Being Civic Minded

Richard Mason
Being Civic Minded
I think most of us will agree, residents of a community should be civic minded. That’s a simple statement, but I’ve found in almost every town I have visited, many residents have a mindset that being civic minded is primarily the job of community leaders or the Chamber of Commerce. Well, I’m going to expand the meaning of being civic minded to include a lot more citizens of a community than just the leadership. My definition of being civic minded is going to cover every individual in a community.
Of course, it makes sense to expand being civic minded to include everyone in the community, because their involvement obviously improves the community. I think it’s a disgrace to just live in a town and depend on someone else to do all the dirty work. More involvement by more citizens always equals a better community. But we all know there will be those who lead the effort in community improvements, and those who lag behind and actually do nothing or very little. Every town’s success is ultimately depends on the number of citizens who are civic minded. The goal of every community is to have a strong group of civic minded individuals who lead the pack of workers to lift a town up, and increase the quality of life in that community. But to really have a quality community every citizen of that town should join in the effort. However, in every town I have been in, I see weed covered lots, vacant buildings, and trash along the streets. I’ve found out that many times a city must literally force these owners to be civic minded.
The early settlers, who founded the towns in our nation, were successful because of the wholehearted support of virtually every person in these new communities. They gave us a great example, so where do we start?
First, let’s ignore the need for an army carrying weedeaters, which of course wouldn’t be needed if the city actually kept city right-of-ways trimmed and cleaned. Let’s focus on the vacant lots and buildings. Those are the real town killers. Let’s me give you my experience when considering the problem of vacant lots. In 1974 my wife and I were living in Corpus Christi, Texas, and we decided to move back home to South Arkansas. We had plans to build a new house, and we came to El Dorado looking for a suitable lot. Long story short—we couldn’t find one. Oh yes, there were plenty of lots, but they weren’t for sale. Actually, we lucked out, and after almost buying a great house in Columbus, Mississippi, we found an old beer joint attached to 17 acres—the Palace, on Calion Road—bought it, leveled the beer joint, and moved to El Dorado. Those lots that we tried to buy are still available, but not for sale. I believe being civic minded is more than just living in a town. There are responsibilities and contributing to community growth is one of them.
Of course civic responsibility is everybody’s business. The businessman, attorney, or doctor who lives in the community and makes his living from the people and business in the community has a civic obligation and responsibility to support and actively participate in civic improvements. Not only that, but these individuals have a responsibility to be active promoters of businesses that they aren’t directly involved in, and if they have unused land and buildings, and someone wants to build on or renovate and improve the buildings and land they should sell to them and not inhibit community growth.
A community of people who encourages growth and improves the quality of life in their town will naturally do many altruistic things. Altruistic means “for the good of others without gain for themselves”. A town with no altruistic individuals is a sad place to live because it’s the altruistic people who give towns the spirit of community and pride. However, before we place all the blame or credit on the professional people in our community, we would be amiss not to consider the actions of every resident. When we do that, we will see the quality of life in a community doesn’t depend upon a few civic minded individuals. Obviously, the more civic minded people you have in a community, the better the quality of life their town’s citizens will have. Involvement can be as small as picking up trash in front of your house, or refraining from tossing a beer can out the window. I guess you might say “trash litters” and realize that statement has a double meaning, and of course, the definition of trash needs to be on everybody’s mind. Yes, cigarette butts are trash, and according to most experts, they are major contributors to liter. Of course, I could go on and on about how being civic minded improves a town, but I think you get the point.
Yes, it’s easy to nod in agreement when someone endorses being civic minded, but becoming active is a lot harder to do. Just think of what our town could be if we doubled the number of people who are civic minded?


First Impressions

First Impressions
Well, the buzz is spreading. Yes, the MAD (Murphy Arts District’s) opening week buzz is taking off. Folks are scrambling to get tickets, and they’re flying off the shelf. We’ve loaded up, and I can’t wait. The buzz is already spreading through the mid-south, and after the MAD promotion group’s advertising recent soiree through New York City, national publications will pick up the story, and we can expect the September 27th grand opening to be eagerly awaited by thousands from all over the country who will roll into El Dorado. And it will continue week after week, as top flight entertainment and great food pulls in the crowds.
Of course, as I have said before, these several hundred thousand guys and gals coming to the entertainment district will bring a healthy boost to the overall state’s economy, and a real uptick to South Arkansas. Yes, El Dorado will be the destination for thousands, and we hope some of those several hundred thousand festival goers will like El Dorado so much they’ll move here, and up-tic the economic growth and reverse our population decline. I’m convinced, if we take advantage of this influx, South Arkansas will see a new boom that will rival the 1920s oil boom.
However, we may have a little problem as we try to give our visitors a good first impression. Uh, well maybe more than a little problem. So what about first impressions? Do they matter? I met Vertis, my wife, while swimming in the Smackover Swimming Pool. Did she make a good first impression? Well, we’ve been married longer than I can remember, so I would say Vertis in a swimsuit made an excellent first impression. Now, let’s just do a “what if”. What if Vertis had looked like North West Avenue in that swimsuit? Well, I would probably have ended up a confirmed bachelor living in a Greek Monastery. So just for a moment let’s say Mabelle and Billy Ray Jones from Tulsa arrive to see ZZ Top, and they drive into El Dorado on North West Avenue. I can hear them now: “Look, Billy Ray, they have a giant, abandoned Wendy’s sign. I wonder if they have a historical marker, and oh, look; I’ll bet they don’t have to worry about mowing all those blank parking lots.” “That right Mabelle, and see all those electrical lines. I’ll just bet all those stores have electricity, and just check out this turn lane. It’s a turn lane as far as the eye can see. Wow, this looks like a town we might want to relocate to.” Or maybe they might say, “My God, Billy Ray, have you ever seen anything so ugly? Speed up and check this eyesore off our list.”
Okay, now we’ve seen the good, bad, and the ugly, so how can we turn ugly North West Avenue into Vertis in her swimsuit? I guess that requires some action by the Mayor and the City Council. Yes, of course it does, and that begs the question: If North West Avenue is such an eyesore why hasn’t the City, and/or the City Council done anything about it? Yes, they will mumble something like “We don’t have the money.” But I’ve offered to buy 50 crepe myrtle trees, and all the city has to do is plant them in the green space along the street. Nope, they won’t take me up on my offer, and I would just bet, with a little work, I could line up several hundred trees to be donated. The city owns the right-of-way on both sides of the street, and nothing can keep the city from planting trees or other landscaping, which will cover up some of the ugly. But it’s not just the Mayor and Public Works Director; the City Council can pass a sign ordinance, similar to the one that disappeared from the books, and they can also take a page from Fayetteville and pass a landscaping ordinance to green up those blank ugly parking lots.
Of course, killing the endless turn lane on North West Avenue is almost just too much to hope for, but what if the turn lane was landscaped all the way from Hillsboro to the bypass intersection, with just a few breaks across it? Yes, that’s a big job, but it’s the right thing to do. If El Dorado Festivals and Events can spend a hundred million dollars to add 500 jobs and thousands to our population, it seems the city could at least give us a fighting chance to attract permeant residents by sprucing up the eyesore of South Arkansas, North West Avenue. If you agree that North West Avenue need a face lift, then every time you see the Mayor or a City Council Person, tell them to get busy and do something about the eyesore of South Arkansas.

Make Hot Springs Great Again




Make Hot Springs Great Again
Well, I guess some folks think Hot Springs is still great, but if it is, then why does Rex Nelson, the Dem-Gaz columnist keep writing about how Hot Springs is turning things around and pretty soon Central Avenue will once again shine? If you’re not familiar with Hot Spring, somewhere along downtown Central Avenue is the center of town. So if we’re going to make Hot Springs great again, we need to start with the center of town.
Okay, now let’s be brutally honest. What are the things Central Avenue would have it were great? That easy; a great downtown must be people friendly, have good entertainment, great restaurants, and quality shopping. How does Hot Springs’s Central Avenue stack up? On a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a five, and I’m being generous. But Hot Springs does have the potential to move up. Here’s the major problem: the center of town—Central Avenue—is not pedestrian friendly. Let me tell you how I know: I was invited to speak to a group of Hot Springs leaders, merchants, and other interested individuals a couple of years ago about how to invigorate downtown Hot Springs. Well, I wanted to get a close view of the shopping, restaurants, and other amenities, so I started from the Arlington Hotel and slowly drove down Central, in the inside lane, where I could get a good feel for what downtown Hot Springs has to offer. I guess I was going 15 to 20 mph, but wow, horns started honking and talk about some bad looks as drivers passed me. Folks were obviously using four lane Central Avenue to get across town, and shopping, restaurants etc weren’t on their radar. Central Avenue has something in common with Oaklawn; they are both raceways, one for horses and one for cars. That in a nutshell is the overriding problem with downtown Hot Springs. Unless Central Avenue is made pedestrian friendly, Hot Springs will never reach its potential.
That’s the problem as I see it, and I have traveled extensively across our country parts of Asia, all of Western Europe and most of North Africa. The ideas I will put forth to make Hot Springs’s downtown what it should be have been distilled and used by hundreds of other cities. I’m not proposing anything that hasn’t already worked in hundreds of downtowns.
First, the traffic on Central Avenue must be diverted to another street. I’m no traffic engineer, but it seems Malvern, one block east, could be converted into a four lane street by removing the parking on either side, and with a very limited number of stop signs or red lights, give the commuters who across town a better route to get from one side of town to the next. That’s step one.
Now, let’s look at Central Avenue today. It’s, a four-lane raceway. Remember, the plan is to make Central pedestrian friendly, and you start with the attitude that not only do you want to make Central friendly to pedestrians, but unfriendly to vehicles. You do that by doing several things. First, you make it a boulevard, which of course means you get rid of two lanes of traffic. Step two, take the space those lanes took up and plant trees down the middle of the street, and use the other space to make the sidewalks wider to encourage sidewalk dining. Then, every 200 feet put in a pedestrian crosswalk with stop signs. I’ll guarantee you one thing, if that happens, the crosstown commuters will line up to go down Malvern rather than Central.
But we’re not there yet. In order to get the quality businesses and restaurants to occupy commercial space on Central Avenue, the city must strongly enforce electrical, fire, and structural zoning codes, and mandate enhanced landscaping along the street. The commercial space on Central must be improved to equal the best in the town. Any property owner who refuses to renovate their space should be forced to place their property on the market.
The goal should be to have a series of 25 foot retail or restaurant tenants along the opposite side of the street from Bathhouse Row. The 25 foot retail spacing not my idea. Disney did a survey and found shoppers preferred that spacing of retail stores, but not just any retail stores. Hot Springs must decide who they want as a customer, and every store should cater to that customer. If they decide to be a discount mall type street, every store should be of that nature. Or, if they decided to cater to middle and upper income shoppers, every store along the street must serve that customer. Of course, it means only retail or restaurants on the ground floor; no accountants, lawyers, or yoga studios.
If Hot Springs does the above, they will ready to add landscaping and other pizzazz items to draw pedestrians. Just remember this: you can’t have too much stuff, and if you don’t believe me, check out the successful downtowns around the world. Every successful downtown is patterned after the items mention above.
I know what I have suggested is a tough nut to crack, but progressive towns with great downtowns across this country are proof it can be done. So Hot Springs—get started by putting the needle in the Central Avenue Raceway.