When Amazon said it was looking for city for a second headquarters, it was clear Little Rock couldn’t be a contender any more than Bodcaw. Neither has a population of 1 million, an international airport, a huge base of high-tech workers or mass transit and housing to provide the urban environment Amazon wants.
Nonetheless, Mayor Mark Stodola announced that he and the city’s “economic development team” — the taxpayer-subsidized corporate lobby known as the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce — would “go after” the project.
The big reveal of the city’s pitch came last week. After careful study, the mayor said, the city “realized” it couldn’t be competitor. Duh. Instead, the chamber of commerce and an ad agency cooked up a publicity stunt to save face. “It’s not you, it’s us,” Little Rock announced in a “breakup” letter published in Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post about a relationship that never existed.
Little Rock may not have what it takes for Amazon, the pitch went, but it has many attributes worthy of others. A Twitter feed (followed by 500 or so Little Rock people), T-shirts and even an airplane banner flown over Amazon’s home in Seattle was a part of the traveling salvation show.
The gimmick drew some scattered publicity around the country before the reporting turned to serious Amazon competitors. The new Twitter account happily republished the articles, including Salon’s. That liberal outfit lauded Little Rock for something it normally never does — reject corporate welfare. Salon didn’t note that the pitch was crafted by an outfit funded by corporate welfare, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose taxpayer handouts include $300,000 from the city of Little Rock, plus other government contributors.
The stunt set off Matt Campbell, the lawyer and Blue Hog Report muckraker. If the gimmickry was a product of the city-financed economic development “team,” then show us the paperwork and records on who paid for the effort, he asked in an FOI request. The chamber will stiff him as it always does. He says he may test the secrecy in court.
Transparency would be nice. The taxpayers who help pay the salaries of chamber employees deserve a window into how they sell the city in real negotiations.
Does the chamber talk about our difficult race relations? Does it advertise its leading role in the state takeover of the local school district because of unhappiness with the majority black board? Does it reveal that most white police officers don’t live in the city they protect (guard is more like it) but prefer white-flight suburbs?
Does it brag that Arkansas is a right to work (anti-union) state by law and the law has also been updated to further favor corporations over wage-earners in workers compensation and unemployment benefits?
Does it brag about how much it loves freeways and wants to widen existing community-splitting freeways even more? Does it talk about the lack of a dedicated revenue stream for mass transit? About unfinished bike paths? About the perilous east-west corridors suitable only for cars?
Crime, education attainment and official state hostility to sexual minorities and women’s medical rights are also difficult subjects. (Timely coincidence: An annual survey gave Seattle a perfect score of 100 on LGBT equality; Little Rock, got a pitiful 45, below the national average of 57.)
What do chamber recruiters say about the failure of many Arkansas schools to teach science (sex education, evolution, climate change.) And what do they tell businesses that believe in sustainability about our lax environmental regulation?
Little Rock has much to offer. But good development prospects will look past a two-day publicity stunt. They’ll be happy to hear about the pluses, but they’ll also want honest answers about potential drawbacks.
We’d do well to devote as much energy to addressing deficits as we do to blind boosterism and publicity stunts.