Downtown Little Rock thriving 5 years after Clinton Presidential Library opens

By Chuck Bartels, AP
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

5 years later, Clinton Center anchors Little Rock

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — When Bill Clinton marks the fifth anniversary of his presidential library, his 1,000 or so guests will be safe from the elements.

Five years ago, a cold rain fell during the lengthy open-air program when Clinton opened the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, which includes a museum, a graduate school, a park and the archive of his presidency.

For Wednesday’s anniversary ceremony, Clinton and patrons will be under a temporary pavilion.

“It has a roof, it has walls, it has a floor,” Clinton library director Terri Garner said. “If it does rain again, once you’re in the pavilion, you won’t get wet. We weren’t going to take that chance again.”

The forecast for Wednesday calls for a chilly day with some sun at the $165 million center along the Arkansas River, just east of downtown Little Rock. Those in attendance will see a neighborhood that has grown over the past five years and changed vastly since Clinton chose the site.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service and former director of Clinton’s foundation, was the key planner behind the library effort. Rutherford said Clinton gave priority to the impact his library would have on tourism, economic development and education as he worked to select a site.

The land next to Interstate 30 came with a flow of millions of motorists each year who could who could stop and visit, and the already blossoming downtown River Market District enhanced the choice.

“We’re within walking distance of the (Little Rock) convention center, hotels, restaurants — all of which keeps people coming. Meetings and conventions provide new people every year,” Rutherford said. The library has changing exhibits, which keeps the locals coming back.

“A lot of things have happened, not just us,” Rutherford said. “This thing drives tourism (and has spurred) over $2 billion in new projects.”

Rutherford said the library has become part of marketing strategies as the city tries to attract new businesses and companies work to persuade executives to take jobs in Little Rock.

“You want to showcase your arts,” said Rutherford, who added that recruiters sometimes plan visits around the speaker schedule at the Clinton School of Public Service. The school has hosted more than 300 speakers, from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz to Amnesty International director Irene Khan.

The library museum has had 1.64 million visitors since it opened, said Jordan Johnson, a Clinton Foundation spokesman. For 2009, the museum had 302,583 visitors, compared with 273,108 the year before.

In its first year, the library had about 500,000 visitors.

After Clinton announced his site choice, the pace increased for development of restaurants, galleries, hotels and other businesses. The Excelsior Hotel downtown became part of the Peabody chain and has just attained four stars. The Capitol and Doubletree hotels have undergone major renovations, and a Marriott and Hampton Inn went up nearby. Early on, the Holiday Inn Presidential Conference Center took over a former hotel site and quickly provided nearby accomodations for visitors.

Developer Jimmy Moses helped plan the River Market, an indoor bazaar of eateries and shops with a covered pavilion outside, that opened 13 years ago. And his company has been behind $200 million worth of offices, condominiums and other projects that have grown in the district.

Moses said he believes another development wave is coming in the next five to seven years, after the recession passes.

“We’re approaching the critical mass we need in downtown to really support a significant retail (presence),” Moses said. “We need a few larger retailers to land their businesses here. When that happens, we’ll reach the tipping point.”

That said, without the library, downtown Little Rock would be a shadow of itself.

Heifer International, a charity that aims to help the world’s poor through self-sufficiency, built its headquarters next to the Clinton Center, a development that otherwise may have gone to Chicago. Little Rock is promoting the area as a prime site where nonprofits can build.

The city provided the land for the library, taking a number of parcels at a former industrial area, which prompted a lengthy fight with opponents of the move. Another spat arose when the city changed the name of much of Markham Street to President Clinton Avenue, a designation that was shortened to the blocks within the River Market District.

Rutherford said he has more than five years upon which to reflect.

“For me, it’s 12 years, but we’ll celebrate the fifth (anniversary),” he said. “The five years have been fun and easy. The seven years prior to opening were, in many cases, difficult, hard and lonely.”

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