It is the custom of Arkansas government to give unquestioning deference to corporate entreaties. I tend to be skeptical, maybe overly so.
How about a middle ground? Is it too much to ask governments to fearlessly question those seeking favors, then decide issues on the greatest good?
Which brings me, yet again, to the proposed Summit Mall. It has been lingering for more than a decade as a potentially traffic-clogging and mid-city-retail-killing development at Interstates 430 and 630.
The city board approved the Summit. Owners of Park Plaza, which would be crippled by it, financed a campaign to stop it. Now, after a long court battle, they’ve won the right to an election.
The election, which likely will be ordered after a circuit court hearing Feb. 18, could be a waste of time and money. Simon Property Group, developer of the Summit with Dillard Department stores, has given some indication to potential tenants that it no longer wants to build an enclosed mall, preferring a friendlier open air shopping center. A new design would require a new city review.
So far, Simon and Dillard refuse to talk publicly. This silence is an insult to a city board that has given them so much. It is expensive, too, in legal costs, even before a $60,000 special election that could prove irrelevant.
Simon and Dillard have volunteered that they’d like a three-year extension on the existing plan. Most think this is just a ploy to sweat Park Plaza and buy breathing space for Dillard, afflicted currently by poor financial results.
The planning commission and city board deserve answers to some questions before granting a delay. First: Are Simon and Dillard truly committed to an enclosed mall? If they aren’t, why force an election? In fact, why not pay for the election?
A more important question is what Simon has in mind for its failed University Mall, which is blighting University Avenue. The city should ask Simon’s intentions. It is certainly not time to praise Simon, landlord of a desolate hulk, as a great community citizen, as Mayor Jim Dailey recently did. Simon is the same outfit that refused for months to pay its promised share of the cost of a national consultant’s study on the University corridor. This is the study that said building the Summit would kill Park Plaza.
Simon and Dillard also should talk about the $10 to $12 million they were required to produce to build a freeway interchange at the Summit site. In short: Show us the money.
These are not anti-business, but pro-community questions. Without the answers, the City Board should not rubberstamp another three-year delay on an iffy project that thousands oppose.
The time to ask tough questions is when businesses have their hands out. I once suggested that the city board should ask what would happen to the old Dillard’s headquarters on Capitol Avenue if the department store chain got a city tax break to move to a new building on Cantrell. Nobody asked. You know the rest. The old building became a homeless shelter. If that’s to be the future of University Mall, let’s find out now.