They’re Ripping Up Burbon Street

Arkansas
By
Richard Mason

They’re Ripping Up Bourbon Street!

Yes, they are, and I’m not exaggerating…this time. Block after block of the actual street paving from curb to curb is being taken up, and a large section of Bourbon Street has chain-link fencing covered with black cloth for several blocks. While we were there recently, we watched the street being ripped up by large backhoes. The sidewalks are still there, and all the stores, restaurants, and bars. However, the street with the backhoes and chain link fencing takes away some of the New Orleans French Quarter mystique.
Well, you just might think a sewage line put in about the time Andrew Jackson was battling the Brits might need replacing, and you would be right unless you want the French Quarter to float off to the Mississippi River in a flood of sewage. Well, we were trying to have a late lunch at Galatoire’s Restaurant, and had to walk two blocks around the fencing just to get there. Of course, a trip to Bourbon Street is on most folks lists of things to do when in the Big Easy, and I can tell you that the construction is going to put a crimp in a lot of folk’s trip.
Vertis and I went to New Orleans on our honeymoon, and since then we’ve been back many times. Yes, things have changed, but Crystal Hamburgers is still there, which is where we ate several times on our honeymoon. However, on our last trip, when I suggested we have dinner there, you know, for old times’ sake, I got a frosty stare and a comment that wouldn’t be allowed on a TV talk show…… Unless it was Jerry Springer. But let’s don’t talk about food except to say, I think New Orleans has the best food in the good old USA. It really hard to find bad food in New Orleans. But other than food, why do we southerners flock to the Big Easy?
I think most southerners go to New Orleans to get away from the day to day boredom that is the real south. Actually, I kinda like being bored…most of the time, but a couple of times a year, I get the urge to escape., and we head for New Orleans, which is almost always hot and muggy, and it’s little dangerous…uh, maybe a little more than a little…don’t go by yourself for a midnight cemetery walk.
Of course there’s Mardi Gras, and I think everyone should go at least once. That probably enough for at least 95% of us. I’ve been, and yes, the floats are amazing. Of course everyone wants to catch some beads, and I have still have a sack full from my trip. You will find out the beads lose some of their attractiveness when you get back home. You can’t even give them away. But if you really want some beads—and this for guys—gals always get beads thrown at them, but who is going to throw beads at some nerdy guy from Smackover….nobody, not even the drunks on the floats. Guys need a gimmick. First, it will help if you are over six feet tall and have long arms to go with that height. This is what you do: look for great looking, and this is important… short girls, and stand right behind them. You will be able to pick off the overthrown beads thrown by drunk float riders, and unless the beads are thrown at the gorgeous girl’s feet you will be able to catch them before they do. Well, if that seems a little crass to you, here’s another way. Just get a baseball cap that says something foreign like Canada in big letters, and point to it when the drunk float throwers come by. Foreign tourists are going to get 10 times the beads a redneck from Boca Chita is going to get.
But New Orleans is a different than the city where we went for our honeymoon, and I think for the better. On our last trip we noticed a big change is in the making. It’s an accelerated move back into the center of town. Of course, folks have always lived in the French Quarter, but adjacent to the Quarter around Magazine Street where it intersects Poydras Street, there is an upper floor residential building boom taking place. It’s difficult to walk down that street, which is toward the World War Two Museum, Emerial’s Restaurant, Peche Seafood Restaurant, and about 20 other great night spots, bars, and clubs because of the blocked off sidewalks for building construction. Several multi-floor new buildings are going up, and scads of upper floor remodeling into apartments is under way.
Actually, as I travel to almost every major city, I see a ‘back to the city center’ migration taking place. It makes a lot of sense, and it does two very positive things: Of course it cuts several hours a day off a person’s commuting time, but it also is the best way to renovate America’s downtowns. According to a recent study, each new resident brings as much as $ 50,000 per year in gross sales to downtown businesses. Adding people to a downtown guarantees a revived and active downtown.
Of course, there is a lot more than eating and drinking to a New Orleans visit. That’s probably a surprise to some people. So for the sippers and teetotalers, here’s a few things to do: Be sure to visit the Zoo, to see the wonderful giant Live Oaks and the flock of Flamingos, and they do have a bunch of other animals, but the Live Oaks and Flamingos are the reason to go. Of course, the Aquarium is a must and then take in the adjoining IMAX Theater, where you can see Hurricane on The Bayou—-great document about Katrina, and while you in the area you can shop the big discount mall called RiverWalk. I picked up three Tommy Bahamas $80 shirts for $29 each.
Well that’s my quick take on the Big Easy, and if we’ll really be honest, New Orleans is really not part of the South, it’s an appendage to the south that has evolved as a tonic for bored and hungry Southerners.

Arkansas, the Saudi Arabia of the South

ARKANSAS
BY
Richard Mason
Arkansas, the Saudi Arabia of the South
Are you kidding, Richard? Actually, I am. That title is just to get your attention, but let’s be honest, there are a lot of things that go on in our fair state that are very similar to Saudi Aribia’s treatment of women. I checked on the Saudi Highway Commission or whatever they call it, and guess what? Now a woman on the commission. Actually, the highways are directed under a big umbrella of agencies that are totally void of females. And guess what? We match the Saudis in female Highway Commissioners! Yep, we don’t have a one, and I don’t think Arkansas has ever had one. I sure can’t remember any. Of course, women can’t even drive a car by themselves in Saudi Aribia. A man must be in the car with them. So at least we let our women drive, but what about other similarities? How does the commission that regulates hunting, fishing, and trapping in our state compare with the one in Saudi Aribia? Well, actually, it tough to tell who or what regulates anything that has to do with hunting etc, in Saudi land, but as far as I can tell the Saudis are right up there with us, with a big 0 women just as our Game and Fish Commission has 0 women. Well, we know why the Saudis don’t have any women on their boards, but what about dear, old Arkansas? “Huntin’ and finshin’ is for men and boys. Don’t y’all know that?” Maybe that’s the Governor speaking, but whatever, it’s what the numbers tell us. Well, do we have qualified women who hunt and fish? Of course we do. We have thousands of women who would make excellent commissioners; like Lisa Vickery of El Dorado. I would bet Lisa can out hunt and fish not only the bunch of old, white, fat, male commissions, but about 95% of the men in the state, and we have thousands just like Lisa waiting for the Governor’s call. “Pick up the phone, Asa!” Well, Asa did pick up the phone a few weeks back, and yes, he nominated another male Game and Fish Commissioner.
But what about other commissions? Like the Highway Commission? You guess it; the Saudis don’t have any woman on whatever they call their Highway Commission either, and in my memory and probably in the history of the state we have never had a female highway commissioner. We know over 50% of the drivers in our state are female, and some of them are right up there with Mario Andretti. Here in South Arkansas we have two women who have broken the one and a half hour mark from El Dorado to Little Rock. Yes, it’s a two hour drive at 65 to 70. Names withheld because…well you know why. Maybe those two wouldn’t be the best choice, since they would champion the German Autobahn speed limits, which have no speed limits, but we have others, thousands of others, such as Clara Jones of El Dorado: a well-educated, small business owner, who has traveled our state extensively, and her inclusion would give us a better commission. Actually, a national survey shows a mixed commission or board is more effective and productive than an all-male board or commission. Of course, there are thousands more Clara Jones around our fair state who would make excellent Highway Commissioners.
I could list dozens of boards and commissions around the state, which have no female members or have a token woman. Of course, here is nothing wrong with a token woman. Heck, it’s sure better than an all-male board, but there is a lot wrong with all the 100% male board. But just as sure as in 1900 when women couldn’t vote, but they knew one day they would vote, we will one day have every board and commission in our state gender equal. I guess the women in the 1900s who raised hell until they got the right to vote are an example of what should be happening today. We should be asking every elected official in the state if they support equal representation and equal pay for women, and if they won’t answer or do the old Texas Two Step—which is just dodging the question, vote ‘em out in the next election. They are just one step from “Keep ‘um barefoot and pregnant.” If you don’t believe me ask our elective officials why they won’t support equal pay for women and gender equality, (uh, for you folks north of Interstate 40, gender equality mean equal representation of men and women on boards and commissions,) sorry about that; I just couldn’t resist.
Of course, Western Europe is light years ahead of the curve on gender equality, and as an example, France’s new president has already stated his government will have equal representation of men and women on all government boards and commissions.
Yes, and even Saudi Arabia will have gender equality one day along with Arkansas…I do hope we at least beat the Saudis.

Let’s Get Civilized, Y’all

ARKANSAS

BY

Richard Mason

Let’s Get Civilized Y’all
Last week I talked about the need for us to move forward in our communities with new street improvement, underground utilities, and a master landscaping—parking lot plan for major entryways. Today I will focus on the need to enact greenspace and signage ordinances. But before we go any further in our discussion, let’s talk about why we should bother.

In that regard, we should review the progress or lack of progress our communities have made over the last 20 years. When I talk about progress, I mean our progressive growth and the creation of a community that is a more pleasant place to live and work. If your community is like most in our state, you have just been treading water. Our whole concept of growth, industrial recruitment, and quality of life must be re-examined if we intend to have successful communities in the years to come. What I am suggesting is that we throw out the failed methods we have been using and adopt new ideas and concepts which have already proven to be successful in cities around the world. When we review these ideas, remember city after city has already implemented every suggestion I will make. They work. In order for us to understand why the visual improvements are so important, we must recognize our level of civilization here in Arkansas. Now I know we think that the United States is the apex of civilization, and certainly Arkansas is not vastly different from other sections of the country. Well, sorry to disappoint you folks, but the United States and certainly Arkansas is not as civilized as many western European countries. I know our technology, medicine and abundance of consumer goods far surpasses most countries of the world; however in a great number of areas, Western Europe still leads the way.
To illustrate the level of civilization, let me remind you of one of the most obvious indications of civilized country; the absence of significant litter. Now before you scoff, take a look at Mexico, or for that matter, any third world country. Trash and litter are everywhere. Then look at Switzerland; street sweepers clean every scrap of litter from the streets every day, and the country looks like a Disney Nature Reserve. Let me give you an example of the Swiss mind-set. A couple of years ago we were in Switzerland on vacation. We were riding a train out to a hiking area when we passed through a town that was obviously preparing for a parade. We got off the train, found a good viewing spot, and settled in to watch an extensive historical military parade. As we waited for the parade to start, I noticed vendors selling everything from ice cream to sausage rolls. A few feet away, a young girl about 10 years old purchased an ice cream bar wrapped in wax

paper. She unwrapped the ice cream, folded the wrapper into a small square, looked for a trash can, and then when she couldn’t find one, she simply put the wrapper in her pocket. When the parade finished, the several thousand people who had been eating and drinking didn’t leave one scrap of paper on the ground. Contrast that to the scene in War Memorial stadium after a football game. In every third world country I have ever visited, it’s always the same. Trash and litter abound. It’s the most common signature of a third world country. No, we’re not a third world country, but we’re not as civilized as we could be.

As people become more sophisticated and civilized, the most obvious characteristic of their culture is the absence of litter. The other items, such as tree-lined streets, underground utilities, and more green spaces, follow in short order. What we must do is recognize that we do need visual improvements, not only to make our community pleasing to the eye, but to create a positive image which will help us recruit good responsible jobs and to keep the jobs we now have. To be competitive in today’s job recruitment environment, we must offer an attractive community that a plant manager would like to live in. So visual improvements must come before we even try to recruit new jobs. My goal is to focus our attention on our visual problems and make suggestions as to how we can correct them. Maybe we aren’t ready to solve them. It could be that my town and your town will have to wait for our grandchildren to correct these eyesores. However, no doubt one day every city in the state will accomplish these goals. I believe it’s time to start.

Now, let’s go back to our original list of eyesores. We have talked about how we need to bury the maze of utility wires, and we also noted a tree-lined avenue would certainly enhance the visual aspects of both entryway streets. But let’s don’t stop there. Two other items must be addressed if these two streets are to be attractive entryways into our community. First, the cluttered signage present on these streets. The most progressive communities around our country and around the world all have sign ordinances. Some are so restrictive that they ban any signs not attached to the place of business and forbid signs from extending higher than the building itself. We are probably not ready for that much regulation, but surely we can see the wisdom in passing an ordinance that would prohibit signage taller than 6 feet and would prohibit portable signs altogether. You can’t imagine how much this would help to beautify these key streets. If you are a merchant, you are probably thinking how much business you are going to lose when you take down your 100 foot sign. On the contrary, when everybody has the same signage there is no loss of business. In fact, the present situation gives the large, well-funded, multi-national companies an advantage over a small local business.
Next on our list of eyesores are our parking lots. Let’s give credit to a few of our companies and individuals that have already landscaped their lots. However, as you can see, they are definitely in the minority. A greenspace ordinance is a key to a truly beautiful city. With this ordinance, a reluctant property owner would have no choice but to plant or leave a designated amount of his parking lot as greenspace. Fayetteville recently passed such an ordinance for a new bypass area that would require 25% of each lot and one out of 10 parking spaces to be landscaped. When we add the greenspace ordinance to our street improvements, our signage ordinance, and, underground utilities and then the resulting tree lined avenues will exemplify a progressive city. Not only will we be able to attract the quality jobs we need, but the resulting improvements will restore our sense of community pride.

Company’s Coming!

ARKANSAS

BY

Richard Mason

Company’s Coming!

Yes, a lot of tourists are already coming. Thousands are arriving daily in our fair State, as Crystal Bridges pulls them in, and this September there will be a new kid on the block, which will be a bookend in South Arkansas to Crystal Bridges in the North. It’s the MAD, (The Murphy Arts District) in downtown El Dorado, and they are expecting somewhere around the same number of visitors (175,000) that Crystal Bridges was expecting their first year. Well, we all know Crystal Bridges did a little better than expected—like a lot better—hundreds of thousands better. Would you believe 650,000?
On September 27, the MAD is planning a grand opening week of Phase One, with a lineup of talent that makes RiverFest look like the Emerson Purple-hull Pea Festival. Will anyone show up for a week featuring the biggest group of talent ever put together in Arkansas? Of course, they will come by the thousands just as they did when Crystal Bridges opened, and they will keep coming because not only will the first week have talent out the gazoo, but every week of the year will feature more of the same.
Phase One of the MAD will feature an 8000 capacity amphitheater, a 2200 seat Griffin Auditorium, a cabaret with an assortment of live entertainment, a world class farm to table restaurant—(no instant mashed potatoes there boys) and the best children’s play-area in the state with a water feature to draw thousands of kids in the summer. That’s just Phase One. Phase Two will have a multi-level art museum, and as the centerpiece of the entire MAD, the Rialto Theater, the finest vaudeville theater in the state, will be renovated into a live theater complete with its original massive pipe organ to boom out a welcome to all.
Yes, the MAD will be the south bookend to Crystal Bridges on the north and the two entertainment entities will complement each other. The entire State of Arkansas will benefit because of the influx of tourists, and as the attractions of new exhibits from Crystal Bridges, and the headliners from MAD become a destination to do both, the number of visitors to our state will mushroom. We certainly need to be aware of this very real possibility, and get ready to welcome multi-thousands of visitors.
Well, let’s just look at the real possibilities of a massive influx of tourists, and try and understand what we need to do in order to welcome the crowds who are going to show up on our doorstep. I remember, as a boy, my momma saying, “Richard, the preacher will be coming for dinner Sunday, and we need….”. I would reply, “Yep”. Yes, that was me, and that meant mow the yard, wash the car, wash off the porch, and sweep it. Well, I guess the preacher is coming to Arkansas in droves, and we need to spruce up things, Right? And not only spruce things up, but get ready to handle an influx of cars, busses, bikes, and motorcycles. We need to have wayfaring signage, parking for not only car but bikes, and motorcycles, encourage residents of join Air B & B because in South Arkansas, we don’t have hotel or motel space for a tenth of the visitors who will be coming.
As I write this are there are 83 days left to get ready, and yes, El Dorado has made a start: they have placed tiny MAD banners on the downtown light poles—whoopee! Yes, we’re moving at Glacial Speed down here in South Arkansas, but the to-do list is longer than my arm. Are we going to wake up with ten thousand attendees in town looking for the MAD, a place to sleep, and a place to park? But just getting directions and a place to park is only part of getting ready. What our towns and cities need to do is get the entire town ready, and of course that means the entrances into all our cities must be made ready. Bentonville has spent several million in sprucing up their downtown, and their signage to Crystal Bridges is great. Okay, so we know how Bentonville is doing it and it’s passable, except for Walton Boulevard, which needs to have several thousand trees and more green-space, but what but the rest of our state, the towns that will have secondary visits from Crystal Bridges and the MAD?
El Dorado, the south bookend has two primary entrances into the center of town, North West Avenue, which is an ugly, disgraceful entrance and Hillsboro Street, which is even worse. If the El Dorado City Council is serious about making a halfway decent first impression to the tens of thousands of visitors who will start showing on their doorstep September 27 they should immediately start work on North West Avenue. Pass a sign ordinance, mandate 25% green-space for the dozens of parking lots, and plant crepe myrtle trees every twenty feet down both sides of the street, and of course do underground utilities and make the center of the street a boulevard with trees down the center of the street.
I really believe, we’re looking at a bookend MAD in South Arkansas, which, when tied to the hit Crystal Bridge Museum in the north, will increase visits to entire State by huge numbers. I think Crystal Bridges will see a 20 to 30 percent increase and the MAD visitors could easily hit 500,000. I know you’re shaking your head, but what if I’m right? Well, there were some head-shakers in Bentonville when Crystal Bridges predicted 175,000 their first year, so I think you’re with the head-shakers, and I’m with Crystal Bridge 650,000 who showed up that first year, and what is even more remarkable only 55% were from Arkansas.
We do know this; all those visitors won’t just go to Bentonville and El Dorado. Every city in the state will see hundreds, and a city the size of Little Rock will have thousands show up. That puts the “get ready for company” on virtually every town in the state. Of course, the feature towns of El Dorado and Bentonville will need to take the lead. Will we be ready? What do you think?

Arkansas, the Un-Natural State?

ARKANSAS
BY
Richard Mason
Arkansas, the “Un-Natural State?”
Yes, I know that sounds like heresy, since we tag every scrap of tourism advertising we send out with just the opposite. Well, which is it? Don’t get me wrong; I think ‘The Natural State’ is an excellent state motto, but I believe we’re missing a great tourism opportunity by not really being the natural state we could be. In order to be a top tourist destination, we must have a “Natural State” mindset, and only a true Natural State mindset will produce a “wow” natural state. To accomplish that we must look at everything differently, and not just ignore our eyesores, and I don’t need to tell you we have plenty of eyesores. Our focus should be: What can be added to improve a vacant lot, building, or roadway and make them look more natural, and of course, attractive. Curb appeal works when you are trying to sell your house, and it works when you are trying to sell your state or your town.
I know we have the Buffalo, (Unless the hog farm kills it), Petite Jean, cypress-lined Champagnolle Creek, and other great, natural sights, but what about the other 95% of Arkansas; the part most folks see when they visit our state? They see acre after acre of blank, ugly parking lots in virtually every town over 5000. Highway right-of-ways that look a lot like those treeless parking lot and downtowns that are as ugly as homemade sin. Yes, it’s sad to say, but that is the first impression most visitors get when they arrive in our state,
Since many of our visitors spend most of their time in our urban areas, having an attractive entrance to our towns, and the having a green, vibrant downtown is of paramount importance. However, almost every town in our state has an entrance problem. It’s the street or avenue that is lined with fast food joints, ugly overhead utility lines, a blizzard of signs, and usually there’s not a sprig of greenery anywhere. Yes, those are easily the ugliest streets in town. It’s North West Avenue in El Dorado, and every town of any size in the state can substitute their town’s ugly street in that sentence. Of course, cities can easily, and for very little money, do something about those eyesore entrance streets. They can tightening up their zoning ordinances and mandate a certain amount of green space, or do something as simple as planting crepe myrtle trees every 20 feet down those streets. Since the city owns the right-of-way, there is nothing to keep a town from doing that. A 500 crepe myrtle trees in every town in Arkansas would have an immediate uptick in beautification, curb appeal, and would cost very little. And while I’m writing about crepe myrtle trees, just remember; they are trees not bushes, so stop chopping them off. Nothing is as ugly as a chopped of crepe myrtle and nothing will kill them faster.
Planting trees in a community is an excellent return on investment for everyone. That’s right, and as a realtor or IRS agent will tell you, the presence or loss of a major tree in your yard can add to or deduct from the value of your home. Cut down a major tree in your front yard, and you will immediately reduce the resale value of your house. If you have a shopping center and ignore your empty parking lot, you can watch as the landscaped shopping center lot across the street draws 20% more shoppers. Don’t scoff; those are facts supported by independent surveys, not my opinion, and the “lipstick on a pig approach” by putting on a new front on a dead mall won’t help.
There are numerous other items a town can add to build on the natural theme, and trails and bike paths are near the top of the list. Yes, I know we have a few trails in our state—a precious few. We are probably down on the lower end of the trails list with Mississippi and Louisiana instead of being at the top with Washington and Vermont. Trails should link a town together as a way to go from place to place, and not a circle that goes nowhere, like El Dorado’s one trail that circles the fairground. Dr. Glasser of the University of Arkansas Design team linked El Dorado’s downtown and North West Avenue and several residential areas of the city with proposed trails, but as you might guess, his recommendation were ignored. Progressive towns such as Seattle have trails linking their downtown with the residential areas of the city resulting in a good percentage of workers walking or biking to work. Trails should always connect with a good network of sidewalks.
Of course, the most important part of any community is its downtown. I believe, a vibrant, beautiful downtown is of paramount importance to any town. On the other hand, if the center of your town is perceived to be a failure, then your whole town is thought of as a failure. In other words “bricks in the street = a dead downtown = Pine Bluff”. I know that little statement will choke some folks, but it’s true, and that’s why not a week goes by without a newspaper article about an Arkansas town trying to revitalize their downtown
Obviously, Arkansas has the potential to become the real Natural State, and not one in name only, and it can happen. But in order for it to be an authentic Natural State, we must use our taxpayer’s money to enhance our quality of life by building trails, sidewalks, and other needed amenities, which in turn will attract the individuals who will create high-paying jobs. That’s how to grow a community. A state has only a certain amount of resources, and if we spend more time and money on useless endeavors, such as junkets to Europe and Asia than we do on projects that improve our quality of life, then our state will continue to bring up the rear in nearly everything. If you think we’re talking about worthless fluff, and that money should be used to build another industrial park, you need to push your reset button, which is set somewhere in the late 1950s to 2017.