Polls indicate that next week North Little Rock people will vote to build a modern baseball stadium on their waterfront for the Arkansas Travelers. If so, voters will be raising their sales tax by 1 cent for two years, but will create an attraction that can be the center of downtown, bringing more people and businesses to a hemmed-in city that’s been losing population for 15 years.
A modern stadium also will attract more people to Little Rock’s riverfront and its downtown area, which badly needs help. Arkansas people like baseball, as evidenced by the fact that the Travelers’ franchise is one of the oldest in the United States.
But strangely, the Little Rock and Pulaski County officials are not supporting the North Little Rock stadium. Neither County Judge Buddy Villines nor any of the members of the Pulaski County Quorum Court has said anything in favor of the stadium. Villines says that what’s more important is money to build another jail. That’s strange since the county is still paying for a 60-cell jail that was built in North Little Rock but is not being used because the county won’t pay for the guards.
Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey also says some strange things. In so many words, he told the Arkansas Times last week that he hoped North Little Rock people would vote against the stadium. Also, there’s been no word from the Little Rock’s City Manager and only one of its directors, Stacy Hurst, has spoken up. She is putting together a task force that would figure out a way to build a stadium in Little Rock after the North Little Rock attempt fails.
This is a shame. In the last dozen years there has been much cooperation between the two cities such as the consolidation of the two waterworks. Before this for nearly 90 years, there was little or no cooperation, and it’s sad to see harmony slipping away.
I live in North Little Rock, and some of my Little Rock friends have criticized me when I say that Little Rock should have offered to share with North Little Rock to raise the money for the stadium, thereby lowering the tax to one-half a cent rather than one cent. Back in 1995 when the mayors in all the cities in the county decided that we needed a new arena, they presented a 1-cent sales tax increase that would raise $51 million. Sixty percent of the voters said yes, and the Alltel Arena was built.
“Yeah,” they shouted, “but it was built in North Little Rock! How did we get anything out of it?”
Well, I shouted back that those voters not only voted for the arena but they were also voting to take $20 million out of the $51 million to build a Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock at the same time.
It’s smart to put more than one project on money-raising elections. If most North Little Rock voters say yes this week, not only will the money build the stadium, but $5 million of it will be used to enlarge the city’s Patrick Henry Hays Senior Center. Incidentally, that’s a good facility that has more than 9,000 members, 16 percent of them people from Little Rock who pay the same fees that North Little Rock people pay.
Why is a new stadium needed? More than five years ago, the leagues began telling cities that they had to modernize their stadiums or they would lose their franchise, and this has happened in many nearby states. Bill Valentine, the executive vice president of the Travelers, went to the Little Rock officials and told them that the 73-year-old stadium would have to be modernized or the Travelers would have to go traveling. Their Ray Winder Field is full of steep walkways, small wooden seats, unacceptable restrooms, no modern facilities for the players, etc. Today’s stadiums have restaurants, picnic areas, air-conditioned box seats, swimming pools, playgrounds for children, etc.
Valentine was ignored. Once, some realtors showed him property on Sixth Street in downtown Little Rock, but no one proposed any way for the Travelers to pay for the land or to build the stadium. Then last year Warren Stephens, president and CEO of Stephens Inc. and a baseball fan, told North Little Rock officials that he would give the city eight acres that he owns on its riverbank provided the city would build the stadium on it. The city owns seven acres that adjoin Stephens’ land that can be used for parking lots, stores, restaurants, etc.
Because it’s now essential for the Travelers to have a new stadium if the team stays in Arkansas, the North Little Rock aldermen voted yes and quickly called for this election Aug. 9. If the tax passes, it will create a family-style recreation that will be easy to find for everyone — especially tourists and those people who rely on public transportation.