, 1380, with Arkansas Democrat Managing Editor John Robert Starr.

Name: Gloria Wilson Age: 45 Title: Representative to the national association board of ACORN

As one of ACORN's founding members, Gloria Wilson has achieved personal triumphs.

Wilson was a divorced mother of three more than 20 years ago, forced to accept welfare payments when she grew ill and lost her factory job.

"It was just a dead end," Wilson says of the welfare system.

But her association with the National Welfare Rights and Reform Union led to her meeting ACORN's founder, Wade Rathke.

Wilson is one of the few founding members still with ACORN.

Name: Nellie Leonard Age: 51 Title: Pulaski County chairwoman of ACORN

Nellie Leonard's five children were grown, but she decided to become involved with ACORN on behalf of a neighbor's children.

Leonard joined ACORN six years ago because of the school busing issue.

"I started looking for some organization that could give me support," Leonard says.

Today, Leonard works on all ACORN issues and even suggests new battles.

It was Leonard who first alleged discrepancies in pricing at Harvest Foods Inc. stores.

Leonard is even more outspoken than her ACORN counterparts.

Name: Foster Strong Age: 67 Title: Co-chairman of ACORN's Pulaski County political action committee

Foster Strong joined ACORN as a result of the city's 1987 bond issue.

He says the city promised to use $6 million of the $33.5-million the bond issue raised for neighborhood improvements.

Strong says, "The city had paved the street north of me and the street south of me. But each time they turned the corner and went in a different direction."

When someone suggested that Strong join a neighborhood organization, he contacted ACORN.

"I decided there were other streets that needed paving," Strong says. "I found a lot of other things we can do."

Title: Rev. Delton Jones Age: 70 Title: Chairman of the South End Chapter of ACORN

The Rev. Delton Jones is a quiet man who joined ACORN more than a year ago after talking with friends who were active in the organization.

Jones first was involved with housing issues. Now, he is involved with "many of the things that concern low- and moderate-income people."

Jones becomes upset when he feels the city is attempting to appease him with what he calls token gestures.

Consequently, Jones says he's available for ACORN "anytime they need me ... with the exception of Sunday."
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles on ACORN's founding and its members; members of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now fight proposed sales-tax increases
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 7, 1991
Previous Article:Gown helping town: Arkansas State University's importance to Jonesboro illustrated by economic impact study.
Next Article:Food fight!

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