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Breaking faith with the future? Questions of how much, how soon threaten to divide fragile Future-Little Rock coalition.

Questions of How Much, How Soon Threaten to Divide Fragile Future-Little Rock Coalition

Future-little rock, a group of residents wanting to create a more progressive city, unveiled a vision in July that was ambitious, optimistic, holistic - and, yes, very idealistic.

Perhaps the project's greatest success was bringing a diverse group of more than 300 together to examine Little Rock's needs.

But as the Future-Little Rock vision undergoes the scrutiny of a wider audience and the carefully crafted goals move from paper to reality, small fault lines are beginning to appear. A schism - albeit, small and probably surmountable - has developed over how much of the ambitious package to push and how soon.

Some Future-Little Rock steering committee members want to see the entire $66 million package of recommendations put to voters by year's end; others want the brakes applied. The sooner-is-better disciples also generally subscribe to the all-at-once philosophy, while those who would prefer a slower pace don't bristle at the prospect of voters deciding on the package in stages.

Proponents of having a vote this year - the Nov. 16 special election probably would be the earliest date - say it's important to seize upon the goodwill created by Future-Little Rock. Many also point to recent voter approval of a proposal to change city government and passage of a library millage as favorable indicators.

"At some point you reach diminishing returns, and I think we're close to that point now," says steering committee member Jimmy Moses, who supports having an election this year.

Others point out that city conditions aren't improving, while steering committee members try to sell the city directors on putting the package of goals to a voter test.

Odies Wilson, a steering committee member, says that not acting swiftly amounts to "paralysis by analysis."

"Crime is getting worse, economic stratification is getting worse every day," Wilson says. "Can the city and the problems we're facing really stand this inertia? "

Steering committee member Jim Lynch and others who caution against a hasty vote wouldn't call it inertia.

"They are so antsy to get this thing on the ballot and slam-dunk it," says Lynch about the "sooner-is-better" crowd. "It's a full-court press. It's almost like nothing has changed from two years ago."

Remembrances of Things Past

Two years ago was, of course, when Little Rock 2000, a grandiose package of capital projects and operational improvements, was presented to voters. It went down in flames, and Lynch was among those who doused it with gasoline.

But unlike Little Rock 2000, also known briefly as Project 2000, most everyone agrees the Future-Little Rock recommendations are the result of a grass-roots, consensus-building effort.

In discussing Future-Little Rock's goals, steering committee member Craig Rains says, "I would just as soon the word Project 2000 not be mentioned by any member of the board [of city directors] or steering committee. It's just not the same animal."

In many ways it isn't. Future-Little Rock is the result of Little Rock 2000's shortcomings, having literally risen from the ashes of that ill-conceived project. Unlike its predecessor, which was perceived as a carrot for the pro-development, big-business crowd, the Future-Little Rock goals aim to be all things to all people.

As the proposals now stand, and there may be changes before voters see them, two sales taxes are proposed. A 1 percent sales tax that would expire after two years would fund $53 million in capital improvements, including a multipurpose arena (see graphic). A permanent half-percent sales tax would generate about $13 million for upgrading city operations.

Since July, when the steering committee synthesized Future-Little Rock recommendations and presented them as a package, a small faction of its members have shown signs of disillusionment with the process.

Lynch, known for his outspoken ways and thought of as a contrarian by many, is perhaps the most vocal. He says a few committee members - led by Dr. Dean Kumpuris, who was tapped by the committee to examine ways to finance the proposals - are moving too quickly from goal-setting to financing without the called-for steps in between.

"Instead of doing detailed planning like we said we would, we're talking about taxes again and I object to that very strongly," says Lynch, adding that the Future-Little Rock process was about carefully examining the city's needs "without everybody being marched to the polls."

Presenting tax proposals now would be "incredibly premature and a major misreading of where the voter and taxpayer is right now," Lynch says. He also sees shades of Little Rock 2000 in the marriage of issues such as arena development and crime prevention.

By advancing what is being called a "holistic package" that should remain intact, Lynch says, some committee members are trying "to coattail and connect the arena with the public safety issue."

"If you want to buy a cop, fine, but you have to buy an arena with it? That's nonsense," he says.

But Kumpuris and others who support the holistic approach say you can't just hire more police officers without addressing issues such as downtown decay, minority economic development, education and prevention of crime and drug abuse.

Balancing Interests

David Jones, a steering committee co-chairman, notes that the Future-Little Rock goals represent a delicate balance of diverse interests.

"To start cherry picking and saying |I like this or I don't like this' undermines the consensus-building process that took place," he says.

Other steering committee members are not as supportive of the package in its entirety.

"I, for one, do not think that every recommendation in the Future-Little Rock report is a worthy one that the city should be working on," says steering committee member Don Fitz. "I think there are some great ideas in there, but [city directors] need to sift through them."

Although the majority of committee members have come out publicly against the cherry-picking approach, a sense is growing that some cherries may have to be plucked to make the bushel more acceptable.

In particular, two suggested commissions on race relations and education are attracting some skepticism. City Director Joan Adcock and Vice Mayor Jesse Mason Jr. have raised questions about the purpose of the committees.

"I don't believe in this forming a commission or group just for the sake of forming a commission or group," Mason says. He particularly questions the need for an education commission, noting city directors and school board members are meeting to examine education issues.

One thing most everyone agrees on is that an effective public relations campaign will be essential in passing the package.

Breaking Away

In order not to be caught in voter confusion or a knee-jerk rejection of what's narrowly viewed as a tax package, the Little Rock Advertising & Promotion Commission has pulled its proposed restaurant and hotel tax out of the Future-Little Rock package.

A vote to consider a 1 percent increase in the restaurant food and hotel tax is scheduled Oct. 19. The tax, an estimated 64 percent of which is paid by non-city residents, would fund an expansion of the Statehouse Convention Center.

Barry Travis, convention center director, says the decision to vote early on the hotel/restaurant tax wasn't meant as a slap in the face to the Future-Little Rock process. He says the tax is specific and that a convention center expansion has been planned for about three years and shouldn't be delayed any longer.

"I don't have a problem at all with the early presentation of the convention center expansion," says Future-Little Rock steering committee member Dickson Flake. "Its purpose is to increase visitor traffic. It's a different method of financing, and it's a totally independent purpose, as opposed to the rest of our package, which will be financed by our own citizens and will benefit our local services."

Although some observers likened the action of the convention center folks to a kid getting annoyed during a game and taking his ball away, Travis and most steering committee members maintain that the action benefits them both.

However, Fitz says that by breaking out the convention center vote, "that kind of blows the concept of having to accept it as a package."

Pam Marshall, a steering committee member and president of the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, a group that has cautioned against a "rush to failure" in presenting the Future-Little Rock proposals, says the committee is in "sort of a confusing place right now" and the result has been disagreement.

It technically disbanded after presenting the recommendations, she says, and members are trying to determine what their new roles will be. But disagreements are nothing new, she says, noting that the group has been known to "fight like cats and dogs." She compares it to a family that can say really mean things to each other but forgive.

Odies Wilson adds, "The longer that this diverse body is out of fellowship, the more natural it is for the individuals to migrate back to their original mindset."

Rains says he thinks second thoughts by some committee members are to be expected and don't represent a brewing insurrection.

"I think we will continue to have people from time to time who will raise questions and go back and look at the decisions we made," he says. "But I don't see a major uprising coming at all."

Before the Future-Little Rock proposals and voters meet at the polls, however, there's a lingering sense that anything could happen.
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Title Annotation:civic group
Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Sep 27, 1993
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