Joe's Road Trip 2011

Road Trip Day 12: Sanity in Arkansas

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Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME

A stand at the Faulkner County Fair in Conway, Arkansas, Sept. 22, 2011.

Conway, Arkansas

“You are sitting in a room with visionaries,” Mike Coats, the proprietor of Mike’s Place, told me. The visionaries looked pretty average old-fashioned American to me–a small city mayor, a small city Chamber of Commerce manager, a lawyer, a furniture store owner, a young African-American employee of Hewlett Packard. But they had done something entirely radical: they had launched a campaign to revive their city, and a big part of that campaign had been to convince the state liquor authority to allow Mike Coats to sell booze by the glass. The revival of Conway, Arkansas–using federal funds, including earmarks (!)–is the sort of story we don’t hear much anymore in this Tea-tinged anti-government environment, but it contains some important lessons.

It began in 1998, when Axiom, a major financial services company, decided to move its corporate headquarters out of town.

“Axiom sucker-punched us,” says Tab Townsell, Conway’s mayor for the past 13 years. “They moved to Little Rock. We asked them why they were moving and they said they were having trouble luring smart young people to work in Conway. This is a dry county. There was no place to eat and enjoy a glass of wine. There were no good places to sleep. Downtown looked vacant and bare. The airport wasn’t big enough to land corporate jets.”

Jamie Gates, of the Chamber of Commerce, continued the story: “We hired a consultant to tell us how to lure new business into town. Our advantages were that we were young and educated–we have three colleges in town, our percentage of college graduates is ten points higher than the national average. But, the consultant said, “Hospitality is an issue for you. You don’t have a restaurant where you can buy a bottle of wine with your pasta.”

So the town fathers approached Mike Coats, who had an excellent track record running chain restaurants. They offered to go to war for his right to sell liquor by the glass. “It became a huge moral issue,” said Jamie Gates. “And it was very public. People had to sign their names on a petition favoring the sale of liquor. That wasn’t easy for some.” It was an old-fashioned war between “progressives” in the business community and the churches. The churches received support from the Arkansas Family Council, which bused people into Little Rock, from all over the state, for the liquor board hearing. “But we had put together a united front and as strong an argument as the liquor board had ever seen,” said Mayor Townsell. “It was a no-brainer.” There are now 30 “private clubs” selling liquor by the glass in town.

The business leaders didn’t stop there. They got federal funds–earmarks!–to spruce up downtown with trees and signage.They put in new parks and bike trails. They got 90% federal funding to relocate their airport so that corporate jets could land. They got federal funding for water and sewer infrastructure at a new industrial park. They put in roundabouts to ease traffic congestion. “This is scary stuff down here in the South,” said Coats, the restaurateur. “People said roundabouts were French. But they sure do like them now. And we’re starting to make some of the best-places-to-live lists.”

Having done all the things the consultant had suggested, the business leaders went hunting for new businesses–and they hit the jackpot in 2007, luring Hewlett-Packard to build a regional sales and support facility with 1700 jobs into town.

I asked the mayor if all this government activism had gotten the attention of the Tea Party. “Well yes, there’s been some pushback,” he said. “The Tea Party folks think the price tag has been too high, but they’re a minority.” When the talk turned to the national scene–(I nudged it there)–the business leaders, equally divided between Republicans and conservative Democrats–were appalled by what had been going on in Washington. “The way we do business here in Conway,” said John Sanson, the H-P employee, “is we try to accomplish the things we can agree on first.” The resulting sense of accomplishment makes it easier to tackle the controversial issues.

“I wish the media would do something to help us,” said Ray Kordsmeier, who owns a furniture and appliance store in town. “Places like CNN and Fox always tell you about the differences between politicians. Maybe they should ask the politicians what they agree on first, and emphasize that.”

“Everyone is a DJ and no one’s a musician in Washington,” said Jamie Gates. “They’re all sampling lines written by other people, instead of getting together and making some music for all of us.”

It occurred to me that these businesspeople were, essentially, the heart of what the Main Street, mainstream Republican Party used to be–and, no surprise, they tended to favor Mitt Romney, an old-fashioned sort of Republican candidate. The Mayor said he had never voted for a Democrat for President, “but I might have to this time, if it looks like the Republicans are going to take the Senate.” I agreed that if the current Republican Party controlled the Congress and the presidency, the federal funds that made the Conway revival possible would no longer be available. “That’s exactly what I’m worried about,” he said

Yesterday’s Playlist:

1. It’s Been A Great Afternoon by Merle Haggard

2. The Taxes on the Farmer Feed Us All by Ry Cooder

3. Stumbling Through The Dark by The Jayhawks

4. Boys by The Beatles

5. Boyz by M.I.A.