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.

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