Jobs and Economy
It’s impossible to talk about jobs and economic vitality without discussing education. The foundation of a city’s ability to attract, retain, and grow thriving businesses is an educated and well-prepared workforce.
Which is why Little Rock’s city leadership, starting with the mayor, has to be fully engaged and committed to providing a world-class education to all of our youth. The challenges faced by the Little Rock School District and the often-inadequate education provided to our children has been well-chronicled. While this is a complicated and emotional issue, I want to be clear about my position: I am a passionate advocate for public schools. As mayor, I will channel that passion and use all the tools available to me to advance the cause of delivering a high-quality education to all.
It starts with having a comprehensive plan and vision to provide a world-class education to every young person, no matter where in the city they live. In the past, the approach has consisted of temporary, ad hoc solutions like building a new school in one neighborhood. Though a benefit to a handful of well-deserving students, this scattershot approach creates understandable resentment in neighborhoods that are coping with facilities that are literally disintegrating.
As mayor, I would commit to fully engage the public to formulate an approach to public education that supports teachers and elevates all students. You don’t have to look far to find an effective model for how this can be achieved. North Little Rock convened public meetings and put the best ideas up for a vote. The result: Improved citywide consensus around education, the construction of new schools, and a model and commitment to serving its students better.
Public input is important, but so too is fundamental representative democracy. The most audacious, forward-thinking, and publicly-supported plan to improve public education will be of little use without an elected and empowered school board. I will strive to reinstate local control of our schools, and then work closely with those elected officials to innovate and greatly improve the quality of education citywide. We cannot keep saying it’s too difficult or controversial. For the good of our economy, our communities, our quality of life and our public safety, we simply must do better on education.
While an educated workforce goes hand-in-hand with a strong economy, Little Rock also needs to reimagine its economic development strategy. So much of what’s wrong with Little Rock’s approach – and that of most American cities, for that matter – is symbolized by the feverish jockeying to attract Amazon’s second American headquarters. The approach cities have been taking to attract Amazon follows a familiar formula: Lavish public subsidies and tax breaks on an already wildly profitable business in hopes of reaping the rewards of a wealthier tax base and increased private investments.
The track record of this approach is mixed at best, with far too many cities seeing no return on their taxpayers’ investments. Instead of this tired and unproven approach to economic development, Little Rock needs to conceive and implement a plan that is more relevant to the 21st century economy and also more inclusive, efficient, and sustainable. Put simply, instead of an economic development strategy geared to luring Big Business with taxpayer giveaways, I’d focus on promoting small business and entrepreneurship.
My approach to economic development would mirror my approach to improving education. I would begin by opening up a dialogue with neighborhoods around the city to learn what types of businesses would most benefit its citizens. With that information, I would work to collaboratively develop a plan to support entrepreneurs with access to finance, knowledge sharing, and technical assistance. This data driven approach -- which many cities and towns have implemented – will help us determine what types of businesses have the best chance of success. This data could also be shared with existing businesses to help improve their operations and revenue.
This is not a quick fix. But I’m convinced that it’s possible to steadily and sustainably revitalize our communities and create economic opportunities without dislocating current residents. Besides providing leadership and facilitating community engagement, the city has a more direct role in the success of this economic development strategy. The city government must equitably supply the infrastructure – everything from good streets and sidewalks to broadband access – that small businesses need to succeed.
Another direct way Little Rock city government can assist entrepreneurs is by reducing the barriers to launching a business, including cutting unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy and providing assistance to help fledgling companies navigate cumbersome licensing and permitting processes. The city of Oakland, California implemented a “startup in a day” program, an event that brought city employees together with entrepreneurs to help citizens navigate their way through all the city approvals they would need in a short period of time. Making it easy for companies to get started means entrepreneurs can focus on more important matters, like attracting investments and serving their customers.
None of this is to say that I’m against large, successful businesses. But we have to remember that all big businesses, like Arkansas’s own Walmart and TCBY, started as small businesses. Let’s respect and uphold that legacy and become a reliable partner to help our entrepreneurs grow more small businesses into globally known brands.