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Thomas R. Fletcher
Clinton sparked a revival. Maybe those are words you never expected to read–at least not in the same sentence. Nevertheless, it’s true. Clinton sparked a revival: a revival of development, interest , and investment in downtown Little Rock. He did so with his 1997 announcement that downtown Little Rock would be home to his presidential library, contained within what is now called the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park. His announcement spawned an explosion in interest in a downtown area that had seen years of neglect. It brought a vibrant new vitality to a downtown area many had written off as long past its prime.
President Clinton presided over one of our country’s greatest eras of prosperity and economic expansion. It has been said that a tree is known by its fruit. There was good fruit borne by his policies: tangible economic fruit. A bountiful harvest is now taking place in an area of Little Rock that had previously been in serious decline. Property values along President Clinton Avenue have more than doubled since the 1997 announcement. A flood of money has poured in: more than a billion dollars in economic development in the immediate River Market area surrounding the park. Apparently he has the golden touch when it comes to generating economic prosperity. No matter what one may feel about him personally, there’s no arguing: his policies and involvement have borne good fruit–and a bad tree does not produce good fruit.
The Presidential Center has focused a spotlight on Little Rock. In doing so it has illuminated some cultural treasures that were there all along, simply not well-known to the traveling public. Some of those attractions include the Arkansas Arts Center, the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, the Old Statehouse Museum, Museum of Discovery, and Central High School National Historic Site to list a few. The center will serve as a magnet drawing the traveling public to this undiscovered cultural gem. It is expected to bring more than 300,000 annual visitors.
The official public opening date of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park is set for November 19, 2004. Currently, around the clock work is taking place in preparation for that grand opening. The center is being constructed at a cost of $165 million–Little Rock’s largest private sector construction project ever. It will feature 148,000 square feet of museum and archive space. Exhibits include a 120 feet long time line, 15 feet for each year of the Clinton presidency, replicas of the Oval Office and Cabinet Room, a café, and an 80-seat orientation theater. Café 42 is an indoor/outdoor café overlooking the Arkansas River with an indoor seating capacity of 100.
Situated on a 30-acre plot on the south bank of the Arkansas River, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park promises to be a prime attraction for Little Rock. It will house the largest archival collection of any presidential library due to Clinton’s eight years in office and the fact that a larger volume of information is available, such as a mass of White House e-mails–more than 40 million of them. The collection will contain 100 million documents, two million photos and about 75,000 artifacts. The center contains the archival collection, the museum, and educational and research facilities.
The main building is in the form of a bridge, symbolizing President Clinton’s idea of "Building a Bridge to the 21st Century." The museum itself will feature 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. As part of the center, the 1899 Choctaw Station railroad passenger depot has been renovated and renamed "Sturgis Hall." Covering approximately 13,500 square feet, the old depot is now home to the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. The school offers a master’s degree program in public service. The school includes a policy center focusing on the noble goals of economic empowerment, racial and religious reconciliation. Spanning the Arkansas River, the Rock Island Railroad Bridge is being converted to a pedestrian walkway connecting Little Rock and North Little Rock
As a rule, presidential libraries transcend political parties, and Clinton’s library is expected to be no different in that respect. These libraries are repositories of our collective history as Americans. Party affiliation of the president becomes less important in retrospect, overshadowed by the significance of the historic documents contained in the libraries. This center promises to attract people of all political stripes. What is different about the Clinton library is it was designed with tourism in mind–not as a single attraction but as a destination centerpiece benefiting all of Little Rock’s attractions. It has proved to be a catalyst for great and continuing economic expansion. Total economic impact on the city is expected to reach $11 million annually, coming from lodging, meal, and retail purchases. The location near Interstate 40 and Interstate 30 makes the center convenient for the driving public.
A significant part of the growth and investment is Little Rock’s only five-duck hotel, the elegant Peabody Little Rock. A five-duck hotel because this newest in the Peabody line continues the duck tradition of the original Peabody in Memphis. Twice a day guests can witness the famous Peabody duck parade. At 11: 00 AM the ducks are marched to the fountain in the lobby where they take up their position for the afternoon, swimming, eating, and watching guests. At 5:00 PM they march from the fountain to the elevator going back to their duck house for the evening. The hotel is conveniently located within easy walking distance of the Market District, the Presidential Center and many of Little Rock’s cultural attractions.
The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park has revived an area of Little Rock previously known for its dilapidated warehouses. What a difference a few years and a bit of revival can make. The River Market District of Little Rock is now a thriving cultural destination of shops, restaurants, and hotels. Our 42nd President is an intriguing and fascinating person who has often sparked controversy–in this case, he has sparked revival.
If You Go:
The William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation
PO Box 1104
Little Rock, AR 72203
Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau
PO Box 3232
Little Rock, AR 72203
The Peabody Little Rock
Three Statehouse Plaza
Little Rock, AR 72201
D-04-2294 USA, AR, Little Rock, The Old State House Museum
TEXT AND PHOTOS COPYRIGHT THOMAS R. FLETCHER