First Annual Regional Summit
Joel E. Anderson, Chancellor
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
September 14, 2004
Why a regional summit in Central Arkansas?
Welcome! In order to set the stage for this meeting, I want to read an excerpt from my inaugural address a year ago:
“Beginning next fall, UALR will convene an annual conference on regionalism in central Arkansas as a means of achieving stronger communities and a better life for everyone in the region…. ”
“Given the global market, time’s awasting in our region. There is a growing list of problems that no longer lend themselves to solution in a single community, and a number, perhaps most, of them affect local economic competitiveness.”
“A quick list would include workforce quality, transportation, water quality and availability, air quality, waste disposal, law enforcement, cultural institutions and opportunities, public health, and libraries. In a number of communities these challenges exceed local capacity.”
“We need a regular forum that will increase the likelihood that leaders throughout the region will become acquainted, will see opportunities to solve problems together, and will develop the desire and capability to work together. We need to develop solutions big enough to fit the size of the problems. I fear that if we as a region do not pull together, then the tide of global competition is going to push our region into the backwaters of the world economy.”
On a university campus and in other quarters in every community some very good people will confess that they are bothered by the rhetoric of and the focus on “economic development” by elected officials and other community leaders – and as I just did. Other things are important, too, they will remind us.
Economic development is by no means the sole focus of this regional initiative. However, economic development is one of the macro issues of the region. The logic of economic development is that with better jobs for citizens, and with more prosperous businesses, the resulting increase in wealth makes it possible to advance on other fronts of importance to citizens – health, housing, education, recreation, cultural enrichment, the environment, and community infrastructure such as roads and parks, etc.
Further, given the everywhere-and-everyday presence of global competition, if the region cannot come together to a greater extent on economic development strategies, there is the clear risk that citizens will lose economic ground and communities of the region will become poorer and less desirable places to live.
Lessons Learned Already in Central Arkansas
A. We have much to build on
Here in Central Arkansas we have much to build on, and I am confident that as the day goes on, numerous examples will be cited. So I will not attempt a full list of them.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not give credit where much credit is due. For a decade we have been blessed by the presence of three elected leaders who all believe in cooperative approaches and who respect each other and have worked well together. I am referring to County Judge Buddy Villines, Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey, and North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays. They have achieved cooperation inside Pulaski County. They have also worked well with officials in other cities and in other counties. They have set a good tone and a positive direction.
I am afraid we do not understand how good we have had it with those three men in positions of official leadership at the same time. Some day in the future one of them and then another and then the last of them will leave office. Soon thereafter someone is likely quote that old proverb, “You don’t miss the water until the well runs dry!”
B. Water examples
Every community of people, however defined geographically, must have drinking water. Let me draw lessons from our experiences in dealing with this issue.
Let me first say that 25 years ago leaders recognized that we were going to need to secure a third source of drinking water here in Central Arkansas – in addition to Lake Winona and Lake Maumelle.
In 1984, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville, and other municipalities signed the Central Arkansas Water Compact to cooperate in seeking an additional source of water. But after a few years this compact became a dead letter.
In 1994, under the aegis of Metroplan, conversations began among 9 local governments and other water providers in Central Arkansas about a regional approach to a new source of water. This second effort to develop a regional approach to a new water supply fizzled out in 1995.
In 2000, at the request of Little Rock and North Little Rock, a UALR task force studied water issues which had divided the two cities since 1936. After six months of study the university group issued a report that urged a merger of the water utilities of the two cities, a rather bold proposition. Nonetheless, the recommendations were endorsed by the two water commissions and approved by the governing boards of the two cities and the necessary ordinances were adopted.
Then the necessary state legislation was achieved during the 2001 meeting of the Arkansas General Assembly. A transition plan was adopted, and on July 1, 2001, the merged utility, named Central Arkansas Water, became a reality.
In retrospect it is interesting to note that the report included this statement regarding regional efforts on water:
“Little Rock and North Little Rock, together, are the key to a successful regional effort. The fact that the two cities have not been together on water issues has paralyzed regional decision making on water for two decades.” (p. 78)
Further, I should point out that the title of the university’s report was, “Water for Our Future: Overcoming Regional Paralysis.” Ending regional paralysis was listed as the first benefit of the recommended merger.
But this happy story did not end in 2001 with the merger of the Little Rock and North Little Rock water utilities.
In 2002, at the request of Saline County Judge Lanny Fite and 14 water providers in Saline County, UALR studied and issued a report recommending that the fragmented system in which 17 loosely connected water entities were providing water to 83,529 citizens join together and transform themselves into a Saline Watershed Regional Water Distribution District. (p. 15, pp. 61-)
In 2003 this transformation actually occurred in Saline County, the county which, to the best of my knowledge, had the distinction of being the most litigious county in the whole state with regard to water issues.
Also in 2003, fast on the heels of the developments in Saline County, a region-wide association was formed to seek together a new source of water for the region. I have here in my hand the June 2004 newsletter of the “Mid-Arkansas Water Alliance” which includes 27 member utilities.
This alliance has been proceeding methodically and has developed an eminently sensible plan that calls for two new sources – Lake Ouachita for needs south of the Arkansas River and Greers Ferry Lake for needs north of the Arkansas River.
With so many communities and water utilities involved, it would be hard to believe that this latest regional initiative will not succeed.
C. Lessons Learned
No matter how easy or inevitable regional successes might look after the fact, they are anything but easy and inevitable. Without much elaboration, let me note some lessons learned from these recent experiences related to drinking water.
- Crisis might be a necessary ingredient. In December 1999 Little Rock and North Little Rock leaders were embroiled in a nasty dispute over water rates and feared the consequences of a failure to resolve it.
I predict it will be evidence of maturing regionalism when we reach the point that major cooperative steps can be taken in the absence of crisis.
- Leadership is critical. Regional cooperation does not just happen. In the Little Rock and North Little Rock story there were several key leaders, every one of them was essential.
The same was true in Saline County, where Judge Fite was the key, but there, too, he could not have done it by himself. Other stepped up.
And what makes the Saline County story impressive is that they did not have a fairly sudden, acute crisis. They did have an embarrassing history of failure in addressing water needs in the county.
- Business leaders often make crucial contributions in pushing solutions in the political arena. In the Little Rock and North Little Rock case in December 1999, the president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, reacting to the growing controversy, urged officials in both cities to find a solution – which led to the request to the university for help – and later he helped to nudge them toward compromise and acceptance of the recommendations.
- A third party, perceived as neutral and competent, can sometimes be a critical factor in resolving a longstanding dispute. UALR was able to play this role.
- It helps when pocketbook benefits can be clearly demonstrated. Drinking water is a universal need. You can show that generally, as the number of customers in a system go up, the unit cost of water per customer goes down. Or, a new water supply is more affordable if the enormous costs of it are borne not by one or two water utilities but are spread over 27 or more.
- First things first. In some, perhaps most, regional problems, there is an “A” which has to be addressed before your can accomplish greater goal “B”. Here I cite the fact that Little Rock and North Little Rock had to come together on water before there could be a successful regional effort. The UALR task force recognized that the source of regional paralysis was the unresolved issues between Little Rock and North Little Rock, which, therefore, had to be resolved first.
Given the weight and central location of these two cities in the region, we can anticipate that success on a number of other issues in the future will require that, first, Little Rock and North Little Rock work out their differences.
- The “T” word – trust – is basic. People need to know and trust each other in order to work together for mutual benefit. People are afraid of the unfamiliar. Who wants to walk into the unknown with a stranger?
Role of the University?
We are a metropolitan university. “UALR” and “partnership with the community” should be synonymous. There are some things we can do, perhaps more easily and better than others. When we have the resources, we should assist the community – broadly defined – in solving its significant problems.
I want to note that this conference is a companion piece to another initiative from a year ago.
Some of you are aware that the university has begun to conduct an annual survey of racial attitudes in Pulaski County. The report of the first survey was released last March. This survey addresses a strategic issue – race – that has been the community and the state’s number one barrier to progress since statehood in 1836.
We believe that by keeping this issue on the community agenda, by providing good information, by stimulating discussion, that we can assist the community in moving forward. I am confident that out of the annual conference built around the release of the racial attitudes survey that other initiatives will blossom.
Race is a strategic issue. Regionalism is also a strategic issue.
But let me speak more specifically to the university’s role, what we can do.
We can keep the issue on the agenda.
“The university can call people to the table as a neutral convener. We can provide good information and analyses. We can provide experts. We can shine light on possible paths to a better future. We can facilitate conversations. When desired, we can facilitate decision making. But county and municipal officials, along with business and civic leaders and concerned citizens across the region are the ones who must decide whether, when, and how to join together for mutual advantage.”
“Why will the university involve itself in regionalism? Because so much is at stake for our region that the university ought to try to make a difference. This is our region, this is our place. If the region prospers, we prosper. If the region suffers, we suffer.”
Therefore, on this strategic issue the university will take steps to speed the development of cooperative responses to this region’s problems and opportunities.
This part of my speech is blank because it is early in the day and we are just starting our conversation. However, I want to lower your expectations of what the university will do.
We are not here to provide the answers.
Obviously we are urging a direction, a strengthened effort to achieve more partnerships and cooperation across the region. But what that is going to mean in concrete goals and in strategies for reaching the goals are choices the people in the communities, not at the university, must make.
I can tell you this:
- We will do it again next year.
- Today’s conference is just a beginning, an early step to add strength and momentum to regional cooperation efforts.
- At this stage of the game we are explorers. We are not claiming that “thar’s gold in them thar hills” of regional cooperation. But we do believe that if we will patiently keep pushing ahead over the mountains and through the wilderness, stopping from time to time to analyze the information then available about the territory ahead, sometimes adjusting our direction, we will indeed find rich land ahead in regional cooperation.
- We are quite certain that if we simply set up camp in the status quo and wait, the new land will never come to us. And our communities may die while we wait.
- There is adventure in exploring. Often in exploring you have to figure it out as you go along. To some extent, perhaps to a great extent, we are going to figure it out as we go along.
I am comfortable with modest beginnings. Seeds – whether of corn or cotton or roses or oaks – are small, modest beginnings. But in time they grow. They can mature into something a thousands times greater. I am confident that the small seeds planted here today will in time give the people of our region more prosperous, healthy, and livable communities.
Today I expect to learn much. We have a great line up of persons who have been exploring regional frontiers and are here to share their experiences with us.
I am confident that by the time we get to our closing session we will have a clearer notion of next steps we should take in order to achieve solutions that fit the size of the challenges we face.
Thank you for being here today.