Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola didn’t directly mention the upcoming fall election during his annual “state of the city” address on Wednesday evening at a Robinson Center ballroom. Still, the mayor’s relentlessly optimistic messaging was a clear effort to rally support for his reelection bid.
Stodola’s two challengers are state Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) and former state Highway Commissioner Frank Scott, though neither are technically running just yet. That’s because of a city ordinance restricting campaign fundraising to the five-month period before an election.
Holding a glass of water aloft at the beginning of his remarks, Stodola posed the question of whether it was half empty or half full. He delivered a 45-minute speech outlining the city’s efforts on such issues as public safety, workforce development, infrastructure and other topics. The mayor then repeated his question, topped off the glass from a nearby pitcher and proffered it to the crowd.
“Or perhaps, it’s more like this – full of energy, optimism, and commitments embraced by our citizens to make Little Rock all that it can be as the next great American city in the South,” he suggested.
Update: Sabin and Scott both released statements in response to the mayor, which I’ve added at the bottom of this post.
*Crime. Stodola acknowledged that 2017, which saw an alarming spike in homicides in its first half, was “a challenging year on the public safety front.” Violent crime rose by 5.3 percent, but property crime declined by less than a percent, he said. The city faced a shortage of police officers but revamped recruitment efforts led to the hiring of 81 new officers over the course of the year.
Stodola touted increased enforcement efforts and prevention and re-entry programs, and he claimed some early signs of success. “Through March 20th our violent crime is down 25 percent from last year and our property crime is down 21 percent,” he said.
*Education. The mayor noted critics who say the city hasn’t been sufficiently supportive of schools in Little Rock but said such talk was “absolute nonsense.” He pointed to school resource officers, a nutrition and exercise program, outreach efforts from the police and fire departments and summer recreation programs for students. “We need to ask the tough questions like ‘Does a college degree get you what it used to?'” he said.
*Jobs and economic development. Stodola said the unemployment rate in the city is only about 3.8 percent overall (the rate for the state as a whole is similarly low) but acknowledged that unemployment remains in the double digits among people of color. He said the city should look to grow industries in which it already has a strong foothold, such as
He touted the Little Rock Tech Park, which he said now “has 45 businesses within its walls.” And he bragged on the “Love Little Rock” promotional campaign last year, in which the city framed its decision to get out of the running for Amazon’s new corporate headquarters as a “breakup letter” to the tech giant. Some found the campaign charming; others cringed with embarrassment. Those who “didn’t get it,” Stodola said, “must be living under a rock. We received rave reviews from economic development consultants across the country. We received over $2 million worth of free publicity.”
Stodola also said the airport and Port Authority are “thriving” and mentioned the expansion of a number of major employers in the city, such as Welspun Tubular and Bank of the Ozarks.
*Infrastructure. “We are spending $172 million on street and drainage improvements over the next ten years, yet we have more than $1 billion worth of needs,” the mayor noted. Despite levying local taxes, issuing bonds and rate hikes by Central Arkansas Water, the city still needs more resources to make necessary repairs to aging infrastructure. He noted the Trump administration’s request that Congress put $200 billion toward matching grants to state and local governments for infrastructure projects.
“No one knows yet where this money is coming from or how much will come from the federal government, state and local governments, or the private sector,” Stodola acknowledged, but he said the budget bill just passed by Congress includes about $20 billion in infrastructure funds. Stodola said that “based on my conversation with the president’s lead counsel on infrastructure, D.J. Gribbon, the money will be made available to cities, counties, and states directly,” as a match at an unspecified percentage.
Stodola announced that he would be searching for ideas (together with other local public entities and the private sector) to “think big and be creative” about looking for matching money, including the possibility of turning certain “dormant, stagnant [city] assets into assets that provide value and a return that could provide significant revenues to invest back into the city.
*Downtown investment and quality of life. Stodola touted the development of the “creative corridor” and continued reinvigoration of downtown. “We have created that 24/7 environment that will attract millennials … to live and work in our downtown core. The collision of arts and culture with science and technology has become a reality!” he enthused. (Genuine question: Are there actually any 24-hour businesses in downtown Little Rock?)
Little Rock was recently named by U.S. News as one of the Top 50 best places to live in the country, he said. The mayor cited “two newly acquired lionesses in our upgraded lion exhibit” at the zoo and planned renovations to the Arkansas Arts Center. When complete, he said, the museum “will rival Crystal Bridges – demonstrating that our own Central Arkansas culture is extremely healthy.”
“It is no wonder we are attracting millennials to our city and seeing our children return to Little Rock after college,” Stodola said.
*Various city departments. The mayor said crime watch and community policing programs were doing well. The fire department has achieved accreditation that
*Homelessness. Stodola said the topic was “a particular labor of love for me” and pointed to the Jericho Way day center for the homeless, which opened several years ago on Springer Boulevard. The city is working on adding permanent housing near the center, he said, and there are plans to open a clinic in the facility’s basement.
Little Rock gained attention last year for heavy-handed attempts to force homeless people from downtown and prohibit feeding programs from operating in public places.
The current mayor has had twelve years to enact an agenda, but by almost every measure our city has been standing still or going backward It’s time for new energy and new ideas to help Little Rock achieve its full potential, and I look forward to providing the leadership that will address crime and safety issues, improve our public schools, create more economic opportunity, and restore and build our infrastructure. With big goals, a unifying vision, and a commitment to inclusivity and diversity, together we can create a bold new future for Little Rock.
The other mayoral hopeful, Frank Scott, issued the following statement:
Over the course of my mayoral exploratory process, I have engaged with countless families across Little Rock. As I learn more about the issues that concern our residents, I can assure you that the state of our city must be much better. Despite political promises made by the mayor, the fact remains that families do not feel safe in their communities and job growth has remained stagnant. Our citizens deserve mayoral leadership that provides a vision and blueprint for prosperity, rather than the hollow talking points that we heard tonight. I look forward to continuing my mayoral exploratory process and engaging stakeholders across Little Rock in a real, holistic approach to move our city forward. It’s time to match purpose to our city’s potential.