State of the City: Mayor Frank Scott Jr. unveils broad post-pandemic vision, reboots penny sales tax plan

State of the City: Mayor Frank Scott Jr. unveils broad post-pandemic vision, reboots penny sales tax plan

Post-pandemic “Rebuild the Rock” plan will take city to new heights, says Little Rock’s first Black mayor

By BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown – March 28, 2021 — More than one year after Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. had to table a one-penny tax hike he said would lift the city closer to its “true potential,” the city’s first Black chief executive has rebooted a mirror proposal with a new theme and branding but the same positive energy.

In a 46-minute virtual event live-streamed on the city’s YouTube and Facebook pages, a nattily dressed Scott outlined his 2021 agenda in his brightly branded “Rebuild the Rock: State of the City Virtual Experience.” Traditionally held before a live audience of several hundred people or more, Scott headlined and emceed a near hour-long virtual event that was more celebration and entertainment than the normal, bland forward-looking annual speech.

This year’s event featured Little Rock youth providing the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Rodney Block Collective featuring Bijoux Pighee, Judson Spillyards, and DJ Troy G for a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Residents from around Little Rock and City of Little Rock employees also offered testimonials, along with introductions of the city’s Board of Directors.

After all the preliminaries, Scott reappeared on the virtual stage to offer his third State-of-the-City address as Arkansas’ largest city navigates its way out of a historic and devastating pandemic. But this year’s mayoral report was starkly different than exactly one year ago when Little Rock’s progress under Scott came to a screeching halt after statewide social distancing and shelter-in-place orders shut down nearly all business and public activities.

“Having seen your dedication and durability during this pandemic and all the other challenges that have faced our community across the past year, I’m more honored and humbled than ever to be your mayor,” Scott said, speaking directly to his virtual audience. “After a tumultuous 2020, if there is any doubt of the resilience, revival and renewal of Little Rock, this year will be our answer. Our recovery belongs to each of you, and we are poised to ‘Rebuild the Rock’ in 2021 to be better than our beginning.”

Scott then revisited his State of the City address on Jan. 31, where he unveiled an ambitious “Lift Little Rock” tax plan to raise $50 million annually for “specific quality of life initiatives.” That ambitious sales tax initiative, however, was short-circuited less than two months later after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.

“Last year I stood before you declaring our bold plans to lift Little Rock to high heights, (but) shortly after I cast that vision the world as we knew it changed. We immediately suspended our initiatives to ‘Lift Little Rock’ and squarely focus on navigating the COVID-19 global pandemic,” explained Scott.

The 38-year-old millennial then acknowledged there is further work to combat the coronavirus, specifically asking citizens to continue wearing a mask and continue social distancing. He also pointedly encouraged all residents to get COVID-19 shots but admitted that many in “communities of colors” were wary of the vaccine, citing the Tuskegee Institute experiments and other similar incidents and less access to healthcare.

“This is personal to all of us, the vaccine is our best chance in keeping our community healthy, restoring normalcy and rebuilding our city,” appealed Scott. “So, I am urging all Little Rock residents to take the vaccine as soon as it is your turn to do so. We will ensure the vaccine is available to all communities, especially those impacted the most by this virus.”

Rebuild the Rock Rebrand

Pivoting his speech, Scott began outlining his post-pandemic vision for 2021 and beyond under his bright-colored and branded “Rebuild the Rock” plan that includes several new citywide initiatives and projects. They include:

·         Development of the Little Rock Health and Wellness Commission. Scott said he would appeal to the City of Little Rock Board of Directors to pass an ordinance creating the new standing committee to focus on local quality of life issues surrounding “public health.” This commission, Scott said, would make strides toward addressing mental and physical health issues across the city, promote public policies to address health disparities, and prepare and plan for future health crises.

·         Creation of the city Energy Reduction Plan. The millennial mayor said the City of Little Rock must be a better steward of the environment by making public policy that addresses the controversial issue of climate change – citing the city’s historic flooding in 2019, the recent winter storms and other natural disasters and emergencies.

Outlining his “green” agenda, Scott said the city must convert to an all-electric vehicle fleet by 2030, purchase more renewable energy to reduce dirty air emissions, and making energy efficiency upgrades at city-owned facilities, “We have a long way to go, but we must do our part to preserve the environment for our future,” he said.

 ·         Announcement of a new Equity at Work initiative, which includes the hiring of a new Chief Equity Officer and the unveiling of the Equity Challenge initiative. Calling uniting the city his personal mission and ministry, Scott unveiled a branded campaign called “Equity at Work” that has the lofty goal of putting “equity” at the center of all the city’s operations, programs and activities.

“Many ask, what is equity? To me, it is the customized effort taken to ensure adequate access, opportunity and representation despite one’s circumstances,” said Scott, a Baptist minister. “In short, equity is meeting people where they are, so they can be who they are where they want to be — all at the same time.”

Scott added that equity also brings diverse voices and viewpoints to the table in all city affairs. “(Equity) is good for business, it is good for innovation, and it is necessary to rebuild the Rock,” said Scott. The Baptist minister added that COVID-19, along with civil unrest, protests, and the social justice movement that emerged nationwide following the George Floyd tragedy in Minneapolis this summer, have brought long-held racial divisions, economic inequities, and systemic disparities to the surface.

“We cannot have a unified city until we have a city in which all residents, whether they are from Southwest, Pleasant Valley, East End, John Barrow, or Chenal, can thrive,” said Scott.

To address those issues, Scott said the 2020 Census redistricting data, which is expected to be released by the U.S. Census Bureau in September, should allow Little Rock to redraw its ward boundaries to reflect the overall diversity of the city.  The city’s 73rd mayor also said he will push Little Rock’s business community to sign up by October to support his Equity Challenge initiative. Scott then challenged private companies to pledge to improve their hiring and contracting policies in line with his campaign goal of spending 25% of the city’s capital budget with minority and women contractors.

·         Establishing the new BUILD (Businesses United in Leadership Development) Academy. In highlighting the addition of more than 4,000 new jobs to the Little Rock’s employer payrolls since he was elected in late 2018, Scott announced the creation of a 12-week business incubator program to create new jobs and help underserved minority entrepreneurs and firms dramatically impacted by the pandemic scale up their businesses. The program, which will be located on the 12th Street Corridor at the Willie Hinton Community Center, will begin accepting applications on April 15.

“This will be a game-changer. We are taking economic development into the neighborhoods,” he said.

·         Funding of a Little Rock Promise Scholarship. Further, Scott also stressed the importance of continuing to invest in Little Rock’s most precious assets, “our youth,” he said. He noted that the City of Little Rock partnership with the Little Rock School District to create four community schools across the city is moving forward but acknowledged that progress has been disrupted by the pandemic. Scott said many Little Rock students are not showing up for classes over the past year or are unable to adapt to remote learning classes.

In order to re-engage all K-12 students who fell behind during the pandemic, Scott said he would instruct the city’s Chief Education Officer Jay Barth and Higher Education Council to seek partnerships with philanthropic organizations and the business community to fund post-secondary scholarships for Little Rock high school graduates.

“This scholarship would do these three things. One, attract and keep families in Little Rock. Two, strengthen our workforce, and Number Three, ensure access and opportunity to those who need it most,” said Scott.

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LitFest Launch by 2022 & Penny Primer

To promote and bring all those varied programs and initiatives together, Scott said the city will undergo “Rebuild the Rock” rebranding “facelift” with a new logo, website, flag and mobile app. Scott also said he would urge the city’s namesake Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureaus to join other local interest groups to launch an annual event called “LITFest” by 2022. That annual festival, Scott explained, would be modeled after the now-defunct Little Rock River Festival but even larger and more encompassing. It would further promote the city through an extended weekend event featuring live entertainment and music, food vendors, arts and crafts, business and investor forums, community panel discussions, and other festivities, he said.

“I heard it too often from visitors. I didn’t know that Little Rock was this amazing. ‘Well yes, we really are.’ But it is time the world knows what we have to offer,” exclaimed Scott. “And when it is safe to gather again, LITFest showcases the very best about our home.”

To pull off his branded “Rebuild the Rock” makeover to make Little Rock the “new catalyst of the South” after the pandemic, Scott appealed to Little Rock residents to quickly approve the one cents sales tax initiative he first introduced 14 months ago.

“Over this next year, we cannot just be satisfied with recovering. No, we must commit to taking critical actions that catapult us into our future,” said Scott. “Now is the time for Little Rock to innovate, not stagnate. We need your help … to invest in rebuilding our city through our “Rebuild the Rock” penny sales tax initiative.”

Today, the minimum combined 2020 sales tax rate for Little Rock is 9%, combining the state, county and city sales tax rates. The Arkansas sales and use tax rate today is 6.5%, while Pulaski County and Little Rock are 1% and 1.5%, respectively.  In the city’s last sales tax referendum during a special election in September 2011, local voters approved a one-penny tax increase that was then supported by former Mayor Mark Stodola, the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, and other business groups.

Among many things, that sales tax ballot issue funded construction of the $22.5 million Little Rock Technology Park on Main Street, the Little Rock Port Authority expansion, numerous infrastructure projects, and additional public safety measures. Under that decade-long plan, a permanent 5/8 cent “operations” tax increase and a 10-year temporary 3/8 cent “capital investment” tax hike went into effect in January 2012. Annually, it generated over $45 million for the city, funding several mayoral priorities and capital improvement projects.

However, that sales tax rolled off the books on Jan. 1, 2021. In approving a new sales tax initiative, which would raise more than $50 million annually, Scott said Little Rock would be able to compete with other cities across the South to recruit new jobs, retain homegrown companies, and boost future economic development efforts.

Calling himself the city’s Chief Growth Officer, Scott said the sales tax referendum would also help the city expand its childhood education opportunities by creating a 529 investment plan for every preschooler. As he stated a year ago, the former banking executive also said the one cents tax would fund a myriad of other municipal issues such as homelessness, homeownership, aging infrastructure, public safety, tourism, quality of life, and diversity, equity and inclusion in the city’s workforce.

Unlike a year ago, however, Scott said his administration would appoint a “Rebuild the Rock” committee to provide transparency and oversight for how the sales tax proceeds are expended. The panel would also evaluate and monitor ongoing sales tax-back projects and make recommendations for other city needs.

“Rebuild the Rock will allow our city to repair what we do, rebrand who we are, and recalibrate how we think. As you can see, our … sales tax initiative is appropriate, transparent and it is a timely response to a pandemic that knocked us down but did not knock us out,” concluded Scott.

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